By Terence Dooley
British super-middleweight titleholder James DeGale takes part in that most rare of boxing events when defending his Lonsdale belt against London rival George Groves at the capital’s O2 Arena on May 21st. Two contenders, two undefeated records and two rival promotional camps will collide when ‘Chunky’ and ‘Saint’ George take to the ring.
These big, early career crossroad fights are often mooted but rarely come into reality. DeGale, though, believes that this was one domestic grudge match which could not be allowed to slip the net. It was finally made after Frank Warren, DeGale’s promoter, obtained the rights to host the contest from David Coldwell, Hayemaker’s Head of Boxing.
“Me and Groves have to do it now because he’s going to get found out. I want to be the one to do it. I have been calling for it. We both really wanted it. I’m excited, I can’t wait, I’ve been training hard and went straight into camp,” said DeGale when speaking to me over the phone.
Both boxers appeared on Sky TV’s Ringside show after announcing the contest. Groves was suited, booted and struck a calm figure. DeGale dressed causally, talked quickly and was widely adjudged to have come second best during the opening salvo.
However, the 25-year-old argues that he remained true to himself when the fight was formally unveiled. Saying, “That is just me. I love the build up to fights. I love the banter. It might get into some people’s heads but I just love it.”
Groves handed his rival a decision defeat in the amateurs. Although DeGale has looked impressive in the pro ranks in the personal history of DeGale-Groves it is George who is coming into this one with the better form guide as he holds a win over his opponent.
It is reminiscent of Sugar Shane Mosley versus Vernon Forrest. Shane was in the ascendency and ‘The Viper’ was written off prior to their 2002 bout despite holding a decision over ‘Sugar’ in the unpaid ranks. Vernon brought this dominance over to the pro division by scoring a pair of point’s wins.
James has played down George’s 2006 success, he was equally bullish when asked if the fact that his challenger holds a W over him stung before admitting that it had hit him hard at the time.
“No not really,” he said to my question of whether George’s win still hurts a little. “Well, I’m lying actually because when he beat me it burned me a bit me, it did. But I couldn’t get too upset because I got into the England squad and the Olympic Games, he’s just livid that he didn’t and he’s been living off that win ever since then. Now he’s got his little ten weeks of fame but he’s getting brought down to Earth, mate, he’s getting knocked out on the 21st of May.”
Both men have squeezed in warm-up wins. Groves halted Daniel Adotey Allotey in March; DeGale stopped Alpay Kobal in five rounds the following week. “Basically I wanted to get some rounds in and didn’t want to be out the ring for too long so we got a little eight rounder. It was perfect,” admitted the two-time ABA winner as talk turned to his last performance.
“Kobal was tough for five rounds, nothing special but durable and it was good. I was working on things. [Warren’s matchmaker] Dean Powell told me the guy was tough and durable, he’d only been stopped once in 21 fights and that was in the early part of his career. I worked on my angles, shots through the middle and other things, really.”
DeGale-Groves is the biggest British title showdown since Jamie Moore defended his 154lb crown against Matthew Macklin in 2006. Sure, there have been some epic British title nights since then but nothing quite as compelling as this latest face-off. Unlike other national belts, the Lonsdale title has a long and rich history, with the tussle for the 168lb crown overshadowing Nathan Cleverly’s WBO light-heavyweight title challenge to Jeurgen Braehmer in some quarters.
Ironically, DeGale has prepared for Groves by sparring the Welshman; although he believes that his promotional stablemate’s contest will be the jewel in the crown of a big night for British boxing.
“People are comparing our fight to Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, and in some ways it is probably similar, we genuinely don’t like each other and there is bad blood there so the fight is getting hyped up to the max. It should be good but Nathan won’t get pushed to one side because I think he’s going to put in a massive performance. Nathan won’t get overshadowed,” pledged the southpaw, who maintains that Cleverly has a great chance of netting the first of many world titles.
“Most definitely. He is super dedicated, really fit and his work rate and hand seed is phenomenal for a big light-heavyweight. I can’t see him losing.”
A crunch contest so early in a young pro’s career can be both a gift and a curse, with many fans concerned that the loser will find it hard to regroup. “I know I’m not going to lose so I don’t really think about that to be honest,” says DeGale.
“But George can come back from this. I’ve had ten fights [eight KOs] and he’s had twelve [ten stoppages] so it is the early part of our careers. I don’t think about losing this one. That thought hasn’t crossed my mind.”
An Olympic gold medalist, the loquacious Londoner brings the same confidence, single minded focus and chat that Audley Harrison brought with him when turning pro after winning super-heavyweight gold in 2000. However, James has moved quicker than ‘A-Force’ did, citing his decision to put his career in the hands of Warren as a vital aspect of his rise.
“Audley has had a lot of stick. I always said that he has all the skills to pay the bills but did he have the heart to play the part. Did he have that bit extra you need to be a world champion, to be a superstar – I’m not too sure,” he mused.
“Put a camera on him and he’s great at talking and all that but I’m not sure the heart was there. I knew from looking at Audley the road that I didn’t want to go down. He promoted himself, managed himself and had to do the fighting as well. You can’t do all those things and expect to be successful, it is impossible.”
