By John Evans
Never has a bout between two British fighters with a combined record of 22-0 generated such interest. The clash between James DeGale and George Groves at the O2 Arena on May 21st developed from a grudge match between former amateur rivals into the most talked about all-British clash of 2011 and continues to provoke fierce debate weeks afterwards.
After months of trash talking and twelve tense, nip and tuck rounds Groves claimed both DeGale’s British super middleweight belt and domestic bragging rights. The scorecards reflected the close nature of the bout. Although Richie Davis scored the bout a 115-115 draw, both John Keane and Dave Parris awarded Groves victory by the narrowest of margins, 115-114.
Whilst a video has surfaced of a disappointed DeGale bemoaning the decision and the victorious Groves and his trainer Adam Booth have appeared on various television and radio programmes to talk about the victory, one of the main protagonists in the whole drama has remained silent, preferring to keep his thoughts on the matter to himself.
DeGale’s trainer, former pro fighter Jim McDonnell, was very outspoken in the build up to the fight, certain that his man would prevail. Now, as the dust settles on the bout, McDonnell speaks exclusively to www.boxingscene.com about the fight itself, the aftermath and what the future may hold for both the winner and loser.
McDonnell’s fury at the perceived injustice of the decision is matched only by a determination to ensure his fighter still reaches the very top of the sport. The release of the official scorecards for the bout has incensed McDonnell still further.
“What really amazed me is that the official scorecards that I’ve looked at, coming out for the last round – forget the rest of the fight, coming out for the last round – Richie Davis had James one round in front and the other two judges had them dead level. Now if you speak to anyone in boxing – in America, London, Scotland, Ireland, Torquay or Birmingham – they’ll tell you that James DeGale won the last round,” says McDonnell.
“How the f*ck can those judges give that verdict to George Groves? That is absolute nonsense. I was going to say it at the press conference but I’ll say it to you now. I think all these big fights in future – the judges have got to have earphones on. They have got to have earphones on,” reiterated the coach.
“The judges were so swayed by the crowd it was unbelievable. The judges sat at ringside, God bless them they’re only human, were hearing the noise of Groves’ people when he’s throwing shots – that ain’t landing by the way, James has got the best defence in boxing – and scoring them”.
The build up to the bout saw DeGale and Groves engage in a prolonged war of words. Whilst the Olympic gold medallist resorted to personal insults and exuded confidence, for the most part Groves and his trainer Adam Booth remained calm. McDonnell is certain that events outside the ring played a significant part in the eventual outcome of the bout.
“It is what is it. James, by human nature, makes people jealous and the empathy was with the good boy, George. James suffered not through the contest, but by being James DeGale” claims McDonnell.
“If that had been Paul Smith, Kenny Anderson or anyone else you want to name, after that last round they would have retained the British title. Because the scorecards are now out, nobody can believe they gave Groves the last round. The word we’re using is it stinks. Even Adam Booth would have to admit that. He wouldn’t admit anything else but he’d have to admit the last round was won by James DeGale.
“Then I say to myself, did George know something we didn’t? How can you box like he boxed? I’ve crowned myself world champion since this fight because there was no way I lost on points to Brian Mitchell if George Groves beat James DeGale. I ‘won’ much more clearly than Groves did.
“I’ve had it looked at professionally by three respected referees, I’m not gonna name names because I don’t want to put them in trouble, and they all say James DeGale won the last round”.
McDonnell’s anger at the verdict is fuelled by personal experience. In 1988, he unsuccessfully challenged the aforementioned Brian Mitchell for the WBA super featherweight title. The South African champion retained his title via a unanimous decision after McDonnell’s late charge proved to be too little, too late. The lessons he learned that night that have stuck with him ever since.
“When I fought for the world title the first time, I boxed Brian Mitchell at the Elephant and Castle and lost a real close verdict,” recalls McDonnell. “I won the last three rounds and the crowd were really on my side. The referee came in afterwards and obviously I was disappointed because I hadn’t become world champion and he said to me, ‘If you’d started like you fought later in the fight you’d have been world champion. You’ve gotta remember, you were the challenger and if a lot of the early rounds are close, they’re gonna go to the champion’. I’ve never forgotten that.
