By Terence Dooley
Once upon a time there were two colleagues. Training side by side at the same amateur gym. Then they clashed – one man grabbing a close victory. They became enemies – each swearing to drive the other out of town. This is not the synopsis of a superhero film; it is the backdrop to next month’s British super-middleweight showdown between James DeGale and his mandatory challenger George Groves, who posted a win over DeGale in the unpaid ranks. The two men will settle things once and for all at London’s O2 Arena in the chief support to Nathan Cleverly’s WBO light-heavyweight tussle with Germany’s Juergen Braehmer.
Groves headed over to Miami for the early weeks of training, sparring former WBC title challenger Andre Dirrell under the watchful eye of WBA heavyweight boss David Haye, the figurehead of Groves’ promotional stable. George is back in London where Adam Booth has been putting him through the most crucial phase of his preparations. ‘Saint’ George caught up with me to run the rule over the upcoming bout.
“I’ve been working hard over there and am feeling good,” he said as he recalled the Miami camp. “I’ve picked it up a notch since I got back. Dirrell was tiptop. I couldn’t ask for anything better because he’s a world-class operator and boxes even better in the gym than he does in fights to be honest. He can do his own thing in the gym without the pressure so it was brilliant sparring – I couldn’t ask for anything more.
“It is also good to be around David in Miami, he’s had camps there a number of times over the years and knows the best places to train, find sparring and eat so I was in good company, definitely.”
Dirrell gave Carl Froch fits in 2009 during a split decision loss, he then out-boxed Arthur Abraham before being felled when on one knee, handing the undefeated brawler a bitterly disputed DQ reverse. Indeed, there were fears that Dirrell may be out of action for good yet Groves revealed that ‘The Matrix’ is still online.
“Dirrell was asking questions above and beyond the type that DeGale can pose so it was great and shows that when I get in the ring with DeGale it won’t be a problem. You can’t take too much away from sparring or get hung up on it but he has boxed at the highest level. I need it to improve and to get to that level, it showed it isn’t out of my reach.”
Froch recently praised George’s toughness, high praise indeed given Carl’s recent form. The two men clashed in sparring sessions last year, Groves performing well despite taking a few lumps from ‘The Cobra’.
“Comments like that show that I’m doing my job,” he revealed when asked about his rounds with Froch. “I’ve never had a problem dishing it out but was leaving myself exposed. When the red mist comes down after you get a whack you want to give one back no matter who you are sparring with so I’ve had to learn that you pick your times. You can’t just take one against Froch or Dirrell and come straight back at them without thinking because they’ll just pick you off all day long.
“You have to have a calm and controlled manner. In Miami I was in with quality operators who try to set traps for you. James will try the same tricks to rattle me and get me to throw shots I don’t want to throw so he can block them and get off with his punches but I won’t be giving him that opportunity.
“James is sparring Nathan Cleverly. I suppose that Nathan is trying to walk him down and he’ll try to deal with that. I know what I’ve got to do to beat James and sustained pressure is something that I believe will work, he won’t be able to deal with me even if I do what he wants me to do. If I decide to just walk through him then that is what will happen.”
David Coldwell, Hayemaker’s Head of Boxing, won the purse bids with a whopping £400,000 offer. Frank Warren, representing DeGale, obtained the right to stage the contest from Coldwell before setting the date and venue, much to the delight of British boxing fans and Sky TV.
“Yeah, the head-to-head on Sky TV was good,” laughed Groves. “It made people think a little bit that this is not a one horse race. Everyone thought I would become emotionally involved and rise to the bait but it was DeGale who got restless in his seat. His hands were rubbing up and down on his legs, which shows that his palms were sweating from just being that close to me.
“He even stormed off so the fact he can’t deal with being around me tells me that he won’t be able to deal with it when I’m in the ring and hitting him. His hands will be sweating even more with those gloves on.”
DeGale’s confident talk was cheered in some quarters, jeered in others. The Olympic gold medalist knows that fans respond to a ‘good guy, bad guy’ routine, he adopted the type of brash approached favored by Floyd Mayweather, James Toney and Muhammad Ali. George, though, feels that his opponent lacks the warmth of Ali, guile of Floyd and hilarious hubris of Toney.
