Updated: Jul 6, 2020
by Michael Walsh
The careers of James DeGale and George Groves were as intertwined as you will find anywhere in amateur and professional boxing. Both fighters plied their trade at the Dale Youth boxing club, which was sadly later destroyed by the Grenfell Tower tragedy in Ladbroke Grove. Their rivalry developed from that local boxing club to the Great Britain team and then onto the global stage in the super-middleweight division. Rivalries like this, genuine animosity with a history dating back to their teenage years, just do not come about in boxing very often and the fact that both men were able to go on to operate and reign at world level is a remarkable story in itself.
Under the tutelage of Mick Delaney, both fighters were developing into fine prospects at youth level, winning respective national titles, but it became clear that despite DeGale’s two-year age advantage, they couldn’t be kept apart forever. In the 2007 ABA championships, the two met in the final of the North-west London divisional championships at Brent Town Hall, an inevitable meeting which would also crown the unofficial king of Dale Youth. After a close fight, Groves was granted a majority points division, much to DeGale’s dismay and that was the end of a civil relationship between the pair, kept apart and boxing on different schedules from that point on.
Despite Groves winning the ABA title that year and defending it again in 2008, it was the Harlesden fighter DeGale who would be selected to represent Britain at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, a decision which left Groves furious as he claimed the victory over him and demanded another box off for the position. However, DeGale would enjoy a remarkable campaign, upsetting the odds to win the middleweight Gold medal. They even held a party for him at Dale Youth to celebrate the outstanding achievement. This made DeGale hot property as he was turning pro with Frank Warren, enjoying a wave of media attention as he was about to make his way in the paid ranks.
Meanwhile, Groves would enter the professional game under David Haye’s Hayemaker Promotions stable, still with bags of promise and hope, but more subtly. While both men were on their separate journeys, it was clear they were on a collision course from day one.
Not surprisingly, both fighters enjoyed unbeaten starts to their careers and would pick up titles fairly quickly. Ever in competition with each other, Groves would claim the Commonwealth super-middleweight title in just his ninth fight against Charles Adamu while DeGale would dismantle Paul Smith for the British super-middleweight title, also in his ninth outing.
The announcement of the fight between these unbeaten, burgeoning stars came as quite a surprise to the boxing world with many feeling that it was coming too soon in their journeys while they were still learning the rigours of the professional game. Warren countered by arguing that it made sense business wise there and then and that fights like this keep boxing alive and capture the imagination of the British public. He would add that this could be the making of a rivalry which could eclipse that of Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank.
The media run to promote the fight was as eventful as you can imagine with these two characters and it included a now-infamous episode of Ringside on Sky Sports where they fired shot after shot at each other. It was the manner of DeGale’s victory over Smith, a game, experienced and well-respected opponent which made him a slight favourite heading into the clash against Groves. However, it was a fight that split the public and one which nobody was entirely confident in calling.
The atmosphere at the O2 Arena was electric as Groves put his Commonwealth title up against DeGale’s British for a unification fight after just 22 fights between the pair.
The first round started predictably cagey but DeGale looked noticeably more comfortable in the fight as he claimed the centre of the ring and backed Groves up with the southpaw jab looking razor-sharp. Groves enjoyed a couple of good combinations early in the second round, while DeGale continued to apply pressure undeterred but seemed unable to get find the target early on while Groves continued to enjoy his own success fighting on the back foot. DeGale ended a relatively quiet third round stronger which may have just been enough to steal it for some as he continued to walk Groves down fearlessly.
The fourth saw some real clever boxing from Groves, boxing beautifully on the backfoot as DeGale seemed unable to show anything for the work he was putting in to back Groves up. He did, however, land a stinging left hook midway through the round but Groves managed to negate any more substantial damage. The fifth round was somewhat uneventful but DeGale managed to land more and he would have taken confidence from his best round of the fight since the first. The sixth round saw a change in approach from DeGale, surrendering the centre of the ring and allowing Groves to manoeuvre around him. It seemed to work as DeGale landed a big left hook on the back foot, and it was followed up with some more good work to the body. Degale finished the sixth with a sharp straight left as he continued to switch between an orthodox and southpaw stance.
Round seven saw DeGale find more success with long, looping straight left hands but it was starting to look apparent that both fighters were reluctant to really commit and put punches together. Groves was again enjoying some success on the counter but he did eat another good left at the end of the round which forced him to retreat. In between rounds, Adam Booth told Groves that it was now to step up it as it seemed there was another layer to Groves’ game plan. We finally saw some exchanges between the pair in the eighth which you would have to say went DeGale’s way but he continued to have issues with Groves’ movement. The ninth saw DeGale finally put some punches together, working to the head and body and it came with instant success as moments later he hurt Groves with a peach of a left hook which sent the Hammersmith man stumbling back and doing well to stay on his feet before the bell saved him from any further damage.
