Alex Boyd on the challenge facing DeGale force in Boston tonight
Having taken just nine fights to add the British super-middleweight title to his Beijing Olympic gold medal, if someone had told James DeGale that he’d have to wait nearly five years for a world title shot, he’d most probably have laughed profusely and waited for the men in white coats to arrive.
However, that’s precisely the predicament that has befallen the 29-year-old Londoner ahead of this evening’s stateside tilt at the vacant IBF crown against Michigan stylist Andre Dirrell. Back in December 2010, the slippery Harlesden southpaw had just wiped the floor with then Lonsdale belt holder Paul Smith in his Liverpool backyard as he gazed across the domestic boxing landscape with child-like zest and enthusiasm.
Fast forward six months, and DeGale’s outlook had changed immeasurably thanks to a shock loss to Georges Groves. His fierce amateur rival, hailing from the same Repton amateur gym, had repeated his amateur win over DeGale, and taken not only his ‘0’ but a large slice of pride on that vociferous night at London’s O2 Arena in May 2011. What’s more, James’ disparaging behaviour towards the Hammersmith man in the lead up to their vitriolic clash, had lost him many a fan.
Having headlined that Sky Box Office bill in the Docklands, DeGale soon found himself in the bizarre position of fighting in sparsely populated PE Gyms and dreary night clubs; losing his way and motivation with startling velocity. Yes he was still winning and in front of a terrestrial television audience of millions on Channel Five, thanks to his deal with Mick Hennessy, but he was looking distinctly average in the process. Clearly, Hennessy’s ambitions didn’t match his own.
Having already disposed of Frank Warren’s promotional gambits shortly after his loss to Groves in early 2012; Hennessy was shown the same exit door two years hence. DeGale belatedly signed for Eddie Hearn’s rapidly expanding Matchroom Boxing stable in spring 2014 and the rest is history. Hearn had finally got his man having failed to land the Olympic gold medallist’s sought-after signature on two previous occasions in 2008 and in 2012.
This weekend, the Harlesden portsider will attempt to go where no other British Olympic champions have gone, and finally win an elusive world title. If he’s to climb boxing’s ultimate summit, he must topple the highly-skilled American on foreign turf in Boston.
IBF welterweight ruler Kell Brook may have recently proved this not to be an insurmountable obstacle when outpointing the much-fancied Shawn Porter in Carson, California last summer, but make no mistake, this is a far cry from a fistic formality.
That Dirrell’s younger brother Anthony lost his WBC super-middleweight crown in a minor upset against Badou Jack last month, has added an intriguing sub-plot to this weekend’s east coast proceedings. Andre takes huge inspiration from his boxing sibling who bravely fought off a life-threatening cancer scare to win the iconic green world title strap against the teek-tough, but hugely ungainly Sakio Bika in August last year. Simply put, he’s fighting not just for himself, but for a proud Dirrell boxing family in Massachusetts on Saturday night.
It’s easy to forget that Dirrell gave Carl Froch a world of trouble in his Nottingham fortress in 2009 before losing a controversial split decision to the spiteful Cobra. A decision which many seasoned observers thought he was fortunate to receive. At times, he made Froch look amateurish as the former WBA and IBF super-middleweight king’s wild wind-milling repeatedly hit thin air as Dirrell sent Carl on a merry dance across every inch of the squared circle. The Michigan man’s fighting style may have been a fraction negative that night, but his reflexes and defensive acumen were impeccable.
However, for all Dirrell’s obvious attributes, regular ring activity is not one of them. Indeed, the 31-year-old has fought just five times since that points reverse to Froch. Whilst this looks a damning indictment on paper, it’s through no fault of his own.
Having bossed Arthur Abraham over 10 illuminating rounds in March 2010 as a hefty 7/4 underdog, an untimely slip in the eleventh round changed the course of his entire career. The German-based Armenia’s illegal swipe to Dirrell’s temple when the latter was on his haunches, prematurely ended the contest, with Abraham disgraced and rightly disqualified.
Following that fateful blow, Dirrell was forced to withdraw from Showtime’s brilliant Super Six tournament on medical grounds, citing repeated headaches and dizziness. His semi-final clash with the tournament’s eventual victor Andre Ward had been scuppered. Indeed, the worrying neurological issues that prevailed, looked likely to terminate the 2004 Olympic bronze medallist’s career. However, after nearly two years on the sidelines, Dirrell returned to stop limited compatriot Daryl Cunningham in two sessions in December 2011. Four further wins have followed but in less than eye-catching company.
Whilst Americans would accurately describe this Saturday’s tussle as a pick’em fight on paper, a close look at the pair’s recent ledgers could prove decisive.
DeGale enjoyed a career-best performance against Brandon Gonzales on the Froch-Groves II undercard 12 months ago, clubbing the previously unbeaten American into submission in four surprisingly one-sided sessions at Wembley Stadium. Quite a statement of intent on his Matchroom debut in front of Britain’s biggest post-war crowd of nye-on 80,000 strong. DeGale’s motivation was back and his mojo reassuringly restored.
His most recent showing against Marco Antonio Periban was almost as impressive. Granted, it may have looked less of an ordeal on paper than the crossroads Gonzales showdown, but the Jim McDonnell-trained fighter terminated the Mexican’s evening with extreme malice aforethought in the third stanza. Mexico doesn’t do soft fighters but DeGale’s emphatic statement against an opponent who had gone the distance with the aforementioned Bika and Jack, was beautiful in its short-lived brutality. A performance that drew rare praise from then IBF title-holder Froch at ringside.
In contrast, since returning after his March 2010 loss to Abraham, Dirrell’s last five foes have looked like sitting ducks, with 17 losses scattered between them against unheralded and predominantly uninspiring opposition.
Whilst it’s a dangerous game to right off someone as skilled as Dirrell, the feeling is that DeGale and Hearn may have timed this clash to perfection. Should such circumstances play out, in the city where the iconic 1980s American sitcom Cheers made its home, there’s every chance Britain could be toasting their next world champion come Saturday night.