Respect filled the air in Manchester on Saturday night – too much of it for many of the 7,000-plus customers, probably – but Billy Joe Saunders, the new champion, and Andy Lee, the departing king, brought a good deal of honour to their sport and their community during 12 tense rounds for the WBO middleweight title.
Many came anticipating a tear-up, a bit of blood to go with the art and history, the first world title fight between two Travellers. The combatants, well aware of each other’s strengths, were too cagey for that and, but for two knockdowns in the third, it was a contest that never properly took off.
For all their common roots and a southpaw stance they represented polar opposites in many ways, not the least in demeanour. The softly-spoken but determined champion, born in Bow and raised in Limerick, brought quiet menace and the threat of a dramatic finish; Saunders, the challenger, all energy and edgy aggression, had come for a night of educated boxing.
Lee, at 31 and 6ft 2in, had five years and three inches on the challenger, but there was more than age and size in the disparity. The Hatfield Olympian had operated at the best available level domestically, but Lee, seasoned during a long spell in America under the late Manny Steward, had elite-level experience and a track record of resilience.
The atmosphere was unbearably tense yet weirdly muted outside the ropes, with a raucous soundtrack filling the one-minute gaps between rounds, as the principals eased cautiously into battle range.
After six minutes of reconnaissance, it exploded, briefly. Saunders slipped inside an advancing right lead and caught his man flush with a left hook-cross, followed by another, for two knockdowns in quick succession. Lee had been here before – on queer street against John Jackson and Matt Korobov, each time pulling out a spectacular winning burst for stunning victories.
Saunders and his trainer, Jimmy Tibbs, had done their homework. The challenger did not rush in for the kill, wary still of Lee’s one-punch power, and the fourth meandered by, for which the Irishman must have been thankful. As they passed halfway, Saunders was bossing most of the exchanges behind a split second-quicker jab, but wary still of danger.
Little of note occurred until the championship rounds, which did not altogether please patrons inside an arena that had been curtained off at one end, although Lee had slowly worked his way back into the contest.
Their joint dilemma going into the 12th was to stick or twist, to trust the judgment of their own corners as to where they stood on points, or risk a big, conclusive finish. That choice weighed more heavily on Lee’s shoulders, and his trainer, Adam Booth, urged him, “Go now, go now!” And he did, in spasms, winning the round but not convincingly enough to win the fight.
They both raised their hands at the end. The referee chose only one arm to lift, though: the intense young man from Hatfield.
Marcus McDonnell saw it even, 113-113, while Bill Edwards (114-112) and Dave Parris (115-111) had it for Saunders. And that was about right.
For someone who has called out Miguel Cotto, Liam Smith made surprisingly hard work of beating an opponent whose first bout of 2015 was a four-rounder in a small hall in Lancashire.
But, fair play to the 16-fight novice Jimmy “Kilrain” Kelly of Wythenshaw, he gave of his best while it lasted, and Smith was grateful and relieved to keep his WBO light-middleweight title.
Kelly, warned early for hitting low, did his cause no good at all with a head-butt in the sixth that cost him two points, and the battle-weariness began to spread across his bloodied features.
Exhausted after a Smith assault in mid-ring, he fell backwards into the ropes and on to the floor in the seventh, got up without a count against him, and then was stopped in his own corner. He was game to carry on; his corner thought otherwise.
Smith, meanwhile, might need to shelve talk of taking on Cotto for a while.
He was hit too easily and too often, but finished the job well enough. His trainer, Joe Gallagher – shamefully ignored by the judging panel for even a place on the long list as coach of the year at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards on Sunday night – will let his champion know of his shortcomings.