LONDON (Reuters) - Billy Joe Saunders, an 18-year-old Romany living on a travelers’ site on the outskirts of London, looks set to become the face of British amateur boxing in Beijing.
Saunders is one of eight Britons qualified for the Olympics in August and he is being tipped to make a similar impact to Amir Khan who won a silver medal in Athens four years ago.
Like Khan, who is fiercely proud of his Pakistani roots, Saunders is determined to provide a “good news” story for a section of the community often given a rough ride in the media.
Boxing is firmly in his DNA. His great-grandfather Absolom Beeney, now in his late 90s, was a bare-knuckle prize fighter in the boxing booths around the show grounds of England.
Unlike “Pickles,” as his great-grandad is known to regulars at his local pub, Saunders demonstrates the noble art wearing leather gloves.
“I never saw the bare-knuckle fighting ... it comes from generations back in Ireland,” said Saunders.
“We are real English Romany gypsies. My dad has always kept me away from all that, we have always been sensible.
“Actually my first boxing experience was when my brother was getting bullied. He went to a gym and I followed along, I’ve loved it ever since.
“I’ve known a few traveling lads who would have been a million times better than me if they had stuck with it. It’s not an easy route I’ve taken but I’ve all my life to do other things.”
His older brother Tom, a promising light heavyweight, has already turned pro and won three fights. Saunders has no immediate thought of going down the same route.
“Gold is my target,” he said. “I’ve been boxing 13 years and this is what it all boils down to, it’s bigger than a world title. Olympics is the biggest thing on the planet.
“You look at people like (Joe) Calzaghe and (Ricky) Hatton and they never had the chance to do this. I look at it that I’ve got this opportunity and nobody is going to beat me.”
Saunders spends much of his time at the British Amateur Boxing institute in Sheffield. Regular trips to Europe also keep him away from his 10-month-old son, also called Billy Joe.
“I enjoy the training but being away from my young’un is hard,” said Saunders. “I’m trying to do the best I can now so that when he gets older he will have a good life.
“You hear about all the stabbings and guns and violence in the papers. I don’t want him growing up with all that. I want him to get educated and have the best opportunities.”
Saunders’ father Tom, who will travel to Beijing to watch his son, says his son has been brought up the old-fashioned way.
“What he’s achieved from his background is unbelievable. I can’t think of another Romany gypsy who has done so well.
“We are a proud community but we are often wrongly portrayed. The bare knuckle image is not what we’re about.”
Saunders was spotted by British coaches as a junior and earmarked for the London 2012 Olympics. However, he has taken the sport by storm and now looks a good bet for a welterweight medal four years ahead of schedule.
His progress suffered a blip in Pescara, Italy, this year when he lost narrowly on points to Ukrainian Oleksandr Stretskyy in the semi-finals of an Olympic qualifier.
It ended a 49-fight winning sequence that included beating Cuban number one Carlos Bantuer in Bulgaria this year. Although he recovered to clinch third place and book his seat on the plane to Beijing, Saunders goes to China with a point to prove.
“The scoring was a bit iffy,” Saunders told Reuters. “In Beijing I’m sure it will be fair and I look forward to boxing him again on the way to winning gold.
“In some ways it (defeat) might have done me good.”
British coach Edwards said Saunders has continually exceeded expectations and thinks he is a genuine gold medal prospect, both in Beijing and London.
“This guy has beaten the Cuban number one, the European champion from Russia,” he said. “Billy’s a precocious talent at 18 and has a real desire. He can be an Olympic champion straight away if he gets the right draw.”
Saunders has become something of a folk hero among the traveling community and he knows an Olympic medal could change his life forever.
“As long as I’ve got a comfortable life that’s fine,” he said. “But if the same happens to me that happened to Amir Khan, I won’t grumble.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Robert Woodward