By Kieran Gallagher: It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when boxing regressed into the minority sport it is today. Such changes are usually subtle and gradual, a bit like the ageing process, but there can be no question that domestic interest peaked in 1990 when Nigel Benn faced Chris Eubank for the WBO middleweight title. There was a feverish excitement in the build up to that fight which transcended the mere boundaries of boxing fandom – more akin to an England world cup match - and come fight night 16.3 million people tuned in to watch. Those halcyon days have long since passed, mores the pity, but in its own way James ‘Chunky’ DeGale versus ‘Saint’ George Groves has captured the imagination of British boxing fans in a manner we rarely see anymore. Unlike the Benn-Eubank era there is no prime time ITV slot, nor mainstream cross-over appeal or even a world title at stake, but in this foul and reduced age of boxing a matchup between two highly regarded prospects - chock full of needle and local rivalry - is probably the closest we are going to get.
And it looks like it may just happen. Groves is the mandatory to DeGale’s Lonsdale belt and the BBBoC has pencilled in 9th April at London’s Olympia after their promoters – Adam Booth and Frank Warren respectively - failed to agree terms at the back end of last year. There are still whispers the fight won’t happen any time soon – it could be a lot bigger down the road – but neither man will want to lose face by backing out of a mandatory fight for the British title, especially considering their history. Both grew up a stone’s throw from each other in London and boxed out of the same amateur club, Dale Youth ABC. An intense rivalry developed, fuelled in no small part by Grove’s sense of injustice at DeGale’s favoured-son status amongst Britain’s amateur boxing hierarchy. DeGale, at two years older, was the established choice and represented Britain at international tournaments, culminating in his gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Groves - who won 66 of his 76 fights and two ABA titles - actually beat him in their only encounter, but could never dislodge his rival from the forefront of the selectors’ minds.
The needle only grew in the professional ranks as both men competed to reach the pinnacle of the domestic super middleweight division. Groves won the commonwealth title against Charles Adamu in a master-class of counter-punching and smart footwork, while DeGale made short work of British champion Paul Smith to claim the Lonsdale belt, picking him apart on the outside before stopping him in the ninth.
As the clamour grew for them to get it on, the insults flew back-and-forth. DeGale began referring to his rival as the ‘ugly ginger kid’, while Groves coined the moniker ‘James Destined to Fail’. Perhaps the best exchange occurred when Groves said: “I want to fight James Degale. He’s destined for failure. He talks a good game but once he gets in there with someone real and someone live like me then he will be on the floor. It will be like Bernard Hopkins and Kelly Pavlik. Is this the superstar everyone has built up? I know how to take him apart mentally and physically. That’s what will happen.”
DeGale shot back with the harsh-but-funny: "[George Groves] keeps using my name to get himself in the papers because, quite frankly, he’s not going to get talked about talent wise. Anyone who saw his fight with Kenny Anderson would know that he’s got about as much chance of beating me as he has winning a beauty contest. He’s been comparing himself this week to Bernard Hopkins, but he’s about as dangerous as Bernard Cribbins!"
As well as the needle and potential quality of the matchup, the interest is centred just as much around the clash of personalities. DeGale is loud, brash, arrogant and an all round big-time Charlie. He is never reticent in talking up his achievements and potential (he won a gold medal, don’t you know?), whereas Groves is a more likeable character – the type your mum would approve of. There is an unabashed childlike enthusiasm about him. His eyes light up when he talks about his heroes like Oscar De La Hoya, Green Day and Frankie Boyle and he manically bounces up and down at ringside when stable-mate David Haye scores another knockout. He is humble and will only trash-talk when DeGale is mentioned.
The British, as a rule, generally dislike Johnny Big Bollocks, so naturally many are backing Groves to send DeGale’s ego crashing down to earth, but unfortunately for them he will start as a heavy underdog. This is no small part due to his performance against unbeaten brawler Kenny Anderson. Groves had real trouble holding off the Scot with his jab and was punished time-and-again on the ropes for his non-existent defence. In the third round he was floored with a left hook and was lucky to be saved by the bell moments later. In fairness, he displayed heart and grit to turn the fight around and stop Anderson in the sixth round but his woeful defence in the face of a half-decent pressure fighter raised alarming question marks.
Meanwhile, DeGale’s contest against the tough, seasoned scouser Paul Smith - in front of a partisan Liverpool crowd - was intended to be the first real test of his career but in reality it proved a mismatch. DeGale came through with flying colours and looked every bit the Olympic gold medallist.
So DeGale will be the favourite, but regardless of the outcome it can only be good for British boxing that we have a fight on the cards which echoes a legendary match of the past like Benn vs. Eubank. The rivalry, the enmity, the trash talk... it’s all there. Groves can play Nigel Benn to DeGale’s Chris Eubank and the rest of us can simply get excited at the prospect of this eagerly awaited domestic battle.