Groves did exactly what he needed to do in the tenth, he settled himself down again and produced some good work to DeGale’s body to try and slow him down. DeGale couldn’t seem to build on the momentum he built in the ninth and Groves showed real heart to fire back. DeGale continued to walk down Groves and he popped off some more left hooks, certainly the more quality work in the penultimate round which was enough to win it. Both corners seemed adamant their fighter needed to win the last round of the fight to secure the win as we went into a tense finale. DeGale landed the cleaner work midway through the last session but there was a reluctance from both fighters to really let their hands go and risk all the work they’d already put in. DeGale continued to put more combinations together and he looked the stronger fighter coming down the home stretch, although Groves finished the fight with a flurry of shots on the bell.
As the final bell rung, both fighters predictably raised their arm in the confidence of a victory after an edgy, gruelling encounter.
My scorecard – James DeGale 115 – 113 George Groves
The official scorecard – George Groves Majority Points Decision
It was a case of déjà vu with the decision, the result of this fight bearing much resemblance to their amateur scrap at Brent Town Hall with DeGale left furious at the result and Groves jubilant. I think DeGale had every reason to feel aggrieved with the conclusion; he was the aggressive fighter, he looked physically stronger and he landed the cleanest and biggest shots in the fight. Groves did fight well on the back foot and kept to a game plan but I did not feel he did enough to steal the close rounds, of which there were many in fairness.
The decision certainly polarised the audience as many, including Jim Watt on Sky Sports commentary, felt DeGale shaded proceedings by a round. However, most were also quick to credit Adam Booth for such a shrewd game plan and George Groves on his ability to implement it against arguably the more talented boxer.
Frank Warren, who promoted DeGale, was hoping for an immediate rematch, saying “The general consensus seems to be that James won the fight, so they should order a rematch. One way or another that fight will happen again. If it doesn't happen, George Groves should be ashamed of himself. I haven't found one person who thought George won that fight and I'm sure he's got a lot of pride and he wouldn't want it to be like that. I'm sure he wants his victory to be an emphatic one.”
Those were strong words, matched by Jim McDonell, who said that after seeing the scorecards, all three judges awarded Groves the last round which swayed the fight in the Hammersmith man’s favour. He said: “Now if you speak to anyone in boxing – in America, London, Scotland, Ireland, Torquay or Birmingham – they’ll tell you that James DeGale won the last round. I’ve had it looked at professionally by three respected referees, I’m not going to name names because I don’t want to put them in trouble, and they all say James DeGale won the last round.”
Groves was quick to dismiss talk of a rematch; ‘I've always said, once I've finished with James DeGale I've cleared up the domestic scene and I'm looking at bigger and better things. Possibly I can see it happening a few years down the line, when we've both got different versions of the world title. He's got a good promoter, I'm sure he can get there, he'll just have to take a different route from me. I'm taking a more direct one.”
George Groves would take that direct route, he racked up six impressive wins on the way to a colossal all-British showdown with Carl Froch for the WBA and IBF super-middleweight titles, another fight which penetrated mainstream sport and captured the imagination of the most casual of fans. Groves equipped himself excellently in the fight, knocking Froch down in the first round before infamously being stopped prematurely in the ninth round by ref Howard Foster.
DeGale would have to rebuild and he did so quietly, fighting on some small shows in the wilderness before returning on the undercard of Froch v Groves II at Wembley where he beat Brandon Gonzales and staked a claim at the IBF title which Froch would later vacate after knocking Groves out conclusively in their rematch.
DeGale would go on to capture that vacant IBF title on the road in America against Andre Dirrell with a classy performance, pipping Groves to claiming a world title. Groves would go on to win the vacant WBA title against Fedor Chudinov, winning the big one at his fourth attempt as both men realised their dreams of winning world titles.
It is remarkable to think that DeGale and Groves went from countless sparring sessions at Dale Youth, an eagerly awaited amateur bout at Brent Town Hall, a grudge match at the O2 in front of nearly twenty thousand people to running the show in the super-middleweight division at world level – their pugilistic lives ran parallel with each other.
While they probably won’t appreciate me putting a positive slant on their relationship, it is rare to find a pair of fighters with such history between them and such natural chemistry together inside and outside the ring. While we can argue until the cows come home about who should have been given the nod in their grudge match, the real travesty is that we never got another fight or two between these best of enemies.