By Cain Bradley
The rivalry that helped define British boxing more than any other over the past fifteen years has been George Groves and James DeGale. Fierce amateur rivals, who never seemed to move past their obvious disdain for one another. Throughout their careers, it was mooted as a potential fight for both men, although it only happened before either man held a world title. Both went on to achieve that feat, Groves in his fourth attempt and an incredible show of character whilst DeGale had to go abroad, fulfilling his dream to become the first British man to win an Olympic Gold Medal and hold a World Championship. With the pair retired, the legacy of both men comes into question.
It is sometimes true in the amateurs that your biggest competition can come from your own gym. Birtley currently dominates the British setup and have team-mates battling each other for coveted places, whilst West Ham has also had it in recent years. Dale Youth perhaps has the most famous example. George Groves and James DeGale. According to head coach Mick Delaney, the boys would cheer each other on. Neither of them remembers it being this way. DeGale claimed, “I never liked him and he never liked me.” DeGale was two years older and took the National title in 2005 and 2006. Groves had won four schoolboy titles and knew the clash was coming. In the 2007 London round, Groves took a debated victory, which can still be seen online. He went on to win the ABA title that year and followed it up in 2008. Still, DeGale would get the nod for the Olympics. This was after an international tournament which saw both men face the same opponents with DeGale fairing a lot better. Groves still wishes there was a box-off. The decision cannot be argued within hindsight. DeGale won the gold medal at the Olympics, a tough division with massive amateur names at time such as Derevyanchenko, Correa, Rasulov, Artayev, Korobov and Sutherland.
Perhaps this is the only thing that matters when it comes to comparing the pair. Groves got the win as a professional. The two clashes early in their careers, DeGale the British champion whilst Groves held the Commonwealth title. It was a tense buildup with DeGale labelling Groves “ugly.” Groves though deserves to be known for his ability to get in the mind of his opponent. He did it with Froch and he managed it with DeGale. Unlike the buildup, it was a tactical affair. Groves had made the big decision to box on the counter and it would pay off. DeGale lost the first half of the fight, unsure how to adapt to Groves. It started slowly but heated up throughout the middle rounds and by the final minute of each round, the two were often going for it. DeGale arguably had greater success in terms of hurting his rival and leaving his face looking worse for wear. It didn’t matter though, Groves got the win. A close majority decision, winning 115-114 on two scorecards. DeGale, as he did as an amateur, moaned at the judging but his surprise at the tactics of Groves cost him too many early rounds.
The key win came against Fedor Chudinov, in his fourth world title tilt. He stopped him in the sixth round before being overcome with emotion. Groves also managed to see off the majority of British contenders of the time, with wins over David Brophy, Martin Murray, Jamie Cox, Paul Smith and Kenny Anderson. His final win also game against a well known domestic opponent. It was Chris Eubank Jr in a World Boxing Super Series semi final. Groves showed everyone just how far Eubank had to go with a dominant performance behind a strong jab and good movement that Eubank just couldn’t live with. It was arguably his most impressive performance. Other big wins included Glen Johnson, Christopher Rebrasse and a victory that took a tragic turn against Eduard Gutknecht.
DeGale bounced back from his early loss to Groves by winning thirteen straight and arguably putting himself into the pound for pound conversation for active British boxers at one point. That was during the midst of his world title reign which started with a well-fought victory over Andre Dirrell, who famously gave Carl Froch fits. It was an underrated victory, Dirrell had only lost to Froch and many thought he won. I still believe he deserves to be world champion at some point in his career and DeGale dropped him twice. He had two successful defences, going to Canada to beat Lucian Bute by decision and then Rogelio Medina. He did win a second world title when returning to beat Caleb Truax, although most will argue that it shouldn’t have taken a second attempt for him to manage that. Other big wins mainly came before his world title reign, with victories over Paul Smith, Fulgenico Zuniga and Marco Antonio Periban.
