With reports swirling that discussions between the reprehensible Floyd Mayweather Jr. and his boorish copycat Conor McGregor are progressing, boxing, after a thoroughly disappointing 2016, is in desperate need of a palate-cleanser. Fortunately, Saturday’s IBF/WBC super middleweight unification bout between James DeGale and Badou Jack is just that, a match-up of substance that will provide fight fans with something genuinely compelling in the face of a “super” fight worthy of the imminent Trump era.
If Mayweather vs McGregor is the cheap cash-grab that exploits our short attention spans and desire to be deceived, DeGale vs Jack is its polar opposite. While DeGale and Jack are comparatively minor figures, their clash is a fascinating match-up of contrasting styles and personalities imbued with major stakes. It’s also irrefutable evidence that boxing in 2017 is off to a far better start than last year, where the grotesquely unnecessary rematch between Sergey Kovalev and Jean Pascal was 2016’s first “major” contest.
While Badou Jack is somewhat of a dial tone compared to the brash DeGale, the current WBC champion has proven to be one of the sport’s most improved fighters over the past couple of years. During a three-fight title reign, he’s scored impressive decisions over Anthony Dirrell and the favoured George Groves, while settling for a bogus draw against Lucian Bute in a fight Jack clearly bossed. Although Badou’s two wins during this stretch have been by majority and split decisions, he’s displayed an admirable ability to execute sound tactics that include plenty of body punching and the intelligent closing of distance. Simply put, Jack is the type of boxer with a strong sense of identity; he doesn’t deviate from the script because he’s so good at following it.
DeGale, on the other hand, is the more gifted operator, the kind of fluid switch-hitter and deft mover whose natural athleticism and fighting instincts should be the envy of any aspiring pugilist. But unlike other boxers who possess his rare blend of reflexes and skills, DeGale has also proven willing to sit down on his punches and invite torrid in-fighting, which is always to the benefit of fans, but often to his own detriment.
If Jack sticks to the script, DeGale at times appears to have barely read it. An inexplicable stretch of complacency in the second half of the Andre Dirrell fight saw him almost blow a healthy points lead, and his willingness to rumble with Lucian Bute allowed the ex-champion to inflict some serious hurt on the Brit in their highly competitive 12 round war. Most recently, his propensity to languish on the ropes and negate his own natural advantages almost cost him his title in his battle with Mexico’s Rogelio “Porky” Medina. Some thought DeGale lucky to get the decision.
Thus, beyond the obvious stakes of this being a unification fight with the winner likely to participate in some of boxing’s biggest bouts over the next couple of years, the crux of the DeGale vs Jack fascination is the blend of the Brit’s “elite inconsistency” and Jack’s well-honed steadiness. At a quick glance, DeGale, the superior talent, should win. But it’s his tendency to switch off that might lead to the two fighters meeting in the ideal middle of a sliding scale that has pizzazz and natural talent at one extreme, and unspectacular reliability on the other. We can only hope that where those two extremes meet, action and drama are found.
On a recent conference call, DeGale, in a clear attempt to drum up interest in the fight, called out Jack and his team for not wanting the bout. “If I’m being honest, the only reason why this fight hasn’t happened quicker is because Badou Jack didn’t want it,” DeGale said. “After the Bute fight he probably didn’t want it. And then after the Medina fight, because I boxed rubbish, because Medina went full rounds on me, Badou Jack has got confidence.”
This led to some compelling verbal sparring about some (not all) of the opponents DeGale and Jack share: Lucian Bute, George Groves and Marco Antonio Periban. Both men offered sound arguments and rebuttals regarding how much can be gleaned from their showings against the same foes at different stages of their careers, but one concludes that both DeGale and Jack can only be evaluated as they are now, and as the elite super middleweights they’ve become.
When asked about their perceived advantages heading into what many feel is a 50/50 match-up, DeGale and Jack’s respective answers were telling.
“I’m going to tell you, one that stands out is just speed,” DeGale argued. “I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do because he’s going to be very shocked with what I’m going to do. But speed: I’m so much faster in [terms of] movement. I move my feet so much better. It’s just going to confuse him. I’m going to make things a whole lot harder for him.”
DeGale, as he made his case, also referred to Bute’s limitations and how Anthony Dirrell appeared spent after six rounds against Jack. At Friday’s weigh-in, DeGale, who scaled 166.5 pounds, proudly displayed a ripped physique, which “Chunky” promises is the product of a more dedicated approach to training that will prevent the kind of lapses that have dogged him in the past. However, in listing his speed as his greatest advantage over Jack, DeGale identifies a virtue that he’s both displayed and stymied in equal measure. Fleet lateral movement hardly matters if you remain stationary on the ropes, and hand speed is irrelevant when you let your opponent camp out inside. It’s easy to be seduced by James DeGale’s gifts, but can he be trusted to consistently employ them?
“I’m the smarter fighter,” Jack argued. “I believe I’m the more fundamentally sound fighter. I believe I’m the more technical fighter. I take nothing away from DeGale, who is a good fighter as well, but I believe in my skills. I believe in myself. It’s not just about throwing millions of combinations or looking flashy and stuff like that. It’s about winning rounds; it’s about being smart.”
But is Jack really the “smarter” fighter? The more disciplined one, sure. This means that another key layer to DeGale vs Jack is whether Jack’s alleged ring IQ includes adaptability. At no point in his career has Jack faced someone with DeGale’s versatility and skill-set. DeGale will throw combinations from angles Jack has never seen, and the Brit’s ability to fight off his back foot, in the trenches, or from the outside, means he can make the kinds of major adjustments Jack doesn’t. If “Plan A” fails for Badou, does he have a “Plan B”?
Because there are so many negating factors at play here, what DeGale vs Jack could ultimately boil down to are its mysterious intangibles. Who will actually seize the moment and take the initiative from the opening bell? Who will harness the fight’s inherent pressure to deliver a career-best performance? Who will adapt more quickly to their opponent’s tactics or take ruthless advantage of his mistakes? The answers will come tonight, when two elite champions in their athletic primes clash. And when intangibles and the unknown — not asinine celebrity status and boorish behaviour — are a fight’s greatest selling points, there’s a distinct chance something special could unfold.