Showtime secures U.S. rights to Lee-Saunders middleweight title bout

Andy Lee defends his 160-pound world title against Billy Joe Saunders on Dec. 19. Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The Andy Lee-Billy Joe Saunders middleweight title bout will have live American television coverage.

Showtime announced on Tuesday that it has secured U.S. broadcast rights and will air the Dec. 19 fight from Manchester Arena in Manchester, England, on its “Showtime International” series. It will air on the Showtime Extreme channel beginning at 5 p.m. ET/PT with a prime time replay at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

HBO had been in the hunt for the rights but a dispute between Lou DiBella, Lee’s American promoter, who had made a deal with HBO, and Saunders promoter, Frank Warren, over who owned the American rights killed the HBO deal.

Showtime will show a simulcast of the British telecast from BoxNation but have its own announcers, Brian Custer, Al Bernstein and Paulie Malignaggi, to provide pre and post-fight analysis.

“We’re excited to deliver this important matchup of top middleweights to the U.S. audience,” Showtime Sports boss Stephen Espinoza said. “The 160-pound class is one of boxing’s hottest and deepest divisions right now, and the winner of this fight should position himself for a major showdown or unification in 2016.”

Showtime is also televising Daniel Jacobs’ secondary middleweight defense against Peter Quillin on Saturday night from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, and the Lee-Saunders winner against the Jacobs-Quillin winner would be a natural fight.

“It’s great that my fans in the U.S. will get to see the fight between me and Saunders and I guarantee it’s going to be exciting,” said Lee, who is from Ireland but spent many years living and fighting in the United States, where his fights were televised regularly.

Saunders, of England, is not well known in the United States but hopes the exposure changes that.

“This is a massive night for me and I’m excited that it’s going out live to America,” he said. “The U.S. viewers will get to see just what I can do when I face Lee and become world champion. It’s a big boost for me and takes the fight to another level when American TV comes on board and then you know it’s a big fight on the world stage.

“I hope that (titleholder Gennady) Golovkin and (former champion Miguel) Cotto will be both watching because I’m fast approaching their level and they’ll get to see what I’m all about.”

Lee, a 2004 Irish Olympian, was behind on all three scorecards when he knocked out Russia’s Matt Korobov in the sixth round in December 2014 in Las Vegas to win a vacant 160-pound world title. Lee (34-2-1, 24 KOs), a 31-year-old southpaw, made his first defense on April 11 in at the Barclays Center on NBC in prime time, battling former titlist Quillin to a split draw in a fight in which both men were knocked down twice.

Saunders (22-0, 12 KOs), 26, also a southpaw, scored his biggest win in November, getting the nod in a spirited split decision against bitter rival Chris Eubank Jr. in a European title defense that also served as the world title eliminator for the mandatory fight against Lee.

“I’m delighted that Showtime will now be televising Lee versus Saunders live in the U.S. as it confirms the importance of this fight on the world scene,” Warren said. “My relationship with the network goes back many years with fights like Joe Calzaghe versus Jeff Lacy, Ricky Hatton versus Kostya Tszyu, Frank Bruno versus Oliver McCall, plus Naseem Hamed and Nigel Benn fights. I believe that Lee versus Saunders will be another great fight to add to that list because of what’s at stake for both fighters. What lies ahead for the winner will make them fight to their very best.”