Heart is a funny old thing, if you have to show it in every single fight then the chances are that you are not going to reach the top yet there comes a point in every career when a fighter has to display courage under fire. Groves showed spirit when roaring back from a knockdown during last November’s Commonwealth title win over Kenny Anderson. How can DeGale be sure that he will display the same toughness when push comes to shove?
He answered, “You know what, people underestimate my heart and the fact that I’ve got a good chin. I can dig deep. I know in myself how strong I am, how big my heart is. You would have to bury me in the ring. I would rather be carried out in a coffin than lose. I know that sounds raw but that is how I honestly see it.
“I can’t lose. I can’t go in there and not show people what I’m about. Imagine hyping it all up, talking and then going in there and not producing, that would be embarrassing so in some ways I put all this pressure on myself but the thing is that I like it. I put pressure on myself but I produce, and will produce on May 21st.”
Pride will certainly play a part on the night; both men have talked this one up, each certain that he will expose the other as a hype job. James started the ball rolling during the presser announcing the contest, chiding George’s dress sense, looks and even breath in a bid to rattle the Hammersmith-based boxer. He believes that this is par for the course given the stakes.
“Some people still think I’m not the real deal. They think it is talk. That I’m arrogant and I’m not a nice person. Anyone who knows me or has met me knows that I’m a nice boy –I’m genuine. I’ve kept my feet on the ground. All the hype, the naughtiness and nastiness, is part of the sport. I genuinely don’t like him but I’m not here to like George Groves. I’ve got to fight him in a couple of weeks so of course I dislike the guy,” argued DeGale, pointing out that pre-fight war of words are de rigueur in the pro ranks.
“It is all part of it. Obviously it is genuine because there is bad blood. People look at it and think I’m arrogant. But he is calling me horse face. I’m calling him ugly. So what, it is reality, he is the ‘ugly kid’ so I’m not being too wrong, just telling it how it is.”
“Basically my boxing has come on in leaps and Georgie hasn’t really changed if we’re being honest. If anything he’s got worse because he’s trying to mould himself on David Haye and that isn’t a good look for him. He should relax. Go back to doing what he does best,” he insisted.
Which is? “Holding the centre of the ring and throwing bombs is his game. That is what he is good at. All of a sudden he thinks he’s Mr. David Haye and is trying to stalk about the ring and being all technical, he ain’t like that. George has always been a come forward aggressive fighter. I think he should stick to that.
“Whatever he brings, I‘ve got it covered. It would be great for the fans if he comes out and fights me. It would make for a great fight. I don’t know where he’s getting this idea that he will be able to come into the ring and out-box me. I don’t know where he gets that confidence from because no one with his style can come in and out-box me. I’m not sure where he’s getting his ideas. Whatever he does, I’ll have it covered.”
Groves has been sparring former world title challenger Andre Dirrell over in Miami in a bid to get to grips with the southpaw stance. Dirrell’s last fight came in March of last year, a controversial DQ win over Arthur Abraham. ‘The Matrix’ was diagnosed with a head injury after being hit when on one knee – a diagnosis that left many wondering if Dirrell would fight again.
“Well that is what springs to mind so I was baffled when I heard that,” opined DeGale as he questioned the logic of the Dirrell link-up. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Dirrell is out injured and thinking of retiring, isn’t he?’ He was claiming that there was something wrong with his head, he hasn’t got a date for a fight so I’m wondering if he was fit – I’m not too sure. But I hear it was hard sparring for George over there so that is a good sign for the 21st because I want him at his best. It will be good for our fight.
“The fans are loving all this talk, man. I can be in traffic on the motorway and I’m getting shout outs. People saying ‘James, knock him out’. They are stopping me in the street everywhere I go. There is a great buzz for this fight, especially in west London. People are looking forward to it.”
A win for either man will quicken the charge towards world titles. In fact, Frank Warren has revealed that his protégé knocked back a world title opportunity to settle the Groves debate. This rapid progression must make it difficult for Harlesden’s finest to keep his feet on the ground, although he told me that there is no chance of him getting caught up in the hype.
“Obviously I’ve got a fantastic team around me: my family, promoter and coach [Jimmy McDonnell]. I’m a 25-year-old boy from northwest London who is doing something he loves, and doing it well. So I’m not going to get too big for my boots. I keep my feet firmly on the floor and will keep on winning the fights,” pledged the titlist.
So no chance of moving the DeGale clan to a Los Angeles mansion? “Nah, nah, that ain’t me,” he laughed. “I am comfortable at home. When I prepare for a fight I like my home comforts. I like being around the people I love and my friends. It is nice for me in London right now.”
With DeGale-Groves, Cleverly-Braehmer, Froch-Johnson, Murray-Mitchell and Wlad-Haye confirmed, it looks to be an exciting summer for the domestic scene, with DeGale predicting that Haye has a puncher’s chance of bringing home Wlad’s titles.
“To be honest he’s got more chance against Wladimir than Vitali,” was his analysis of Haye’s Klitschko twofer. “Against Vitali he’d got knocked out after a couple of rounds but he has a chance because Wlad’s been down lots of times in his professional career. This is the heavyweights. Anything can happen. David Haye can punch. If Haye catches him then Wlad’ll go. It is a good fight, an intriguing fight – I’m looking forward to it.”
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