Friday, 20 May 2011

Groves and DeGale stir up old memories...

One of the perceived problems in modern boxing that causes irritation to many fans of the sport is the failure of the best to meet each other when it matters. The on-off Pacquaio vs Mayweather fight is the most recent example of bouts that undeniably should have been made but somehow managed to fall through the sport's political cracks.

As is often the case in all walks of life, issues are made worse when a competitor is seen to be the antithesis of everything that is bad about you. In the case of boxing, the threat comes from the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) whose entire ethos centres around the best mixed martial artists on the planet doing battle with each other. Walkover exhibition fights are virtually unheard of, good competitors meet opponents of roughly equal ability and the elite invariably face each other in reasonable time, with one and only one champion at each weight.

Maybe those behind the lauch of UFC as a global attraction had the benefit of watching the decline of the noble art as a mainstream sport here and in the US and saw a blueprint presented to them of what not to do. There will be always be mugs like myself who will tune in to watch a fight if and when at all possible. However, retaining the casual fan who makes the difference in terms of the marketability of the sport means pitting champion against champion and prospect against prospect.

There appears to be a modern misconception that when a fighter's zero goes from the loss column on his record, he is somehow a busted flush who has no future. What UFC has demonstrated to boxing is that a defeat to a well-regarded opponent carries no shame, and there is no reason why a man prepared to do the sort of training that only fighters do can return to the ring both physically and mentally stronger. After all, that's what becoming a champion is about, yeah? Bouncing back from setbacks and avenging losses. With that in mind, the meeting of James DeGale and George Groves on Saturday night can only be considered a step in the right direction.

Although both Groves and DeGale are unbeaten as professionals, there is certainly a revenge thread running through their eagerly anticipated contest for the British and Commonwealth SuperMiddleweight titles. It goes back to an amateur bout between the pair in 2006, in which Groves won what was a close and competitive points decision en route to an ABA title. DeGale subsequently made the British Olympic team, and produced a superb display of accurate and silky counter-punching to bring home a gold medal.

In the paid ranks, Groves' more aggressive, come-forward style seemed early on to be more of a natural fit. In many ways, this is a different sport to the one in which the participants wear headgear and score only one point for sending an opponent to the canvas. However, over time, DeGale's classy and snappy punching has caught the eye, most notably when he ripped the British title from Paul Smith with a clinical ninth round stoppage. Groves looked impressive when he claimed the Commonwealth strap by stopping 'King' Charles Adamu, a man who once took current WBC champion Carl Froch the full twelve. However, in his next fight against the tough but limited Scot, Kenny Anderson, Groves was dropped for the first time in his career as he appeared somewhat lost in the opening rounds. Despite rallying superbly to end it in the sixth, this appeared to be the night went DeGale was seen to have overtaken him.

But there is still a good argument to be made for either man winning here, as should be the case in all contests billed as headline attractions. What adds to the spice of the bout is the aftermath of that amateur encounter, and the bad blood that clearly exists between the pair. 'The best at the olympics and the second best in his own gym' is a comment aimed at DeGale ever since his gold which has clouded the scale of what was a massive achievement on his part. While 'Chunky's determination to outshine Groves in the pro game is clear, his sense of angst and bitterness to the man he calls "ugly kid", along with a trash-talking style, has made him something akin to a heel character in the awful choreographed 'wrestling' that kids watch.

Groves, known as 'the Saint', has been slightly less vocal on the personal side, but has made light in the build-up of DeGale's refusal to shake hands with him after that amateur contest, and it becomes quite apparent from hearing both that neither man is particularly fond of the other. One gets the sense that in situations like this, the punches acquire a certain extra degree of meaning, as real human emotion sits behind them at least in part. Fights between two people who do not like each other tend to be epic and sometimes brutal affairs, with the outcome often resting on which man can best detach himself from ill-feeling towards their opponent. Fans of British boxing in particular will know that this is something we have seen before.

Nigel Benn, a former soldier who loved what he referred to as 'a good old fashioned tear up' remains one of the most exciting fighters to have ever hailed from these shores. At the start of his professional career, he racked up 22 straight victories by early knockout, with the most famous of these showing everything that was both good and bad about his style. When Jamaica's Anthony Logan challenged Benn for his recently-won Commonwealth title, he proceded to completely outbox 'the Dark Destroyer' for the best part of two rounds.

