ELEVEN months after becoming WBO middleweight king, Billy Joe Saunders, 23-0 (12), is set to make the first defence of his title this Saturday (November 26) on a MGM show at the Lagoon Leisure Centre in Paisley, Scotland (BoxNation televise in the UK).

The Hatfield traveller was originally scheduled to put his belt on the line against Ukraine’s Max Bursak seven months ago, but a hand injury ruled Saunders out. The 27-year-old champ meets fellow southpaw Artur “Wolverine” Akavov, 16-1 (7) – a Russian based in Brooklyn – this weekend. He was supposed to box in Cardiff last weekend, but this defence was put back a week due to problems with the translation of medical paperwork supplied by the challenger’s team.

Ranked at No. 10 by the WBO, the challenger is somewhat of an unknown quantity. After 13 pro bouts in Russia, followed by two in Estonia, Akavov linked up with New York promoter Lou Di Bella, which explains why his two most recent fights have been staged in the Big Apple – stoppages of outgunned duo Todd Manuel (March) and Freddy Lopez (November 2015).

While an early-career unanimous points defeat to novice Oleg Liseev is a blemish on Akavov’s record, Saunders’ résumé is spotless. As well as wresting the WBO crown from Andy Lee (md 12), the former British, Commonwealth and European titlist also holds victories over respected names in Chris Eubank Jnr (sd 12), John Ryder (ud 12) and Nick Blackwell (ud 12).

Boasting a solid amateur background, tough and composed Akavov, 28, paws out range-finding right jabs from his wide stance, before unleashing explosive straight lefts and right hooks. Seven of Artur’s last eight wins have come inside the distance, but he has yet to face anyone even approaching Billy Joe’s lofty level.

Naturally bigger than Akavov, 2008 Olympian Saunders is a quick starter who displays smooth skills, rapid mitts and intelligent footwork. With his fluid combos, impressive movement and high output, he can box his way to a clear verdict.