England has produced 57 men’s boxing world champions but remarkably just two, Glenn McCrory and Stuart Hall, have hailed from North East.
Who’ll be the next local hero? The name on everybody’s lips is Sedgefield southpaw Bradley Saunders.
The 29-year-old former Olympian has an unblemished 12-fight professional record and many believe he has the raw talent to land titles on the global stage – but when he headlines the bumper “Geordie Roar” bill at the Newcastle Metro Arena on April 4, his reputation and lofty ambitions will be firmly on the line.
Saunders faces Derbyshire’s Dave ‘Rocky’ Ryan for the Commonwealth light-welterweight belt, and it’s a crossroads fight he simply has to win.
Having not turned pro until 2012 and with his 30th birthday fast approaching, the County Durham star doesn’t have time to deal with setbacks. Defeat in front of an expectant and raucous 10,000 home crowd is also just unthinkable.
Personally, I don’t see a Saunders victory as a foregone conclusion on Easter Saturday.
While the champion Ryan has eight defeats to his name from 24 fights, he showed great punching power, skill and heart when stunning highly rated favourite Tyrone Nurse to win the belt in Leeds last October.
In a brutal contest the 31-year-old lived up to his ‘Rocky’ nickname, overcoming a broken nose and cracked cheekbone in the early rounds to score a narrow points success; this after sending Nurse to the canvas in rounds one and two.
Ordeals like that can make a fighter, and having been through such a tough experience Ryan is unlikely to give up the belt lightly. His exploits that night also mean he’s now considered one of the hardest and most courageous boxers in this weight division.
The more gifted Saunders has much greater potential but his recent performances haven’t been wholly convincing.
Since signing up to the Matchroom stable last year – and touted by Eddie Hearn as the man to bring boxing glory back to the north east of England – he has looked like he’s trying too hard to make a name for himself.
He was rusty in a scrappy points win over unheralded Latvian Ivan Levickis, but backed that up with a fifth round stoppage of awkward Frenchman Stephane Benito in Hull earlier this month.
In both displays Saunders took too many risks. He left his chin exposed a little too often, and in his determination to land a knockout blow, some of his boxing was ragged and wild.
Saunders is a former European amateur champion and Commonwealth Games silver medalist, who fought at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, so the skill set is there. To fulfil his dreams, he just needs to calm down, concentrate, and prove that he has the all-round package required to compete at the highest level.
In Newcastle the fans will be baying for blood.
And Saunders will be hell-bent on scoring a sensational knockout punch, but he must concentrate too.
If he doesn’t, Ryan will hang on to his belt and ruin what should be a party atmosphere on the banks of the Tyne.
I believe Saunders will overcome the test and give his success-starved region a boost, but I can’t say he’ll do it with any certainty. That’s why I won’t be missing this scrap!
As if that wasn’t enough on it’s own, Anthony Joshua makes his first appearance of 2015 as the chief support act to Saunders.
We don’t know his opponent yet, but the Olympic heavyweight gold medalist is treating it as a warm-up fight for his stiffest career test to date, with Kevin ‘King Pin Johnson lined up for May 30 at the O2 Arena.
To be frank we may have to wait until the last minute for news on his rival. I can’t imagine that many boxers putting their hands up to fight him, especially after his last two performances when displaying a nasty, devastatingly ruthless side to his nature.
I believe Joshua is a knockout machine that’s destined for the very top (see here my blog on him from last year) and he should produce another routine stoppage, well within the allotted eight round scheduled distance.
Fresh from a back injury that’s kept him out of the ring for over four months, I expect AJ to remind us of his fearsome talent once again. Don’t blink though. You might miss it.