by Geoff Poundes
British super-middleweights are ten-a-dozen, or so it seems, harking back to the halcyon days of the Nigel Benn/Chris Eubank/Steve Collins/ Michael Watson era, when those four warriors monopolised the division and took part in a series of battles that matched the Hearns/Leonard/Hagler/Duran rivalry of a few years before.
Joe Calzaghe picked up the mantle, winning and defending the WBO title across ten years and twenty defences, before Carl Froch recently blazed a trail until he came up short against Andre Ward last year in the final of the Super Six.
A new generation of 168 pounders is now coming through, headed by the Beijing Olympic champion, James Degale. At 26 years of age Degale has proved something of an enigma in the professional ranks, despite having compiled an 11-1, 8 KO record since 2009. Degale’s public persona has got the Londoner into hot water on several occasions, and the great British public have failed to take him to their hearts, despite (and perhaps because of) his Olympic success. Degale suffers from the same perception that plagues Amir Khan in the UK – that amateur achievement has afforded them professional riches far too soon and without them having paid any dues. Degale topped that perception off in the early part of his career by advertising himself as a golden boy with attitude, and was genuinely shocked when he was loudly booed to the ring on his professional debut in Birmingham just six months after bringing home the much sought after medal.
In that debut and perhaps in answer to that reception, Degale performed poorly against journeyman Vepkhia Tchilaia, despite winning easily enough. Over his next seven contests he began to give indications of his true class, before confirming it when taking the British super-middleweight title from seasoned hard-man Paul Smith, when he thoroughly out-boxed the Liverpool man on his home turf, stopping him in the ninth round. Degale’s display that night seemed to suggest he had all the tools to make it to the very top.
So when it was announced that James would defend his title against arch-nemesis George Groves in May 2011, most of the cognoscenti were clear that Degale should have the edge. Groves had defeated Degale narrowly as an amateur and had made great play of the victory throughout his own professional career which to that point had seen him amass twelve wins, and no losses. The two fighters had swapped various insults over the previous two years, and in the build-up to the fight, Degale took the trash-talk to a new level, allowing his naturally brash persona to spill over into puerility and bad taste. Groves, meanwhile, maintained a quiet composure throughout so that by fight night at the O2 Arena in London, the vast majority of the crowd stood behind Groves. During the fight, Degale was strangely subdued, and Groves’s wily trainer Adam Booth had devised a game-plan based around his man’s ability to move in and out and alter distance, so that the usually impeccably balanced Degale simply couldn’t get set. As a result, Groves frustrated Degale over twelve rounds and walked off with a still disputed majority decision. The verdict continues to rankle with Degale.
Despite the loss, in his next contest Degale was given an opportunity to fight for the European 167 pound title, against the experienced Pole, Piotr Wilczewski, again in Liverpool. Degale came through some ugly moments in the fight, and had to dig deep at times, but eked out a slim majority decision over the tough Wilczewski, who has since gone on to lose widely to Arthur Abraham a month ago.
Degale is scheduled to defend his European crown this Saturday night away from home in Denmark against former WBC champion Cristian Sanava, but in truth he’s only got eyes on a rematch with Groves. Rumour has it that now that Groves has pulled out of his May challenge for Robert Stieglitz’s WBO title Degale could possibly forego the Sanavia fight and step into the breach. Should he do so he’ll be favoured to beat the not-so-highly regarded German champion.
Should that happen then Degale versus Groves II would become an all-British world title affair, and with the bad blood, the long-time rivalry, and the excellence of the first fight, box office records could well tumble.