Although it’s pleasing to see the DeGale vs Eubank fight come to fruition – it could so easily have been one of those oft-discussed but never consummated domestic grudge matches – a creeping sense of anticlimax foreshadows this weekend’s contest. Think about it: without unduly stretching the imagination, it could’ve happened within the last year with world honours at stake; it could’ve also taken place within the framework of the World Boxing Super Series. Instead, only the lightly-regarded IBO bauble will be on the line at London’s O2 Arena.
In what continues a trend that owes much to social media smack talk, the showdown is occurring mainly because the pair strongly dislike each other, their feud stemming from a spat over a spar that happened some five years ago. It’s hard to believe anyone truly cares whether Eubank, as he insists, beat up DeGale during that session, or whether DeGale schooled Eubank. It’s also doubtful that the faith of those who believe the former is nourished by the idea, especially since Eubank made the same boast about punishing Groves in the gym – before the Londoner outfoxed him last year.
In any case, DeGale vs Eubank is here and all bullshit aside, it looks likely to be a barnburner. A crossroads meeting of egocentric sworn enemies, one an Olympic gold medallist and two-time world champ, the other a bull-strong but limited contender with youth on his side, it doesn’t need a world title or protracted social media contretemps to whet the appetite.
When the bout was announced last month, James DeGale nailed his flag to the mast by stating it was curtains for the loser. Of course, he also assured the assembled media that it wouldn’t be him. Eubank took exception to the comment, suggesting the mere mention of retirement exposed a chink in Chunky’s armour, an undisguised lack of conviction. Doubtless the loser will be in a difficult spot: if it is Eubank he’ll have flunked the three biggest assignments of his career and, like Adrien Broner, be consigned to gatekeeper status (but Broner has multiple world titles upon which to to hang his hat). If DeGale takes the ‘L’, no amount of self-deception will draw his eyes from the illuminated Exit sign under which his old nemesis Groves recently departed.
Although the seat of Eubank’s soul is a burning desire to be special, just like his father, his learning curve to date has been a steep gradient. He badly needs this win to jumpstart his world title ambitions, and, like always, he sounds supremely confident. For DeGale, this too is an opportunity to breathe fire into a career that has stalled since his drawn unification with Badou Jack two years ago, from which he emerged with plenty of plaudits but no front teeth – and a sense that the chance to etch his name into the pantheon of British boxing greats had slipped through his fingers. An insipid loss and rebound victory over Caleb Truax, and a three-round blowout of journeyman Fidel Munoz, has since made him a fringe figure in the super middleweight landscape. Roundly criticised for relinquishing his IBF belt to avoid Jose Uzcategui late last year, you could’ve been forgiven for forgetting he’d held a title at all.
The intrigue of DeGale vs Eubank lies in the severity of the reality facing the loser. As for the clash of styles, we can surely expect Eubank to apply pressure while DeGale seeks to make him look foolish with movement and crisp counters. Many are questioning whether DeGale, four years the elder, has the engine to fend off his man or even stay off the ropes for prolonged periods. When Eubank gathers a head of steam, mostly succeeding in overcoming his technical limitations through force of will and fitness in the latter stages, he can make things uncomfortable for his opponent: this was the case down the stretch against both Saunders and Groves.
Much has been made of Eubank’s decision to appoint a fully paid-up trainer rather than rely on the counsel of both his father and his father’s old trainer, whom Jr once famously told to “stop talking” between rounds. However, expectations of wholesale changes to his arsenal have been tempered by the fighter himself, who has stressed instead the general benefits of having an outside voice on-board.
The implication is that Eubank will continue to depend on qualities we know he has in abundance: preternatural fitness; physical strength; a never-say-die spirit. Nate Vasquez, the little-known trainer based out of the Mayweather Gym, cannot reinvent the wheel with a 29-year-old athlete who has, to date, done things his own way. And even if he could pull off the bomb disposal expert’s trick of tweaking Jr’s hardwiring, it may have the negative effect of stymying the fighter’s natural instinct to press forward and play to his strengths.
DeGale’s style, too, is unlikely to change much but as he has more wrinkles to his game, there is greater variance in our expectations. That said, few believe he can show the style and flash that was customary a few years ago. If he is to win, the reckoning goes, he’ll likely get busted up along the way. His talk of impending retirement validates this viewpoint, as it gives a sense that he is tired of the game. The combination of his dwindling appetite for battle, and Eubank’s relentless drive, suggests the former may wilt if the going gets tough.
It does not seem possible to wholeheartedly endorse either guy here. Eubank says all the right things but has bombed in his two biggest fights. Yes, he staged a late rally against Saunders after sleepwalking through the first six; yes he briefly troubled Groves in the 12th; but the takeaway from both was that he was a flat-footed, artless, free-swinging bruiser lacking in the sport’s fundamentals. This isn’t the impression from all his fights, of course: he usually impresses when dominating lesser opposition. But confront him with slick footwork and an active jab and he becomes a ragged amateur searching for a one-punch knockout. He essentially goes all-in on his strength and will.
The blueprint for DeGale is obvious: use mobility, avoid the ropes, pop the jab. If need be, clinch when Eubank gets close and wait for the referee to break it up. Following this script, he should bank most if not all of the early rounds: he is more gifted than Eubank. If the DeGale who beat Bute, Dirrell and Gonzales shows up, he’ll easily execute those tactics and make Eubank revert to the free-swinging bruiser we saw last February. But if there’s a whiff of decline – a slowing in the legs, a lack of punch authority – Eubank may just abandon his early-round reconnaissance and look to walk through him. And then it becomes a test of mettle. Saunders and Groves toughed out the eventual onslaught – but can DeGale?
To his credit, “Chunky” has seemed laser-focused in the buildup and has whipped himself into fantastic shape. Following a period of relative obscurity, he must relish being involved in a fight that is making some headlines. But with a history of injuries, how will his body hold up? And body aside, is he in the right frame of mind to endure the overwhelming pressure likely to be brought by a guy who desperately needs a meaningful victory?
The stage is set and the rivalry will finally be put to bed on Saturday night. Who do you like? — Ronnie McCluskey