“There is nothing meaningful behind his insults, there is no intellect behind it, he has no presence so nothing he said made an impact. If he did I’d have taken it a lot more seriously. Telling me my breath smells and then repeating the same thing again later made me think, ‘Wow, OK – if that’s the best you’ve got then you’re in for a world of pain’,” recalled Groves.
“I was putting him off big style with just my presence and he was saying stuff about my suit and tie and Hayemaker Promotions,” insisted Groves, he also used the TV spot as an opportunity to bring Sky’s Johnny Nelson to task after the former cruiserweight champion had heavily backed ‘Chunky’ in a previous episode.
He said, “Poor Johnny, he’s been getting stick from me for a while. Nelson was a little bit too friendly and too kind to DeGale of late, as are a few other public boxing figures, so he got it all at the time. I listened to a few of his comments but thought I’d just have to stop him there and let him know that he’d have a few regrets after May 21st – I did him a favor.”
As for Degale, George feels that the Sky explosion was not a ruse on the part of his opponent. “I don’t think he’s done it to sell tickets or be a pantomime villain, he is just being himself – he’s a person that people don’t like, they don’t take to him and it was like that when he was a kid,” blasted Groves.
“People didn’t buy tickets to see him fight then and they don’t much like him now. I know he thrives under pressure but this is a different sort of pressure, the pride of northwest London is at stake.
“He won’t be able to pretend to be the type of fake celebrity that he so clearly wants to be after this. He won’t be able to do that act anymore so I’m not sure where he goes from here. There won’t be a role for him on the next series of This Is Essex after I’ve done a job on him.”
George’s advocates saw the head-to-head as a KO win for their man. DeGale recently told me that the hard evidence of their respective paths points to a successful first defence of the Lonsdale belt, especially in light of George’s third round touchdown en route to a stoppage win over Kenny Anderson.
“I think people watch it and take whatever they want from it,” says Groves as the Anderson fight reared its head. “You look at from the outside and the way Kenny carries his hands and you think I got caught with silly shots and that is what DeGale probably took from it. Kenny is really underrated, he hadn’t had really big backing and I was seen as one of the best prospects in Britain before the fight so when I didn’t box to the best of my ability I was written off completely.
“People should look at my good work from before, even the good work I did in that fight. When you look at the result you see Groves stopping Anderson in six rounds. That is an impressive result over an undefeated, hungry fighter with good pedigree. Being written off on the back of that holds me in good stead because people will underestimate what I bring.
“Sometimes you have to go to war and sometimes you shouldn’t. We looked at it beforehand and knew that if we went to war with Kenny you even things up a little. I believe that my boxing ability was better and that his thing was to be a strong man, come forward and let his hands go.”
Still, Groves went against his better instincts by boxing loosely against the tough Scotsman. “I got caught with silly shots after trying to be flash and arrogant. Throwing punches that I shouldn’t throw,” he admitted.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best at being flash and arrogant – something I learned from that fight – because when he caught me my natural reaction was to punch back, putting myself in danger and going down.
“I was never concerned that I’d lose. There was no panic. I had to get on my boxing, the fourth round was rocky but then I got to him in the fifth and stopped him in the sixth. It shows that I was in trouble but came back to get the stoppage three rounds later.”
It is becoming my pre-fight mantra yet I am constantly struck by how testy these two nice guys become when discussing each other. One thing both agree on is that it all started in the amateurs and snowballed from there. James insists that Groves is jealous; George that his point’s win was not rewarded. DeGale went to the 2008 Olympics. Groves had already made his mind up to turn over by that point after one amateur snub too many.
“I was overlooked as an amateur after I beat him,” mused Groves. “I didn’t expect to get put in front of him but thought I’d get moved along to prove my worth. Given maybe a box off or invited up for sparring from time to time but I was left to rot, really, because of my age. It was a period of time where I didn’t develop.
