Ex-Newcastle United goalkeeper Steve Harper speaks to an up-and-coming star of British boxing, Jeff Saunders.
Sedgefield-born Jeff Saunders is a 25-year-old Super Lightweight (10st/63.5kg) boxer, currently ranked in the Top 25 British fighters. Known to his fans as ‘Stone Hands’ Saunders, he won the National ABA title in 2013 (adding to the titles he won as part of HM Parachute Regiment) and he has won all of his ten bouts to date – one of which after just 15 seconds! Part of a boxing family (his dad owns a boxing gym and his brother competed at the Olympics) Jeff has his sights on an English title by the end of 2017. He took time out of his hectic training schedule to catch up with me and explain more.
Tell us about your military background and how you got started in boxing?
I started boxing at the age of six in our family-run boxing gym. My dad boxed as a schoolboy, junior and senior so he opened his own gym; my oldest brother boxed and went to the Olympics with it so it was always part of my upbringing. Before I joined the military I boxed in a boxing show which include people from the armed forces and I saw the way everyone conducted themselves, marching around in the parade square. I thought ‘this is for me’ so without telling anyone I went down and joined up the next day.
I was in the military for four years. For the first two years I was part of the open class boxing team. I actually led the team and won the Combined Services championships. From there I went to the National Championships and won that, too.
I then had a big decision to make: a career in the military or a career in boxing? Already having been successful in boxing I felt I had to give that a go.
Who gave you the nickname ‘Stone Hands’ Saunders?
One of my former coaches, Mark McGuinness, gave it to me after my first five fights all ended by me knocking my opponent out. I helps that anyone who gets in the ring with me knows I can hit hard – despite my small frame.
You’re 10-0 (ten wins from ten fights); what’s next for you?
My next fight is on April 22 at Hardwick Hall in Sedgefield and it’s my first step up to eight rounds, which will hopefully be an eliminator or for a Challenge belt. I’m working really hard for it and I have the ambition. I know I’m good but there are some good kids out there who have the same hunger as I have. Fingers crossed I can get to the top.
I know your dad trains you: how’s the training going?
It used to be a bit of a headache having your dad as a trainer. I’d get home as an amateur and want to rip up my card as it was too stressful. When I moved out [of the family home] and got my own place, it started to work better. Even though he’s my dad, we have a professional relationship in the gym. Plus, I grew up a lot during my time in the military.
Who’s been your hardest opponent to date?
It’s hard to say. I’ve had many hard fights where I’ve had to slug it out but against elite level fighters, it’s more like playing a chess match. You try to trick each other to throw punches and miss so that you can counter that.
How would you describe your style of boxing?
If the going gets tough, I will plant my feet and my opponent knows we’re in for the long haul. But then, if people want to rush onto me and come forward then I can also be quite an elusive boxer and make them miss.
You fight at Super Lightweight. Who do you think is currently the best in the world?
Ricky Burns is definitely up there as a current World Champion but Terence Crawford is unbeaten and something special, too.
Could you move up to welterweight (10st 7lbs/66.7kgs) in the future?
In time I could, yes. But if anything I think I’d drop down to lightweight (9st 9lbs/61.2kgs). I’m not currently looking to move up or down the weight divisions and, to be honest, I don’t really pay a lot of attention to who is where within the divisions. I watch all of the ‘super fights’ and some domestic fights but I prefer to just concentrate on what I’m doing.
If you could have just one more fight who would it be with?
Floyd Mayweather Jnr. It would be a big payday and he’s the guy I looked up to as a youngster. Also, Ricky Hatton. If you could combine both styles you’d have an amazing fighter. When they fought I obviously wanted Hatton to win because he’s British but I really admire Mayweather’s skill. It’s ‘hit and don’t be hit’. He gets criticised for being boring but if you study him and try a few of his moves in the ring, they really work. Thanks to my manager, Steve Wraith, I got to meet Mayweather recently when he was in the North East. The photo of the meeting is now on my wall.
How do you see the current state of British Boxing?
It’s bouncing! We have a lot of British boxers up there fighting for world titles and some great shows are being put on by Frank Warren and Eddie Hearn. I really think the class and quality of British boxing is outstanding.
The heavyweight division is thriving too; Anthony Joshua, Tony Bellew or David Haye for you?
I’d have to go with Joshua due to his size and his style. But I respect all three guys for their boxing achievements.
How tough is it to make a living from boxing?
I hope to get to the top in the next two to three years and continue for six or seven years after that but it can be very tough – especially now that I have a little girl. I’m fortunate to have some great sponsors in Ramside Hall Hotel, PSRG and Premier Road Markings and I also have to thank my strength and conditioning coaches, Ian Glass and Michael Turner, who keep me in the right shape to succeed.
What will be after boxing for you?
When I hang up my gloves I will definitely stay in boxing; it might not be straight away as we’ll have to see how my career pans out. I think it’s very important to give something back. I’ve got my amateur coaching badges and I travel the country with the lads from our gym. I go to the gym an hour before I train every day where I work with the youngsters. I love coaching them and being a role model for them.
Jeff’s next fight is part of The Winner Takes All bill on April 22 where he’ll step up to eight rounds and fight for a Challenge belt. For tickets and/or sponsorship opportunities contact his manager, Steve Wraith, on 0191 229 9632.