Making the first defence of his WBO super-middleweight title, Billy Joe Saunders (29-0,14) stopped Argentina’s Marcelo Coceres (28-1-1, 15) in the eleventh round of an unexpectedly tough contest on Saturday night. 

In a toilsome US debut, Saunders never quite managed to find his rhythm despite always looking a level above the previously undefeated challenger. 

On a card headlined by YouTube stars, many anticipated the two-weight world champion would get a perfect opportunity to exhibit his unmistakable boxing ability to a new audience and pitch himself as a future foe to Canelo Alvarez, however from the outset it was clear that Coceres hadn’t read the script.  

Saunders shaded much of a relatively uneventful contest with superior movement and an imposing lead right hand, yet as he grew into the fight the gutsy Coceres found moments of success as he sought to frustrate from the back foot. 

The Hatfield fighter utilised his solid body punching and sharp lead hand to up the gears as the bout approached its latter stages. Nonetheless, Coceres refused to fade away, remaining a threat with one-two combinations, 

In the penultimate round of a bout that was very much in the balance, Saunders elevated the intensity of his attack, dropping the brave challenger with a thudding combination of hooks on the inside. 

As Coceres laboured to his feet Saunders sensed the opportunity to close the show, driving home a thunderous uppercut that sent the challenger to the canvas for the second time. The fate of the South American was sealed at this point and after another barrage led to a third knockdown the referee rightly brought a halt to proceedings.

The dramatic finish injected an element of positivity into a performance that was otherwise sluggish for the champion, who cut a relieved figure at the culmination of a night in which he overcame unforeseen adversity. 

In spite of not making a major statement at the Staples Center, getting his hand raised opens up the path to major fights for the undefeated Saunders, who speaking after the victory was keen to emphasise he still wants to take on four weight world champion Canelo next. 

He said: “There’s no excuses. The performance was not worthy Canelo or Jacobs, but I came here five days before. I knew in my head I had to get him out of here. My timing was off my, movement was off, everything was off. I wanted to impress the crowd. Hopefully you enjoyed the KO, all I could do tonight. 

“I had a chesty cough, but no excuses. You know, I was not 100% fighting mentally. I was tired but needed to get him out in the ninth. I just needed to look calm and needed to let him gas. This is the experience I’ve had before. Had to let him gas. Continue to follow me, this wasn’t the best of me. 

“I’ve been in big fights, needed to stay cool. As being champion you know when to step on the gas, and you need to step on the gas at some point. It’s the difference between winning and losing.” 

He added: “Canelo if you want to become four-weight champion, take me now because this is the time to make it happen. I want Canelo. I respect you, you’ve done big things for the sport.”

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