Billy Joe Saunders scored a pair of early knockdowns against middleweight titlist Andy Lee on Saturday and avoided Lee's power the rest of the way.
In a fight largely devoid of action or excitement outside of a wild Round 3, Saunders (23-0, 12 KOs), 26, captured his first world title, winning a majority decision at Manchester Arena in Manchester, England. The judges scored the fight 113-113, 114-112 and 115-111. ESPN.com scored the bout even at 113-113.
Thanks to Lee's reputation as a dangerous knockout puncher, particularly when he's down on the scorecards, Saunders showed an overwhelming amount of respect throughout. By doing so, Saunders turned the fight into a passive exhibition of southpaws jabbing from distance, which ultimately favored him on the scorecards after building the early lead.
"[Lee] has been in with Peter Quillin, and [Quillin] couldn't beat him. He has beaten Matt Korobov," Saunders said. "They all had him hurt, but I knew if he threatened me with his power that I have got a good chin.
"I'm afraid of nobody's power. I'm a world champion. I won't say no to any fights. Andy Lee is a very, very good champion, and I beat a good, sturdy champion because I used his power against him."
Lee (34-3-1, 24 KOs), who rallied to stop Korobov last December to win a vacant world title, lacked a sense of urgency until the final round. He was content to paw at Saunders with his jab round after round and rarely went to the body.
When Lee, 31, did overcommit himself in Round 3, Saunders made him pay by twice scoring a knockdown on a counter right hand.
Saunders scored the first knockdown after Lee missed with an overhand left, catching Lee flush as he pulled back his arm and stood upright.
"When I was boxing him, he got a little bit careless and dropped his lead hand," Saunders said. "I caught him with a hook."
With Lee hurt, Saunders aggressively pursued and landed a pair of short left hands. He then waited for Lee to miss and landed a three-punch combination, sending Lee down a second time with another right hand.
"Boom," Saunders said of the second knockdown. "I'm not going to start running my mouth, but it was a good shot. I made him miss.
"I noticed he carried his lead hand low, and with someone as fast as me, you have got to keep your hands up because it takes two pounds of pressure to knock you down. I'm not the biggest puncher in the world, but I showed you there that I can punch."
Saunders and Lee, both English-born fighters, closed the exciting third round by trading punches at close range until the final bell. The exchange reminded Saunders of how dangerous Lee could be, having come from behind against Korobov and John Jackson in consecutive fights in 2014 before rallying to floor Quillin late in their April split draw.
"I got very excited, but Andy Lee showed that he can be dangerous," Saunders said. "He actually caught me with a shot when I tried to finish him. He didn't hurt me, but I actually got Matt Korobov signs in my head. I learned from Korobov. I fought one rush and then got back to my boxing and recuperated."
The remainder of the fight was contested at a dreadful pace. Lee slowly began to pick up his pressure during the championship rounds and routinely backed Saunders up with left hands in Round 12, but it was too little, too late.
"I've always said, no disrespect to him, you take the lead hand away from [Lee], and he [will have] been beaten three times," Saunders said. "Some guys just got a little bit careless against him."
Saunders, who waited for the Lee fight through a pair of postponements due to injury and illness over the last three months, had previously scored his biggest victory in November 2014 by split decision against British rival Chris Eubank Jr. He now becomes a potential attractive opponent for the division's other titlists to attempt to unify against.
Daniel Jacobs, a secondary titlist fresh off a first-round knockout of Peter Quillin two weeks ago, was a guest analyst for Showtime during Lee-Saunders and reacted to the result.
"I thought [Lee] was going to be a big brawler, I thought he had better assets," Jacobs said. "He didn't do enough for me. He was too complacent and after the knockdown you didn't see that sense of urgency that a fighter has to have on the comeback trail.
"All credit due to Billy Joe, but it wasn't an impressive victory."
Jacobs wasn't yet ready to commit to a unification bout in 2016 with Saunders.
"We'll do whatever makes sense," Jacobs said. "I think it's time to sit down and figure what makes sense. Obviously it's a good time to be a middleweight champion."