29-2. That's how Boxing Monthly's poll of Britain's trainers tallied up last month for the May 21st grudge match at the O2. A staggering percentage in favour of James DeGale. Staggering because, this time last year it would probably have been the other way round.
Indeed, the swing to DeGale since the end of 2010 has been a very noticeable one. Let's go back to this time last year; George Groves had beaten seasoned Ghanaian Charles Adamu to win the Commonwealth strap in his ninth fight, stopping the African in a dominant performance. Meanwhile DeGale took five rounds to see off Midlands area fighter Sam Horton for the relatively meaningless WBA International bauble. Horton was then stopped in a round in Prizefighter a month later and all the talk was about Groves travelling out to the States. The Hayemaker prodigy had, it seemed, stolen a march on his rival.
But how quickly things can change in boxing - a few shaky moments out in the States for Groves and a first round stoppage of Carl Dilks for DeGale saw the momentum begin to shift, before Groves' sell-out York Hall show fell through at the eleventh hour. And then everyone knows what happened next. The trainers asked by BM certainly do - 22 of the 29 that picked DeGale alluded to either the Kenny Anderson fight or the Paul Smith fight. Looking at that it'd be easy to say those fights were the key turning point in the momentum swing, but it's not quite as simple as that.
The swing really started much earlier - after the Dilks fight - and whilst performances make up a lot of it, you can put the rest down to very relentless PR. I run the grovesvdegale.com website and have done for the last two years. To help keep the site up to date I signed up to Google Alerts for both 'James Degale' and 'George Groves'. Every time they're mentioned in a news article on the web, I get an alert from Google about it. It's an easy way to stay on top of their latest news and a necessity because, contrary to popular belief, I don't actually "have a lot of time on my hands".
The alerts for both fighters were fairly infrequent in the first year, rising in number around fight dates and then tailing off in between. However, after DeGale's victory over Carl Dilks - an impressive stoppage win if you ignore the fact Dilks was never off his feet - the alerts for James DeGale increased dramatically. And they all said the same thing - James DeGale is world class.
Now, you can spot a press release a mile off - they're transparently biased and the same article starts appearing everywhere. It's pretty common. What was different here though was the quantity that began to appear. My inbox was suddenly bombarded with articles about James DeGale being world class or James DeGale potentially fighting for a world title, or James DeGale being better than Naz. Even as recently as a fortnight ago, articles appeared about James DeGale turning down a world title shot.
Prior to the Groves match being made, speculation was rife about DeGale fighting the likes of Sartisan or Steiglitz. A world title shot after nine pro fights. It felt like a realistic possibility. And yet, prior to beating Paul Smith, James DeGale's most notable wins were Dilks and Horton - hardly preparation for a world champion. Such is the power of hype.
Such is the power of relentless PR. It's like a Derren Brown mind trick. The sheer volume of articles mentioning DeGale in those terms makes you always think about DeGale in those terms. DeGale had become world class without even fighting.
Don't get me wrong, DeGale's performance against Paul Smith was excellent. He delivered on a great deal of his promise that night. But beating Paul Smith doesn't make him world class. Smith has never mixed in that company and he laboured to wins against Quigley and Dodson. Beating Paul Smith makes him the best in Britain, and now he has to confirm that against Groves.
And it isn’t going to be easy. Strip away the hype and look at the two fighters as professionals. Their paths have been similar and the trajectory is similar. Groves has matched him as a pro in everything but press releases. Their respective performances against Smith and Anderson make DeGale a favourite, but they will provide each other a different test than those guys – they are different fighters after all. And, crucially, this will be competitive. And that favours Groves.
When Groves beat Degale in the amateurs, he was only 18 – two years younger than DeGale and he’d already fought earlier the same day. But he still finished the stronger of the two in that fourth round. For the last two and a half years as a professional Groves has had competitive sparring alongside his fights. It’s not just Dirrell in this camp, he’s previously sparred the likes of Carl Froch, Giacobbe Fragomeni, B J Flores and even David Haye. The latest presser showed they’ve not been taking it lightly this time around either. James DeGale stopped sparring Nathan Cleverly after one week.
DeGale and his trainer think Groves is “chinny” and the fight will be over quick. They better hope it is, because if it goes to the trenches, if it becomes a war, there’s only going to be one winner. But I'm sure DeGale will be ok - afterall, he is world class.
N.B. This is not a George Groves press release.