Benn was dropped in the first and appeared to be in serious trouble in the second, with the referee clearly giving visible consideration to stopping the fight. Somehow, showing the raw heart and concussive power for which he was known, he pulled a saloon bar left hook starting somewhere near his left ankle from which Logan stood no chance of beating the count. For all his clear technical limitations, the fight game was in Benn's blood, and his will to win was never shown more than in his epic yet tragic encounter with Gerald McLellan in 1995. Knocked out of the ring in the first, Benn drummed up everything he had within him to force an ending in the tenth that was at first glorious and shortly afterwards became horrific, as the extent of the hard-hitting 'G-Man's injuries became apparent.

Christopher Livingstone Eubank was an altogether different proposition. A formerly prolific shoplifter who had moved to the States to turn his life around, he saw boxing as the best means he had of making a legitimate living and providing for his family. Eubank once described the sport as "a mug's game" and had a particular dislike for some of its more unsavoury and brutal aspects. He was a unique type of fighter, in fact he referred to himself not as a fighter at all but as a pugilist specialist. The eccentric dressing up as an aristocrat with monacle and cane, the slow strut to the ring to the sound of 'Simply the Best' (which he later took as his nickname) , and the vault over the ropes before posing to the crowd were the mark of a showman, one determined to extract as much money as he could from a sport he cared little for in reality.

Like Benn, Eubank had a tragedy of his own that clearly played on his conscience. When he pulled victory from the jaws of defeat by flattening Michael Watson with an uppercut and a left hook from the bowels of hell in 1991, the injuries subsequently caused to his opponent undeniably had an effect on a man whose ability to pull such punches from nowhere had been critical to his success. Eubank appeared frightened of using his own tools in subsequent fights, as his frightening early KO record gave way to a string of points victories, many of them tedious affairs that were too close for comfort against 'safe' opposition.

The contrast between the two men produced a chemistry ahead of their first meeting in November 1990 that was clearly about more than just the fight itself. Such was the clear hatred from Benn in particular towards his rival that one wonders if the low blow he landed you-know-where in the sixth really was an accident or not. Eubank puts his ability to win that fight down to his ability to remain calm and professional, and it was an overhand right on this occasion that did the damage. Benn was staggered, battered in the corner, stopped by the ref, and visibly devastated by the fact that the man he saw as his nemesis had taken his WBO middleweight title. Though Eubank never expressed any fondness for Benn, it should be noted that he always stopped well short of saying he hated him.

By 1993, much had changed. Both men now competed in the 12 stone SuperMiddleweight division that Groves and DeGale do battle in on Saturday. Eubank won the WBO strap with that victory over Watson, while Benn had travelled to Italy to slash local fighter Mauro Galvano to ribbons to prise the WBC title from him on a cuts stoppage. The calls for a rematch and a unification fight were eventually met, with 45,000 packing into Old Trafford to watch it. Like many sequels, it did not quite live up to the drama and intensity of the original, but was still a compelling contest. A point deducted from Benn for low blows would prove costly as the fight was scored a draw.

Both men went away with a portion of the title each, and a third episode in the saga, though rumoured, never quite materialised. Eubank, arguably a fighter already in decline, lost his title to 'the Celtic Warrior' Steve Collins in Ireland a matter of weeks after the Benn-McLellan war that ended the competitive careers of both men. Like his rival, Benn would end with two losses to the vastly under-rated Collins on his CV. Still, none of this could take away from the video reel that the pair of them had managed to leave in our heads. Unlike the stars of today, the majority of their careers could be seen on terrestrial television, guaranteeing name recognition and mass exposure.

The fact that they were clearly not friends only served to create further intrigue - at the time I preferred Benn for his more exciting style, and show me a person living in Britain at the time who says he liked both equally, and I'll show you a liar. Everyone I knew took one side or the other, although it is of course possible to respect a fighter you do not necessarily like. Before that Old Trafford rematch in 1993, the two had appeared on a 'chat show' dubbed 'the Best of Enemies', presented, interestingly enough by Jonathan Ross. Benn talks glowingly of his rival's durability and ringcraft before stating clearly upon being asked, "yeah I do hate him". This was not staged for the benefit of television, it was genuine.

One can only hope that regardless of who wins on Saturday, this is a fight in which both have their moments and neither emerges an emphatic and one-sided victor. Real sporting rivalries that have an edge beyond the game itself are rare in an age where such differences are embellished or exaggerated by television companies looking to sell pay-per-view subscriptions. It is fantastic to see two prospects, both of whom have the potential to go much further in the sport, risking their unbeaten records at a stage where they could easily be managed down a safer route towards a tilt at a more illustrious title. This fight could well be the first of two or three between the pair, and if they catch the public's imagination one tenth as much as Benn and Eubank did, then it is something well worth looking forward to.

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