- Ciarán Gallagher reports from Manchester
ANDY LEE WAS knocked down twice en route to a majority points loss to England’s Billy Joe Saunders on Saturday night.
A healthy Irish crowd was present at the Manchester Arena, but they quickly exited in disappointment following the loss, which leaves the Limerick native to contemplate his future.
After Michael Conlan scooped RTE’s Sports Person of the Year award earlier in the night, Lee had the opportunity to cap a good night, and a tremendous year, for Irish boxing but unfortunately for the former Olympian he couldn’t manage a first successful title defence.
The 31-year-old defending champion worked his way back into the bout in the later rounds, eventually claiming a draw (113-113) on judge Marcus McDonnell’s card, but that was overruled by Dave Parris (115-111) and Phil Edwards (114-112), who gave the nod to the challenger after 12 rounds in which he appeared to be the fresher man throughout.
In truth, Lee took too long to get into the bout and seemed overly reliant on chasing a knockout punch.
The win extends 26-year-old Saunders undefeated career to 23-0, while Lee will be left to contemplate his future after his third career defeat having lost the world title he was so proud to finally claim one year and one week ago.
The loss sees Lee’s record slip to 34-3-1 and the Castleconnell native will now be left to assess whether he wishes to rebuild towards another title shot.
There appeared to be an attendance somewhere in the region of 5,000-10,000 present at the 20,000 capacity Manchester Arena, with the upper tiers and one end section closed off for the bout, and a healthy Irish crowd cheering Lee on.
In a cagey first round, Lee looked comfortable working off his jab but Saunders was slightly busier and landed a nice short right hook in the last minute of the opener.
The pair continued to fight in a cautious fashion in the second, although Lee followed up his jab with combinations and began to put his punches together nicely.
Then came the knockdowns as a massive right hook from Saunders put Lee on the canvas before the champion was put down again from a shorter right hand. Lee looked on unsteady legs but remained composed and saw out the round, with the rivals sharing a smile and some words in the champion’s corner at the bell.
The Limerick man settled in the following round, with Saunders reassuming a cautious approach, possibly wary of his opponent’s reputation for staging comebacks.
A big looping left hand from Saunders was the most eye-catching punch in the fifth and Lee’s right eye was noticeably swollen.
By this stage, Lee’s work-rate did not appear to be high enough to impress the judges and the champion often seemed to be attempting to focus on setting up a looping left hook which failed to land.
The seventh was another tentative affair with few punches of note landing – Lee jabbed well, while Saunders continued to remain busy.
Lee had a better eighth round, jabbing and moving forward but Saunders head movement made it difficult for the pursuing Irishman to set up further shots.
The Champion continued to look more assured in the following round and another left hand whizzed past the whiskers of Saunders, issuing another warning to the challenger that Lee was not yet spent.
Lee started the 10th in assertive fashion but that provoked Saunders to respond with his jab before the challenger was on the back foot again towards the end of the round.
A short left from Lee midway through the 11th was immediately countered with a looping left from Saunders and while the champion appeared to steal the round on work-rate, a successful comeback looked dependant on either a knockout or a couple of knockdowns.
Unfortunately for Lee, they never came despite the defending champion pursuing the challenger throughout the final round.
The defending champion made an admirable effort to come back into the fight but Lee could not turn the tide to retain his title.
The co-feature between Liverpool’s WBO light-middleweight champion Liam Smith and Manchester’s Jimmy Kelly attracted a significant amount of vocal support, with the former retaining his title as the challenger’s corner threw in the towel after seven rounds.