ANDY LEE'S long-awaited WBO middleweight title defence ended in a Majority Decision defeat to Billy Joe Saunders in Manchester on Saturday night.
Challenger Saunders floored the Limerick man twice in the third round, with Lee holding on and regaining his composure by the fourth.
However, Lee was already well behind on the scorecards before he finally started coming forward in the latter rounds, but Saunders' tight guard withstood the Irishman's trademark power hooks throughout.
One judge scored the contest a draw at 113-113, while the other two scored it 115-111 and 114-112 in Saunders' favour, handing Lee his first ever professional loss on points.
Despite being taller and boasting a greater reach, Lee lost the battle of the jabs in the opening two rounds, before Saunders built on his busier start with two convincing knock-downs.
The first came via a sharp right hand, which took Lee by surprise, before an accumulation of punches forced the defending champion to touch down once more. Lee beat the count on both occasions and clung on to hear the bell.
Unbeaten Saunders failed to built on that in round four, which allowed Lee to fully recover, though there was already a sense that the champion had given himself too much work to do.
Perhaps he knew it himself, as Lee continually looked for his trademark power hook to take Saunders out, but the challenger kept his guard up and soaked up the best his opponent could come up with.
Lee, who lost for the third time in his professional career, was the stronger fighter in the latter rounds, but his best efforts – a stiff, straight right in the ninth and a huge left hook in the 11th – were shrugged off by Saunders.
The Irishman upped his assault in the final round, but he couldn't catch Saunders clean, with the 26-year-old seeing out a deserved victory.
Graceful as ever in the post-fight press conference, Lee accepted defeat, while he admitted he'd be open to a re-match, which Saunders suggested was not out of the question.
Lee said: "We fought our hearts out, but the two knock-downs cost me the fight. It was a close fight, but for the two knock-downs he deserved to win the fight, I can't complain with the decision.
"I would like another go of it, because I felt I finished the stronger. Congratulations to Billy though."