By Daley James Francis: James Degale and George Groves will meet on May 21 at the O2 Arena in London in one of the most eagerly awaited domestic clashes for years. At stake will be the British and Commonwealth titles that both men won in their ninth pro starts, against solid champions in Paul Smith and Charles Adamu, respectively.
The fight brings to mind another classic domestic encounter between two unbeaten contenders very early in their careers.
On February 18, 1997, super-bantamweights Spencer Oliver and Patrick Mullings met at the Grundy Park Leisure Centre in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, for the Southern Area championship. It was one of the most brutal and unforgettable domestic fights of the decade.
It was – and is – a rarity when two top prospects meet so early in their careers, especially when they still have the ‘0’ on their record. It can also be damaging to the progress of a fighter, regardless of whether they are the victor in the fight itself.
With the benefit of hindsight, it can be argued that the Oliver-Mullings fight was too much too soon for both fighters, but it was a contender for fight of the year to anyone who witnessed it.
Oliver was 9-0 and Mullings was 8-0 at the time. The vacant Southern Area title was on the line, and both men wanted it. The hype surrounding both fighters was justified in the 10 rounds they fought, with Oliver winning in the tenth round with an exhausted Mullings pinned on the ropes and taking punches when referee Richard James Davies called a halt to the contest. It was a war of attrition and Oliver had outlasted his opponent.
Oliver went on to become European champion, and was being talked about as a possible opponent for a peak Naseem Hamed when he suffered a blood clot on the brain during a routine European title defence and was forced into premature retirement. He was 14-0 at the time.
Mullings was hit and miss at championship level after the bout, but won the IBO, British and Commonwealth titles over the next four years before retiring in 2001 with a record of 24 wins and 6 defeats.
It is far from unreasonable to suggest that both the victor and the loser in this fight will progress to world level. But with the bad blood between the fighters and the anticipation surrounding the fight, only what happens on the night of the 21st will matter to either of them.
They will leave it all in the ring on the night, just like Spencer Oliver and Patrick Mullings did 14 years ago, and somebody’s ‘0’ will have to go.