BILLY JOE SAUNDERS remains on course to challenge the winner of the Las Vegas superfight between Gennady Golovkin and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez after defending his WBO middleweight title against Willie Monroe Jnr.

The 28-year-old produced one of his finest performances to retain the only world middleweight title not being contested by his high-profile rivals in the early hours of Sunday morning and hopes it will secure a lucrative unification match-up.

America’s Monroe Jnr fought with a disappointing lack of ambition — particularly given he could have earnt the same position — in dropping the unanimous decision for the third defeat of his career.

Saunders, fighting for the first time under new trainer Dominic Ingle, also improved on his unconvincing performance in December against Artur Akavov, and was rewarded with scores of 117-111, 115-114, 117-112 via the three ringside judges.

It was his superior sharpness and intent as much as his skills that secured his latest victory. Leading with the jab and also succeeding to Monroe Jnr’s body, Saunders began with a typically-fast pace and faced little more than jabs in return.

In the third round an accurate right uppercut hurt his challenger, and it was only when a cut opened by the bridge of his nose following an accidental clash of heads in the fourth that the American temporarily fought with greater belief.

Even then, and perhaps after Saunders had overcome any uncertainty that arose from that brief flow of blood, the champion’s dominance swiftly returned and he found a steady pace that ensured he continued to convince.

He was fighting for the first time in 10 months, following the defeat of Akavov, which itself had followed a year of inactivity, but Monroe Jnr did too little to test any ring-rust Saunders may have had.

The challenger’s attitude was best captured in the eighth after Saunders had landed a powerful counter, when he moved to the ropes and after a brief barrage complained to referee Marcus McDonnell that Saunders had landed behind the head.

Only in the final round did he increase his intensity against a fighter who has long been known to fade behind the stretch, throwing more than what had mostly been jabs. By that point victory was clearly beyond him, however, and it was a surprise that one judge had it so close.

At Friday’s weigh-in, Saunders’ eight-year-old son Stevie had punched and kicked Monroe Jnr below the belt, and his father afterwards handed him the microphone, into which he said: “Sorry for punching you in the nuts.”

Promising heavyweight Daniel Dubois had earlier earnt his fifth victory from five when stopping AJ Carter in only 48 seconds. Carter required oxygen and was immediately sent to hospital, having been knocked down three times.

There was also a victory for light-heavyweight Anthony Yarde, who, after repeatedly hurting Hungary’s Norbert Nemesapati and knocking him down, saw his opponent withdraw at the end of the third round.