At roughly 10.30 pm on Saturday night, five hours before Amir Khan entered the ring against Marcos Maidana, the Sky boxing cameras went to the dressing room of Paul Smith. The British Champion Super-Middleweight champion, a 30-fight veteran about to trade leather in front of his home crowd in Liverpool, looked the archetypal fighter rendered broodingly intense and monosyllabic from 12 weeks in a Spartan training camp. Not only was he going to beat his opponent, James DeGale, he was going to take him to ‘places he’d never been before’ and ‘knock him out’.
Two minutes later, the Sky cameras entered the dressing room of James DeGale, winner of the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal in the Middleweight division. ‘Chunky’, as he is known, had a cigar on. Sat slumped in a chair, one-arm cocked over the backrest, he looked like a man out for a Sunday drive in a candy striped blazer and straw boater. ‘He said he’s got the power, did he?’ answered DeGale, ‘and that he’s going to knock me out?’ ‘We’ll see about that.’
DeGale annihilated him. In front of a partisan crowd including Smith’s trio of fighting brothers, DeGale was punch perfect on his way to winning every round and stopping Smith in the ninth. He caught Smith at will, danced around him, confused him with his effortless switch-hitting and, essentially, made Smith look like a rookie rather than a respected pro who has been in the trenches. Smith has since complained that it was stopped too early, and maybe it was, but he couldn’t have beaten him had they fought 100 times.
Smith concentrated on looking for a knockout blow, DeGale barely got out of third gear on his way to becoming British Super-Middleweight Champion. It was his ninth professional bout. To put this in context it took Joe Calzaghe 14 fights to win the same belt. So when Frank Warren says that ‘DeGale is the best boxer I’ve ever signed, including Prince Naseem’ it is worth rating this statement as more than a hyperbolic shake of the old moneymaker.
He caught Smith at will, danced around him, confused him with his effortless switch-hitting and, essentially, made his opponent look like a rookie rather than a respected pro who has been in the trenches.
Although nine fights do not make a career, it’s clear that DeGale has everything needed to not only be a great fighter, but a bona-fide, tassel-shorted, trash-talking superstar. Mouthy, good-looking and immensely talented, DeGale is a promoter’s dream. And he knows it. All the talk beforehand had been that he had taken this fight too early, that he wasn’t ready for a warrior like Smith and that he wouldn’t be able to cope with the crowd. Talk, as DeGale proved, is cheap. Just don't expect him to button up anytime soon.
The British Public can be hard on its nascent sporting heroes and, when faced with DeGale in his first professional fight in February 2009, they booed him off after he won a points decision against a Georgian who didn’t take his face from behind his guard for the entire fight. DeGale isn’t an everyman like Ricky Hatton, and he’d hyped himself beyond belief. Since then, he hasn’t been marked, in fact he’s barely been caught flush, and if the quality of his opponents has been average then he’s only following what every other boxer does. Show me a potentially great fighter who comes up against blinding opponents in his first 18 months as a professional and I expect we’ll be sat together watching the Rocky box-set.
Perhaps it will take a war in the same vein as Hatton vs Kosta Tsyzu or Khan v Maidana for him to steal the hearts of the British boxing public. Luckily, that could well be in his next fight. The last domestic rival he needs to fight is George Groves. Groves, who trains with David Haye and his coach, Adam Booth, beat DeGale as an amateur and is confident he'll do it again. They hate each other, and it will be a war.
The way boxing works, with its multiple belts and interim titles, if he beats Groves and continues to progress at his current rate he could be fighting for a world title inside 18 months. The Member of the Order of the British Empire knows how good he is, realises how great he can be and is also aware that there are much, much, bigger fights and challenges on the horizon. He’s a gym rat who loves to train under the tutelage of Jim McDonnell, doesn’t take himself too seriously, is a natural at his chosen weight and has just demolished a man who was meant to take him to school. People might say the he isn’t a concussive puncher, but he lands every shot in the book with blistering accuracy and can do it off either foot.
DeGale might not be everyone’s cup of tea, he might p**s off purists and curmudgeonly members of the press, but he is exciting, young, gifted and British.
That’ll do for me.
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