Boxing: Fierce rivalry that began in a dirty Shepherd's Bush gym
Saturday's fight between James DeGale and George Groves has been brewing for years. Steve Bunce reports on a shared history
Thursday 19 May 2011
In 2002 they were kids in the same gym, in the 2007 Amateur Boxing Association championships they fought, in 2008 one won a gold medal at the Olympics and on Saturday James DeGale and George Groves will fight in front of 18,000 people at the O2 Arena in Docklands.
It is possible that there has never been a rivalry quite like this in British sport, two people with so much shared history from a time when they were anonymous little scrappers in the same tiny boxing gym, through to now when they have so much real hate for each other. They are now grown men and main attractions, but still hate like kids.
At the Dale Youth amateur boxing club on the ground floor of Grenfell Tower, one of several grim blocks in the patch of land between Ladbroke Grove and Shepherd's Bush in west London, the gym's hefty blue door conceals a centre of often neglected excellence. Outside the gym the horizon is shaped by raised Tube lines and the grey Westway, which also serves as a towering roof for the vast traveller site in its shadow. Dale Youth is always full with fighting traveller boys.
DeGale and Groves shared this gym until they turned professional, hitting the same filthy bags, wearing the same wet gloves, moving in the same dirty ring and sitting together on the long trips to fight in places like Norwich and Exeter. The trainers would shake the pair awake in the middle of the night when the mini-bus arrived back at the gym. "They cheered each other on all the time," said Mick Delaney, who has been at Dale Youth for nearly 30 years. "They were just like any two club boys – no aggro, they had to get on; all boys in here have to get on." Delaney is friends, and has been for a very, very long time, with DeGale's granddad.
The pair spent a lot of time in each other's company but they were never friends. DeGale lived in Harlesden in north-west London and Groves in Hammersmith, west London. It is obvious that by about 2005 when DeGale, who is two years older, won his first national title that the pair were no longer talking. "We were never close, to tell the truth," said DeGale. "We existed, we were both members of Dale Youth – I never really liked him and he never really liked me. What's the point of lying?" DeGale won the title again in 2006 and the atmosphere in the gym had shifted and the tension was often disruptive; DeGale had started occasionally to train earlier in the evening with the junior boxers and their trainer, Steve Newland. DeGale and Newland had briefly been together at the Trojan gym in Harlesden a few years earlier.
"It was obvious for a couple of years we would have to fight," claimed Groves. "We had been kept apart and only bumped into each other on the odd night. We never really spoke."
There are pictures in the gym of DeGale after winning his first ABA title and Groves after winning his four national Schoolboy championships. They hang uncomfortably close to each other. "You have to understand that in an amateur boxing club no boy is bigger than the club – George and James both knew that," insisted Newland, who has since left Dale Youth and has formed Hooks club. They continued to train in Grenfell Tower, two boys at one club but separated by the trainers and their schedules.
In the 2007 ABA championships they inevitably and unavoidably met in the final of the North-west London divisional championships at Brent Town Hall. It was the last fight of the night and a devoted flock, those in the know, had stayed behind late to watch the unofficial championship of Dale Youth. It was, however, the official end of their friendship.
Groves was 18, DeGale just 20 and over the distance of four rounds of two minutes each they often fought like two friends, two boxers too familiar with each other's style and weaknesses. It was tense and close and at the end of each round they touched gloves. It was odd to watch. When the final bell sounded they embraced not once but twice. The goodwill was shortlived and DeGale's groans of "What? What?" filled the air when the majority decision went to Groves. DeGale refused the hand that Groves offered and left the ring. It was, until the build-up to Saturday's fight, the last time they talked.
Groves went on and won the ABA title in 2007 and did the same in the Olympic year of 2008. It was after the fight that it was decided that they would train at different times on a permanent basis. "I never wanted to see his ugly face again," claimed DeGale. The insults were unpleasant.
By 2007 the Olympic selection was starting to divide people as Beijing approached. DeGale had been sent to the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and the World Championships in Chicago in 2007 and had a long-standing claim on the GB vest. However, as Groves pointed out: "I beat him – I deserve a chance." The crisis was dividing the men at the Dale Youth gym. In February 2008 both DeGale and Groves were invited to Sheffield for a small tournament; it was one solution. Groves lost to a Frenchman and was easily beaten by the World and Olympic champion, Bakhtiyar Artayev of Kazakhstan. The pressure was on DeGale. He beat the Frenchman and gave Artayev a boxing lesson, dropping him in the opening round. The selection dilemma was over, the bad blood was sealed. "I just wanted a box-off with him," said Groves.
They still trained at Dale Youth and there was a party there when DeGale won the gold in Beijing. It was, by the way, one of the best gold wins in any sport because by rights DeGale had no chance against the brilliant line-up.
They are still close to the mighty little club. DeGale's sponsors, Lonsdale, supplied new bags, new gloves and new pads and each boxer is available to sign anything for an auction. DeGale's parents are on the committee. There was a press call back at the gym a few weeks ago and Groves seemed on edge. "It brings back a lot of memories and not all of them are good," he said.
As professionals they are both unbeaten and still inexperienced; this fight is only happening now because of their history. DeGale won the British super-middleweight title in December last year in just his ninth fight. Groves won the Commonwealth version last April in just his ninth fight. Saturday's will be a great fight, but it is also one that possibly should happen in a year or two when they both know about hard and harsh 12-round fights. However, their people have responded to the match-up and a sell-out at London's O2 is possible.
Perhaps the only bit of their story which has been gently airbrushed is the incident that took place on the stage at Brent Town Hall when they fought in the ABAs. Both boxers were on the stage when DeGale walked over to Groves, who was in his underpants, and hugged him one last time. "Now go and win it," DeGale told Groves. They both deny it happened, but for just a few seconds they were just two boxers from the same club showing a bit of respect. It has been missing since and that is what makes Saturday the attraction it is.
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