<
>

Billy Joe Saunders gets wish, will defend title against Artur Akavov

First middleweight titleholder Billy Joe Saunders called out unified titleholder Gennady Golovkin and then promptly turned down a career-high seven-figure payday to face him.

Then, when offered a guaranteed fight with superstar Canelo Alvarez if he would first defeat Gabriel Rosado, Willie Monroe Jr. or Curtis Stevens -- his camp's choice -- in the co-feature of Alvarez's fight with Liam Smith on Sept. 17, Saunders rejected all of those second-tier opponents.

England's Saunders (23-0 12 KOs) wanted only to face unknown Russian Artur Akavov (16-1 7 KOs), but since he was not even a second-tier contender and was wholly unknown, Golden Boy declined to put that fight on Alvarez's card.

But on Friday, Saunders got his man. He will face Akavov on Oct. 22 at the Motorpoint Arena Cardiff, Wales, promoter Frank Warren announced.

After turning down the fight with Golovkin, Saunders was scheduled to make his first title defense against Ukraine's Max Bursak on April 30 in London, but pulled out after suffering a left hand injury.

Then Saunders, 27, was supposed to make his first defense on the Tyson Fury-Wladimir Klitschko II undercard on Oct. 29 in Manchester, England, but the fight was moved up one week when the heavyweight championship rematch was canceled last week due to Fury's withdrawal.

Now he will make defense No. 1 against fellow southpaw Akavov, nearly a year after he eked out a majority decision to win the 160-pound belt from Ireland's Andy Lee in December.

"Nothing comes easy in boxing and I'm definitely not taking Akavov for granted," Saunders said. "He's a strong fighter and very dangerous and if I don't come in 100 percent, then he could cause an upset in my first title defense. I'm going to make sure I'm in the shape of my life and give Akavov the toughest night he's ever had. He's never been stopped before so this is going to be a first for him."

Warren still hopes to still make an Alvarez-Saunders or Golovkin-Saunders unification fight in 2017 but said Saunders needed to get back into the ring before either is possible.

"This is Bill's first fight in 10 months," Warren said. "The Russian is a tough guy who is capable of making things awkward. Hopefully, Bill will shake off the ring rust with a successful defense to set up a super fight for early [in the new] new year."

Akavov, 28, has won 11 fights in a row since an eight-round unanimous decision loss to novice pro Oleg Liseev in 2012 in Russia, but he has never faced even a fringe contender. He has fought all but four of his bouts in Russia with two in Estonia and his past two in New York after linking up with promoter Lou DiBella.

"I know why they picked me as an opponent," Akavov said. "Although I am very honored and proud to fight for the WBO world championship, at the same time, I promise to prove that the Saunders' camp [was] gravely mistaken with whatever they were expecting of me in the ring. I represent my family first and my country and that alone will not let me fail."

Said DiBella: "I know that the champion Billy Joe Saunders is a professional, so I hope he's not looking past Akavov. Artur Akavov is a tough SOB who will bring the fight to Billy Joe. If this is a 'keep busy' fight, the champion better be prepared for a tough night. Artur is no joke."

British junior middleweight champion Liam Williams (15-0-1, 10 KOs), 24, of Wales, is also on the card in a defense against London's 28-year-old Ahmet Patterson (17-0, 7 KOs).