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.