Boxing: DeGale to follow Khan and find new direction
Champ falls short of expectations after being outfoxed by unorthodox Booth
As James DeGale ruminates on the shock loss of his British super-middleweight title and unbeaten record to the Commonwealth champion George Groves, a psychogically shattering setback bruising his ego more than his features, he will find scant consolation in being reminded of a similarly close and controversial verdict 40 years ago.
It was the night the late Sir Henry Cooper similarly claimed he was robbed in what proved his valedictory appearance against Joe Bugner at Wembley, angrily surrendering his long-held British and European titles. The referee, Harry Gibbs, a fellow Cockney, gave it to Bugner after 15 rounds by the narrowest of margins, causing the 37-year-old Cooper to protest as the hand was raised of an opponent 16 years his junior. "I thought I nicked it, 'Arry." "Sorry, Henry," Gibbs retorted. "Champions don't nick nuffin'."
Therein lies the lesson for DeGale. Had he fought like a champion, punching positively instead of pussyfooting until the last four rounds, he surely would have got the nod against the bitter rival whose back-foot strategy was masterfully orchestrated from his corner by coach Adam Booth, a one-time university lecturer in physiology who says that those in the boxing establishment who deride his unorthodoxy "can go fuck themselves".
It was Booth who mapped out the hit-and-hop-it tactics by which David Haye defied the lumbering giant Nicolay Valuev. He never wavered in his belief that the eminently likeable, eloquent Groves would again have the Olympic champion's number, as in their amateur encounter.
With an early return ruled out by the Boxing Board – "What does he want, the best of five?" asks Groves – the future for "that ginger kid" is clearer than for DeGale, who seemed to allow himself to be eaten up by his intense dislike of his opponent and now needs to embark on a charm offensive to win back the fans.
Admitting that he is not yet the finished article, Groves wisely will seek a European title fight before pursuing his global aspirations, while 25-year-old DeGale must resurrect his career in similar fashion to erstwhile stablemate Amir Khan .
It will be a familar route: first a relatively easy touch, then probably an opponent of fading international stature in the mould of Marco Antonio Barrera, the legend who became Khan's stepping stone to a world title. Khan also changed his trainer, eventually ending up with the estimable Freddie Roach.
DeGale may need to think on similar lines, and bring a strategist into his corner instead of or alongside the former Euro champion Jim McDonnell, a great conditioner but outfoxed tactically by Booth. DeGale will be back, but he may need a Mr Motivator to boot him up the backside.
That is also the view of Britain's supreme super-middleweight, the WBC champion Carl Froch, who defends his title against the veteran Glen Johnson in Atlantic City next Saturday. As he trained in New York for his Super Six semi-final, Froch echoed the thoughts of many in the fight fraternity. "I'm chuffed for George," he told me. "I'm pleased he won. DeGale didn't dominate as a champion should.
"He fought the wrong fight. Maybe this will be a reality check. I don't really have any advice other than that he should change his trainer. He didn't seem prepared right mentally. With a different trainer he might have gone in with a more positive attitude. Where was the fire in his belly?"
Nottingham's Cobra says he has never been better prepared by his mentor, Robert McCracken – who is also Britain's Olympic coach – for his duel with one of the ring's most seasoned and slippery customers. Jamaican-born Johnson may be 42 but as the 46-year-old Bernard Hopkins showed last week when he beat Froch victim Jean Pascal to become the oldest man ever to win a world title, age is not necessarily a barrier in boxing.
Johnson has fought 67 times, losing 14, but he can still make the best look bad. "I would be stupid to stand in front of him and have a tear-up," says Froch. "I've been involved in my fair share of brawls, but I'm not looking to do that this time. It will be hit and not get hit, a boxing masterclass."
A clinical fighter who can box and bang, though he holds his hands rather low, Froch's profile – like a few of his fights – has lacked passion. Perhaps not any more; now under new management at Barry Hearn's Matchroom, he finally has exposure on Sky. Froch should win and go on to contest the series final against the classy US Olympian Andre Ward, but it may not be a cakewalk on the Boardwalk.
And he must remember: champions don't nick nuffin' – especially a Brit in the United States.
Froch v Johnson is live from 10.30pm on Sky Sports 1 & Sky Sports HD1
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