George Groves finished with four losses in his career. All four came against boxers who were at one point were rated the top boxer in the division. Three of those came in the domestic bouts that seemed to dominate his career. First up was Carl Froch. The buildup was legendary, with Groves showing an ability to get inside the head of an opponent that was arguably unmatched by any British boxer during this time. He told Froch he’d put him down early and he did, with a massive overhand right and had him in trouble. His speed gave Froch trouble throughout the fight but as he wore down, he was controversially stopped in the ninth round. With many believing the referee had stopped the bout prematurely a rematch was fought. I will refrain from making a Carl Froch joke, but the two sold 80,000 Wembley seats.
Once again Groves looked to be doing well, but Froch landed the punch of his career with a huge right hand leaving Groves out on the canvas. He was also finished in his final fight, fittingly another domestic clash, against Callum Smith. He was arguably ahead when the younger, stronger Smith finally got to him and finished the fight in the seventh. Groves also had to deal with the mental demons of inflicting great damage to Eduard Gutknecht. His other defeat came against Badou Jack, who was probably underrated when the two clashed. He was dropped in the first round but rebounded to push Jack all the way, barely losing a debatable split decision.
Badou Jack also fought DeGale in a unification bout. It was probably the best bout of his career. He dropped Jack in the first round and went to war with a dangerous foe. He himself tasted the canvas in the final round, which cost him the win, as it was scored a draw. It probably ruined DeGale, he never looked the same after that defeat. His only defeat prior to that had been when he was relatively inexperienced against George Groves. His other two losses came during his final four fights.
After his battle with Badou Jack, he arguably returned too quickly, for what was considered an easy defence against Caleb Truax. He didn’t really perform that night and Truax punished him on the ropes to take a shocking upset victory. His final loss came in his likely final bout, against Chris Eubank Jr. Headlining a big o2 card, DeGale was dropped twice and often looked on wobbly legs as Eubank was just too powerful for him at that stage of his career. Even then though, DeGale showed signs. He had rounds where his sheer boxing brain allowed him to get the best of Eubank. DeGale often struggled with injuries, it was clear they had zapped him for that final fight against Eubank whilst you could also put the Truax loss down to not being 100%.
Groves is probably given the most credit for fights when he lost, against Carl Froch. Twice he gave a legend of British boxing and the Super Middleweight division hell. I had him ahead when stopped in both fights, the first ending somewhat controversially whilst the second saw the best punch of Froch’s career. In losing to Froch, his reputation only enhanced and perhaps he was unfortunate to be around whilst the division arguably had its strongest set of champions. Then against Eubank, he displayed the boxing skill that we all knew he had. He was dominant as an underdog, outthinking and out-jabbing the young lion who could probably go on to be a world champion. Even in defeat against Callum Smith, it was the sheer power of the man, not the boxing ability that seemed to overcome him. Maybe a younger Groves would have dealt better with it, either by having the ability to get him way out of trouble or a greater resiliency.
James DeGale was probably underrated in Britain due to his nomadic title reign. His stand out performance against Badou Jack was shown after midnight on Sky Sports in the United Kingdom, as were the rest of his world title fights. It becomes hard to build up a following outside of prime time. That performance against Jack was one for the ages. He showed his boxing ability, which DeGale had always shown flashes of, however arguably too sporadically. He also showed his determination and heart which some had called into question at times throughout his career. He seemed to often flatter to deceive, maybe more because of the obvious talent he has. He would do it in fights, going through stages where he would look unboxable to looking easy to hit and unmotivated.
To some extent this comes down to a matter of personal performance. It seems impossible to say whose career was better. Groves is a world champion who beat DeGale and had some of the most memorable fights in British boxing. DeGale became the first man to win Olympic Gold and a World Title, setting a path that would be followed by Anthony Joshua. How do you separate it?
