There are two big fish aggressively swimming around the claustrophobic pond that is Frank Warren’s stable. Two big fish that desperately dislike each other and are on an inevitable collision course, their fates entwined.
They both keep denying it, but – at least for now – James DeGale and George Groves need each other. More than that, British boxing needs them to need each other.
At a rather uneasy press conference on Thursday, Warren announced that the best two English fighters on his books will “joint-top” a bill of fights on December 9 at the Excel Arena. As DeGale defends his WBO Intercontinental super-middleweight title, Groves will attempt to retain the British and Commonwealth straps at the same weight.
If the phrasing was clumsy – obviously, only one of the bouts will headline the night – the promoter’s intention was precise, even before he came clean.
“Unfortunately for me, they aren’t fighting each other,” Warren admitted. “I would like them to meet as soon as possible but it’s not my call, it’s up to them. I just hope we can get them together at some point to see who is going to hold all of the belts.”
Such anticipation and motivation to bring the pair together again, though slightly money-driven on Warren’s part, is entirely justifiable. After all, their tumultuous twelve-round tussle at the O2 Arena back in May, not to mention the vitriolic months of build-up beforehand, was captivating. Groves deservedly scraped to triumph that night on the narrowest of split decisions, but a sense of finality was absent. Closure has not been reached yet.
Like that of Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn before them (though undeniably not at the same level), the tenacious, yet charismatic rivalry of DeGale and Groves is founded in their glaringly distinct personalities, which have predictably given way to a dichotomy of boxing styles.
A glittering, fleet-fisted amateur career brought DeGale a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but came at a cost as the Harlesden-born southpaw garnered a complacent sense of entitlement. Where ‘Chunky’ could look back at classy performances inside the ring in the run up to the Groves clash, he was unrefined during media commitments, regurgitating surly trash-talk and repeatedly calling his opponent “an ugly, ginger kid.”
Always dressed in a suit, ‘The Saint’ was quietly confident. Buoyed by brutal sparring sessions with Andre Dirrell in Miami, Adam Booth’s pragmatic guidance within the haven of Hayemaker Promotions and a contentious win over DeGale before either man turned professional. Yet no bravado passed his lips.
Touching gloves before the first bell, Groves was steely-eyed, while his debatably more talented adversary seemed jittery and nervous. Over the course of a heady battle, trust in Booth’s tactics and an iron resolve brought vindication for the 23 year-old. As the scorecards were read out, a huge roar filled the arena, saluting the new British and Commonwealth champion with Mars, the Roman god of war, aptly tattooed on his torso.
Since that night, the warriors have had to recharge, but, as destiny seems to decree, have kept a close proximity. Following David Haye’s retirement and the discontinuation of Hayemaker Promotions, Groves made the surprising move over to Warren’s supervision in August, a banner under which DeGale already resided.
Two months later, a brave promotional gamble was rewarded with DeGale’s capture of the European title in Liverpool. However, where a frantically ragged points decision against Piotr Wilczewski exposed some grit, it also showed that his best days will be probably realised without the confusing influence of Jim McDonnell.
Last weekend, as Groves dismantled the feckless challenge of Paul Smith inside two rounds, he reiterated the path that is mapped out for him, one that is parallel to that of his nearest and dearest enemy, but only up to a point.
Respective defences on December 9 will, as Warren cooed last week, isolate DeGale and Groves at the summit of the super-middleweight division as far as continental competition is concerned. Tragically, for those in tune with the modern fashion of preserving a fighter’s record, it is likely that they will come together at that juncture to discern who is best-suited to progress to the world stage.
Of course, that is far easier said than done, especially given the supreme traffic-jam of quality in the division on a global scale. The Super Six World Boxing Classic has thrown up some fascinating encounters, with Nottingham’s Carl Froch and Andre Ward competing in the final on December 17 to decide the fate of WBC and WBA belts. IBF champion Lucian Bute is still unbeaten in 30 contests, while there are also a number of hardened veterans lower down the pecking order, such as Kelly Pavlik and Robert Stieglitz, who would love to pick off a young Englishman.
In short, the next instalment of DeGale-Groves has more than mere pride on the line, as it is likely to grant the victor, in coming years, a route through to the higher stakes of worldwide recognition. The loser faces the terrifying prospect of relative obscurity.
Entering Frank Warren’s website, you are greeted with an advert for the night of December 9. Pictures of DeGale and Groves both feature, next to a hastily-drawn up logo reading: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
It is a statement that is cruelly true, but they need each other to prove it.