Middleweight Billy Joe Saunders won a hard-fought split decision against British countryman Chris Eubank Jr. on Saturday at the ExCel Arena in London to earn a world title shot.
Fighting in the co-feature to the heavyweight elimination fight between Tyson Fury and Dereck Chisora, Saunders became the mandatory challenger for the winner of the vacant world title fight between Matt Korobov and Andy Lee. They are scheduled to meet Dec. 13 in Las Vegas to fill the belt that Peter Quillin relinquished on Sept. 4.
Two judges had it for Saunders, 25, a 2008 British Olympian, 115-114 and 115-113, while one judge scored the fight 116-113 for Eubank, 25, the son of former world champion Chris Eubank Sr.
Saunders also retained the European, Commonwealth and British titles -- and he also gained bragging rights over Eubank, with whom he traded vicious verbal barbs throughout the promotion before they showed respect in the aftermath.
"Fair play to Chris Eubank Jr.," Saunders said. "He is better than what I thought he was. Next stop is the WBO world title. I have some more learning to do but I am ready for the world title. When I world champion I will gladly give him first shot."
Said Eubank: "I thought I won the fight but congratulations to him. He boxed the plan, he come out strong. I feel like I overtook him but the judges made their decision. I'll be back."
Saunders put many of the early rounds in the bank by outboxing a seemingly tentative Eubank, who was perhaps looking to converse energy because he had never been past the eighth round.
Saunders (22-0, 11 KOs), a southpaw, was controlling the pace and landing solid jabs. He looked very comfortable while the less experienced Eubank did not begin to look comfortable until the second half of the fight, when he had his best rounds.
When he finally let his hands go, Eubank (18-1, 13 KOs) shook Saunders with several hard shots over the final few rounds. While Eubank Sr., in a black suit, stood in the ring in his corner between rounds, head trainer Ronnie Davis was forced to give instructions through the ropes. After the 10th round, he told Eubank he needed a knockout to win.
From there on, Eubank went for the knockout as he chased Saunders around the ring and exerted extreme pressure. But even when Saunders took some big blows he did not wobble. Eubank had a huge 12th round but could not get Saunders off his feet.
"It was close," Eubank said. "I felt like I won most of the second half of the fight if not all of it. I'm back in the gym tomorrow. Hopefully, there can be a rematch ASAP."