To some extent maybe George Groves had the number of DeGale. He had the amateur win against him, despite being the younger, unfancied boxer and also got the win as a professional. It was tight and you still see arguments that DeGale deserves the win. However, at the end of the day, Groves has the edge. A rematch with both closer to their prime would have been an outstanding watch. Perhaps you can apportion more blame to DeGale that it never happened, given his nomadic ways. He never rebuilt his stock in England to the masses, meaning the rivalry never seemed to re-reach the fever pitch that others did. Perhaps though, the timing just never worked. George Groves entered their World Boxing Super Series, a commendable decision given he was already a World Champion. Maybe the perfect time was instead of the Badou Jack fight that Groves lost. DeGale has not long become champion
Alas, we will never see it, so the upper hand will always remain with Groves in terms of the head to head matchup.
Elsewhere, the resumes becomes incredibly similar. The major common opponent was Badou Jack, who DeGale looked better against. Groves did not look poor by any means, but DeGale took Jack to hell and back, arguably neither of them remaining the same. Another common opponent was Chris Eubank. Groves was really good in defeating him but DeGale went down disappointingly. DeGale looked like he was no longer at his best whilst the Groves the comfortably defeated him was probably closer to his best. If you put DeGale in his prime, I still favour him over Eubank.
I did that night and think the gap only gets bigger as you bring him closer to his prime. A win against Dirrell can be looked at favourably compared to a win over Eubank, but many observers will see it the other way. Chudinov, Murray, Johnson and Smith are all good wins for Groves but DeGale arguably looks a little stronger with Bute, Medina, Zuniga and Smith on the resume. It does become splitting hairs. It’s the losses where DeGale looks worse. He lost to Eubank as we have touched upon, whilst the Caleb Traux loss is still unexplainable. Groves’ losses read a lot better, with Callum Smith a fighter on the up who could dominate this division for a while, the Badou Jack split decision defeat and his classics with Carl Froch. George Groves only lost to fighters who were considered great champions and beat everyone else he fought with great style.
Groves also will likely receive an edge in the eyes of fans because he was such a presence in the British boxing spotlight. The early clash with DeGale saw both men featured heavily in the press, including a classic ringside clip which I have saved in my favourites on Twitter just in case, I ever wish to relive it. After that though. DeGale was in the spotlight much less than Groves, fighting abroad outside of prime time. The fights between Froch and Groves played a massive role in the explosion of British boxing and Matchroom. It showed that fans would flock to a football stadium for the event of boxing and is still one of the last times that a lot of my friends less interested in boxing, gathered to watch a British fighter who was not a heavyweight.
That will have an impact on the legacy of Groves only growing competitively as we move further away from their careers. Groves was also more popular throughout his career, although perhaps one of the most heartwarming moments in recent British boxing history came as James DeGale realised he was being applauded at the o2 Arena, as opposed to the boos he has often found himself on the end of from the British fans. Maybe neither man remains massive in the future of British boxing. Neither would be described as a Matchroom shill but to the same extent, I struggle to imagine seeing them on Frank Warren’s show. Groves has shown value as a pundit whilst DeGale has also been a good talker and seems the type of fighter who should have an eye for the sport.
Ultimately it feels unfair to bring up the legacy of one without using the other as a reference point. The story of British boxing’s boom could arguably begin with them both as amateurs before continuing on a through-line using Groves to show the Matchroom boom and DeGale arguably setting a new path, willing to go abroad with or without the fans. The Olympic success sets DeGale apart but Groves has edges in the quality of performances as a professional, only losing to the best and being part of some wonderful nights of boxing as well as having the edge when it comes to head to head matchups.
At their respective peaks as professionals, I rated DeGale higher on my pound for pound list than I ever did Groves which came after the performance against Jack. Perhaps that summarises the legacies. DeGale reached higher peaks, whilst Groves produced a higher level more consistently and also has the two wins. At the end of the day, it is razor-thin and probably comes down to personal preference. I always preferred Groves and I do think his overall career will be looked on with more fondness. Neither reaches the levels of some of Britain’s best super middleweights; Froch, Calzaghe and Eubank. However, rather than comparing the legacies of the pair perhaps their legacies should be about the massive part them and their unforgettable rivalry played in the British boxing boom.