“In this fight, James was defending his British title. The first six rounds, you could score it three each so at halfway they were level pegging but Groves fought on his back foot for the whole twelve rounds. I’ve studied the fight and not once did he put more than three shots together. I’ve watched the whole fight. Everything was single jabs – negative, negative, negative.
“The first six rounds, they basically played cat and mouse. It was like they were back at Dale Youth [the amateur club they pair famously shared] as amateurs. Both scoring with shots, but obviously, where the judges didn’t like James or the empathy was with George, those close rounds I think they’re gonna give to Groves.
“The second half of the fight, James loses one out of the six rounds and that was round ten. He won the seventh and eighth rounds, the ninth massively, lost the tenth and won the eleventh and twelfth. The only reason he lost the tenth was because he got cut for the first time in his career and was pawing at it all the way through the round. Credit to George for sticking to what he was doing, which was running and using the jab. I’d give that round to him.”
The DeGale corner has attracted attention for seemingly having no backup plan when Groves didn’t perform as they had confidently predicted he would. Throughout the first half of the bout, DeGale struggled to come to terms with his opponent’s movement and refusal to give in to emotion by standing and trading. By the time he began to find success on a more regular basis, ‘Chunky’ was not only fighting Groves but also a losing battle against time.
Contrary to McDonnell’s belief that he had taken over the fight from the halfway point, entering the ninth round DeGale was still behind on two cards and level on the third. Whilst he praises Groves’ discipline, it seems McDonnell was so sure that his man had gained the upper hand that a ‘Plan B’ was never needed.
“Like I say, you have to give George so much credit for being brave enough to do what he did. When I boxed Azumah Nelson I fought a totally different fight than I did when I fought Brian Mitchell. Everybody thought I was going to try and box him because he could bang but I stuck it on him from the start because when you’re a challenger, you have to challenge.”
“At the end of the day, George Groves nicked a title. He didn’t win a title. I bet I’ve spoken to 70 to 90 people and I haven’t met one person who says George won the fight. It’s a very hollow victory. They’ve got the kudos for it and he can say, ‘Ah, I’ve beaten James twice’, but if you watch both their fights, you’ve got a strong case that DeGale won both,” he states.
“It’s not like he’s a better fighter than James DeGale. When James goes on to achieve what he’s going to and you see where George gets to, well, he’s gonna be in life and death battles with domestic level fighters. Paul Smith v George Groves – who’d win that?
“Let’s give some credit to Groves. He went in there with a plan. Bit of a one trick pony though because that’ll only work once. Imagine him doing that in Liverpool against Smith? Imagine him doing that against Kenny Anderson? They won’t have it. The only reason he got it is because James is the pantomime villain. You’ve got good guy and bad guy and they built James up to be the bad guy.”
The controversy surrounding the bout didn’t end with the decision. The animosity between the rival camps continued after the bouts conclusion with Adam Booth directing an obscene gesture towards the DeGale corner as MC Jimmy Lennon Jr. announced Groves as the new champion. McDonnell sees this as disrespecting the sport he loves.
“The relief on their faces when they got the verdict was unbelievable. You had Adam Booth making the wanker sign and this and that. That was ridiculous and he’s bringing boxing into disrepute. If I’d gone and chinned him, they’d have been a big riot in the arena. Basically, he should be sacked for it. He’s just an idiot. You’ve got to show class winning or losing. I think it was just the relief, sheer relief at getting the result. Emotions were running high and they got they got a result they didn’t deserve.
“Good luck to George Groves. I wished him all the best in the ring. I ain’t got no problem with him. He isn’t involved in the politics and what’s done is done. We’ve gotta look forward and not back and be positive. I don’t think George took the fight by the scruff of the neck but I give him credit for being brave and having the discipline to stick to the game plan.”