“Without being horrible about it, I was 2007 and 2008 ABA champion and training with 15 and 16-year-olds. I should have been in the seniors, learning and working hard. I went through a phase of not improving as well as I could have. Even as an amateur, I knew I had the ability to beat him. I beat him in the ABAs and reckoned that I’d beat him every time we met. It was the case then and is the case now.”
Shades of Vernon Forrest and Shane Mosley, ‘The Viper’ beat ‘Sugar’ in both codes. Bear in mind, though, that Mike Tyson lost to Henry Tillman twice in vital amateur fights but went onto destroy the Californian in the pros. Maybe James will show that he has adapted better come the night, although George feels that his ability to beat DeGale is based on science rather than instinct.
“Sometimes you can instinctively break down a style and have someone’s number. It is a common thing but it is not the case here, it is just that I know his ability and what I need to do to beat him,” stated the 12-0 (10) fighter.
“The things he does well stand out because he’s got an awkward style but I’ve seen him over time and the only things he’s improved on are the things he was good at in the first place, he hasn’t added to his game. I know he might look good against this or that opponent, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to me because I know what I have to do to take him out.”
DeGale, 10-0 (8), has looked peerless thus far in his paid career, shining brightly during wins over Carl Dilks and Paul Smith. Justifying his decision to turn professional under the close eye of fitness fanatic Jimmy McDonnell.
“Jim has brought him along, improving on the stuff he did well anyway, but there is not a lot of variety to his game – he slaps, lets his hands go at a decent place but keeps his head low and in a strong position,” Groves opined.
“There is no real power in his punches even when he lands. He’s going to have to hit a lot harder to stop me. His defence is a block and fire defence. When he comes up against a fighter who is good at preventing him from firing he will come unstuck as the rounds go on.”
He added, “James needs opponents who don’t take him out of his comfort zone. Then he can relax, block and fire and pace himself. I’ve fought guys like that my whole life, especially in the amateurs because in some countries that is all they work on. He doesn’t seem to have anything else so I can get around that defence, it is pretty simple. It looks good when its working but when it doesn’t work he’ll be exposed.”
“I think he’s got an obsession with David Haye that I don’t quite understand,” he answered in response to DeGale’s claim that the 23-year-old is mimicking Haye. “I don’t know what his problem is with David. From day one it has been David Haye this and David Haye that – I think he must be a bit bitter about something. He is deluded.
“I signed with the Hayemaker team before he even went to the Olympics so I’m not sure where it stems from. I think he’s just worried that I can beat him in a number of different ways. One of them might be by using a lot of my boxing knowledge, which you sometimes see from David. I think he’s just trying it as a tactic to make me doubt myself, doubt my team and Adam Booth. But it is never going to work. I am one hundred percent confident in myself and my team, and what I need to do to beat DeGale.”
The stage is set, Hammersmith versus Harlesden, an all-London grudge match that will bring out more side partings and cap-and-cardie combos than a West Ham-Chelsea fixture. Things are heating up in the capital.
“Everyone is buzzing for the fight, they all want to see it,” enthused Groves. “I am pretty sure the tickets are going well because you can just log onto a website and buy them so by the time May 21st comes around there will be a vast majority of London fans there to see me win or James lose. However they see it going in they will be happy to have paid money to witness it. I just can’t wait. I’ve boxed at the O2 before but that was my debut, this time I’m co-main event on a big PPV boxing show – you can’t ask for more.”
Neither harbours thoughts of defeat. Both are looking to the task ahead but optimistic that this will be a big step in the road to world glory. “I haven’t thought about it,” insisted Groves on the subject of his next move.
“My profile will be a lot bigger after this win. It will be tough to get the fighters I was looking at before. Hopefully I’ll be at a new level, a higher level, and will have cleared up the domestic scene on my way to bigger things. But I haven’t looked at the next step, we’re concentrating fully on May 21st.”
Last week’s exclusive interview with James DeGale: https://www.boxingscene.com/james-degale-on-groves-public-perception-david-haye--38417
Sky Sport’s TV spot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjCaQvMsKbQ
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