Another one for the road: DeGale and the UK 168s

Andrew Harrison
20/05/2015 10:25am

The super-middleweight division has proven a fertile hunting ground for British boxers since 1984, when Murray Sutherland became its inaugural world champion, after the transplanted Scot outscored the pugnacious Philadelphian Ernie Singletary in Atlantic City. While only Welsh cyclone Joe Calzaghe can lay claim to having been the division’s de facto kingpin in the ensuing 31 years, world class Brits including Chris Eubank, Richie Woodhall and Carl Froch have all - at one time or another - held a piece of the pie. On Saturday, in Boston, Massachusetts, Harlesden talent James DeGale will endeavour to swell their ranks when he contests the vacant WBC title against Michigan’s Andre Dirrell.

Only three other Britons have managed to win a 168lbs world title on their opponent’s home patch overseas. Ilford firebrand Nigel Benn turned the trick twice in different divisions: bludgeoning the iron-chinned, crumpled-nosed New Yorker Doug DeWitt to defeat in Atlantic City for the WBO's middleweight version in 1990 before, two years later, ripping the WBC 168lbs belt away from Italian Mauro Galvano in Marino, a city in Lazio’s Alban Hills. 

The Galvano victory featured Benn at his uncompromising best; marauding, bullish, explosive – he moved like a heat-seeking missile. After splitting open Galvano’s left eye in the third round of a one-sided opening, the Italian’s corner team effectively retired him on his stool. What followed was an attempt to finagle an escape route for their man on a technicality as a crestfallen Benn threatened to detonate mid-ring. The home cadre, claiming Galvano’s injury had been the result of a head clash, began to rejoice.

Promoter Barry Hearn – who’d signed Benn after his defeat to Chris Eubank – leapt into action; Hearn buried himself in the huddle of ringside officials and remained there until they returned a just verdict. After a foreboding few minutes, Benn was pronounced the winner by TKO.

Benn held the WBC strap until 1996, successfully retaining it nine times all told. After his vicious, harrowing battle with the American Gerald McClellan in London, Benn, irreparably affected, was coaxed through a further two defences against Vincenzo Nardiello of Italy and Albuquerque’s Danny Perez before South African veteran Thulani 'Sugar Boy' Malinga beat up the old warhorse – then a mere husk of the savage he’d once been - in Newcastle.

Malinga proceeded to drop a split decision to the eel-like, serial whinger Nardiello in the summer of ’96; the German-born Nardiello then cashed in with a soft-looking home tie in Milan, against professional novice Robin Reid of Runcorn. Reid, a handsome, marketable 1992 Olympic bronze medallist, had logged a cosmetically pleasing record of 21-0-1, which masked the fact he’d only beaten eight men with winning records – with the majority of those journeymen.

Embracing the Italian philosophy of 'bella figura' in a bid to placate a potentially hostile, and therefore influential, Milanese crowd, Reid’s team span an erroneous yarn that suggested his Jersey Shore looks – olive skin topped with coiffured, ink-black hair that he’d inherited from his Trinidadian father – originated from Italian roots. The sting worked like a charm: Reid was applauded from the ring after thumping out a seventh round TKO over his timorous foe, and fled town before his story unravelled.

After a trio of home defences, Reid’s reign was cut short by the ubiquitous Malinga in December 1997. Telford stylist Richie Woodhall deposed Malinga three months later, only to be usurped himself by German Marcus Beyer in October 1999.

In the May of the following year, Glenn Catley from Chris Sanigar’s Bristol Boy’s stable in the South West, challenged the unbeaten Beyer in Frankfurt. The shaven-skulled, affable Catley - who’d closed the book on the mercurial Kirkland Laing in ’94 – was a significant underdog, having lost three of twenty eight starts. The judges had the fight dead level heading into the 12th – as they had in Catley’s previous win against Canadian Eric Lucas – before Catley turned the screw.

Richard Fletcher had the report for Boxing Monthly and described the climactic scenes as follows: “Catley started aggressively but seemed to be going off the boil when he suddenly produced the big finish to stun the partisans in the Ballsporthalle Hoechst arena into silence.

“Catley backed Beyer to the ropes and landed that short, arcing right to the chin to render the scorecards irrelevant. As the punch connected, Beyer’s head rolled limply on his shoulders and there seemed little doubt the fight was over there and then.”

Now a clinical psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and motivational speaker, Catley claimed that for months during the fight’s build-up, he’d had visions of a celebratory after-party. In a Frankfurt hotel, he would walk through his dreams - long after the river Main had segued from glorious puce to glum cobalt-blue.

Olympic champion DeGale - who has been given an even-money chance against Dirrell - would be well served to pay heed: Benn, Reid and Catley all strove to purge the three ringsiders in bow ties from the argument.