NICK Blackwell may be counting on it being third time lucky when he finally gets his hands on the British middleweight title.

But the Trowbridge fighter showed the country just how far he has come in the last 18 months as he pushed Billy Joe Saunders all the way in London last weekend.

Last June, Blackwell was outclassed by Martin Murray in Wigan and, despite a rib injury picked up in sparring eventually leading him retiring in his corner, there was no doubting that the Wiltshire man had come up short against a fighter currently preparing to take on one of the world’s best pound-for-pound boxers in Sergio Martínez next year.

But at the ExCel Arena last Saturday, it was a very different story.

The star demonstrated the full depth of his ferocious spirit, with a brave, battling display against the slick, calculating Saunders.

A timing mix-up meant that the last of 12 absorbing rounds was brought to an end 20 seconds too early and the judges’ scorecards were harsh on Blackwell.

But despite relishing the praise that has come his way since his showdown with Saunders, the Contender Gym fighter was certain he would have been named the British and Commonwealth champion on another day.

“I know I could have done better and I know I could have won that fight,” said ‘Bang Bang’ Blackwell.

“He didn’t hurt me when I was in there and I got him where I wanted to get him but when that happened, I just didn’t let my shots go.

“I started too late and when I picked the pace up in the third round, before I knew it, we’d got to the seventh.

“If I’d boxed to my best, I know I could beat him so the future’s bright for me.

“I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and I’ll get there.

“I’m only 22 and I’ve got years ahead of me – third time lucky, I’ll have that British belt.

“I’m here to win belts. I’m not here to make the numbers up but it just wasn’t my night.”

Perhaps expecting more power from his opponent, Blackwell was subdued in the opening three rounds, but he was soon hounding Saunders around the ring.

The Hatfield fighter was still slick and elusive but his rapid-fire jabs were having no effect on Blackwell, who had his opponent bleeding from a cut above the right eye in the sixth.

Before the seventh round, Blackwell gestured to his fans, recognising that he was on top but, soon afterwards, Saunders began to stage a rescue operation.

The Hertfordshire man ducked and dived around the ring, upping his work rate in the final rounds to ensure that he was not caught by any more Blackwell bombs.

A few seconds into the 12th round, the Trowbridge man signalled to his corner that his glove had come untied and as he dropped his guard to return to his corner, Saunders flung a haymaker but, perhaps fortunately, did not make proper contact.

The two warriors then went hammer and tongs at the finale and, when the bell rang, Saunders knew he had been pushed all the way.

But, despite his aggressive domination of the middle rounds, the decision went against the spirited Wiltshire man.