He added: “To be honest with you, not that he did lose, but James lost the fight rather than George winning it. I think the difference in class between the two fighters was shown when they did engage for the only time in the fight in round nine and James looked on a totally different level to him.”
The genuine dislike between the pair and prolonged build up ensured interest in the fight reached unprecedented levels for two fighters who, whilst very talented, are still only really taking their first steps in the professional game.
Although he didn’t show it, Nathan Cleverly was probably slightly put out that his fight for the WBO light heavyweight belt was relegated to main support for a fight for the British and Commonwealth super middleweight titles. There was an incredible amount of pressure on two relatively inexperienced fighters. Was the fight made too early in both fighters careers?
“Maybe, they’re both still novice professionals. James learnt he can do twelve rounds at a tremendous pace. Although the first six rounds were in slow motion, I thought George looked absolutely washed out from the seventh onwards. Obviously, James is on the fast track so he’s had to grow up very quickly. For Groves and DeGale, they now both have the experience of having been the course. That course is like a minefield, you never know when you’re going to get blown up.”
Despite the first defeat of their partnership, McDonnell’s belief in his fighter’s ability is even stronger than it was before the Groves bout. The targets they set out to achieve when first setting out on the path remain the same.
“James is now off the leash,” he opined. “As far as I’m concerned he’s passed his exams, got his certificate and you’ll see the difference in his next twelve rounder. I think it’ll be the best performance of his career. He’ll be so relaxed. He said to me afterwards, ‘I can’t believe how easy I did it. I wish I’d put more into the early rounds’. The early rounds are what cost him.
“I don’t think you’ll see the best of James until the Vegas days. He’s 25 but when he’s 27 you’ll see the best of James DeGale. The likes of Carl Froch, [Mikkel] Kessler and [Andre] Ward – James will be mixing in those circles within the next eighteen months I’m sure. He’s the best domestically already. I think that’s pretty clear to everyone. There’s nobody in Britain who can really push him or test him. So I don’t know what Frank’s [Warren, DeGale’s promoter] plans are but I can’t see them having him tread water because there’s nobody domestically who can push him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. James is going to be Britain’s best ever fighter.”
Whilst DeGale and his team remain confident, the fact remains that he is no longer an undefeated fighter. Like Amir Khan before him, until he either avenges the defeat or achieves something to overshadow it, fans will constantly remind him of the first loss on his record.
Perhaps Kenny Anderson would be a good comeback opponent for DeGale. The tough Scot had Groves in all kinds of trouble when the pair clashed in November 2010. Although ‘The Saint’ got off the floor to stop Anderson in the 6th, the 28-year-old acquitted himself well as a late substitute and deserves another chance. If the pair were to meet, an impressive performance by DeGale would go someway towards rebuilding his reputation with a now sceptical boxing public.
“If they wanted to give him a fight to get back in and sharpen his teeth again then Anderson’s not a problem. If Anderson would’ve beaten Groves then James would have fought him the other night. He’s a tough kid (Anderson) – I give him credit. He comes to fight and he spars with people like Froch so he’s obviously a serious operator, tough and strong but boxing’s all about levels,” revealed McDonnell.
“It’ll be very interesting which route he goes. Like Frank said after the fight, it is what it is. He had James winning by a couple of rounds and in the States they had James by five rounds. After the fight James got home and watched it on television, as soon as he watched it said, ‘I cannot believe how he got the verdict. I thought it was clear. It didn’t even look close’.”
“I know George Groves, I’ve worked with him before he turned pro and he’s a genuinely nice kid and I sincerely wish him all the best. George never won the fight – James lost it. James has learnt a hell of a lot out of that fight and he’ll thank George at a later date when he’s world champion. Through that experience he’s learnt certain things he can move on and do and he’s now already doing them back in the gym. He won’t let anybody down, he’ll go on and achieve everything he’s meant to achieve,” concluded McDonnell.