Jack vs DeGale preview: Brooklyn style
Chris Williamson previews Saturday night's super middleweight unification showdown at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn between WBC champion Badou Jack and IBF title holder James DeGale...
Not so long ago I spent a few idle minutes contemplating which of the 'big four' championship belts might be considered most iconic in each weight division. (I know - please don't judge me).
With some of the newer divisions, it's natural to associate them with a particular fighter and, by extension, the title belt they held. Sometimes it doesn't matter - Evander Holyfield of course, won them all at cruiserweight - but certain belts somehow seem 'right' for particular divisions.
At super middleweight that belt, at least according to my mental puzzle, is the IBF version. James Toney wore it proudly, ripping it from the fearsome Iran Barkley in as one-sided a super-fight as you'll see in 1993. Roy Jones Jr repeated the trick when he met Toney eleven fights later.
In fact, the division in its modern form was established by the New Jersey-based organisation shortly after its formation in 1983. Along with sensibly handing a newly minted belt to the four most established world champions of the day (Larry Holmes, Marvellous Marvin Hagler, Donald Curry and Aaron Pryor), the IBF sanctioned a 1984 bout between Murray Sutherland and Ernie Singletary, with Sutherland winning a 15 round decision to become the first champ at the new weight.
Since then, super middle has punched considerably above its 12 stone (168lbs) weight limit with a series of dramatic bouts and compelling stories. Great fighters in Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Joe Calzaghe all campaigned here at various times, while a brace of unforgettably brutal and ultimately tragic battles were waged on British soil involving Chris Eubank vs Michael Watson (the immediate sequel to their middleweight clash) and Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan.
More recently, the division was chosen for an experiment of sorts when the US Showtime network sponsored a tournament featuring six of its best fighters. Of course, current light-heavyweight champ Andre Ward won, making him a star and nudging defeated finalist Carl Froch into the path of tournament refusenik Lucian Bute and onto his own eventual superstardom at Wembley Stadium against George Groves.
Now, Saturday night will see a new divisional king crowned as two portions of the title are unified when James DeGale (23-1) risks that original IBF belt against WBC champion Badou Jack (20-1-2) at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. It might seem peculiar that a Briton and Las Vegas-based Swede headline on the east coast of the USA, but New York fight fans know a good fight when they see one. Boxing Monthly ranks Degale as No 1 in the division, with Jack at No 5.
DeGale's career has taken a curious route since winning the 2008 Olympic gold medal at middleweight (165lb limit). Signed by promoter Frank Warren to a lucrative professional contract and trained by Jim McDonnell, 'Chunky' began a fast-track title route. I was present as he wrested the British title from a bloody Paul Smith in just his ninth bout and witnessed the curious venom which an admittedly partisan Liverpool crowd directed at the Hammersmith-born pugilist. The challenger boxed well, outclassing Smith on his way to a ninth round stoppage.
A close, painful loss to arch-rival George Groves diminished DeGale's outings to un-motivating shopping centres, only recovering when winning an IBF eliminator against Brandon Gonzales three years later on the undercard of Froch vs Groves 2 at Wembley.
A third round stoppage of Marco Antonio Periban followed since which DeGale has boxed away from home three times, claiming the vacant title by flooring and decisioning nearly-man Andre Dirrell and defending against faded former champ Lucien Bute and fringe contender Rogelio Medina.
The IBF champ - like the previous holder of the title Froch - appears to relish boxing on the road. "I don't know why that is, but I actually like boxing away from home. It takes the pressure off you a little bit and this is living the American dream. I'm coming over to America to box in these fantastic states and getting a fantastic opportunity from my team," says DeGale. "But this one is the big one; New York, Barclays Center [and[ unifying the division, so you can't beat it."
Indeed, for this bout and despite McDonnell's reputation for a torrid approach to fitness training, DeGale has directly addressed his tendency to either switch off or struggle for stamina by hiring a strength and conditioning coach. "I was feeling fit but I was just feeling a bit weak," he says of his last bout. "And it was because I wasn't doing strength and conditioning. So you all are going to see a big difference from my power, to my strength, to everything. You're going to see me at the weigh in and go 'wow he looks good'."
Regardless of whether DeGale boasts the body-beautiful by fight time, the Brit remains respectful of his fellow titlist, though confident extra fitness will provide one further edge over a fighter he believes is unlikely to provide surprises.
"He's pretty basic but he's good at everything. He ain't got no special effects, nothing fancy," DeGale says. "Everything's just straight forward but very, very good. He does it very, very well and in the ring I can imagine it to be very hard when I stand in front of him. He's very technical, he's got a good jab, works the body well [and he's] got a good defence, but I've got everything covered."
As for the WBC champion - much like DeGale - the Swede has rebounded from a character testing setback. In a quirk of fate three years ago, Jack was being lined up to fight DeGale in an IBF eliminator while supposedly marking time against unheralded Derek Edwards. Within a minute, a short right heavily floored the favourite, whose legs never recovered and prompted referee Charlie Fitch to wave the bout off shortly afterwards.
Two confidence builders followed, after which Jack rebounded impressively to decision Anthony Dirrell for the WBC title and defend successfully against DeGale nemesis George Groves. Jack's last defence was scored a draw vs Lucian Bute, although that performance looks more impressive given Bute tested positive for the banned substance ostarine. Somehow, because this is boxing, the result seems to have stood.
Jack remains angry at the 'draw' and highlights that his and DeGale's respective results against common opponents make the fight yet more intriguing.
"My fight with Bute wasn't a draw, plus he was on steroids when we fought," Jack says. "[With] George Groves [it] was a long time ago when James fought him. I fought him two years ago. Medina, I knocked him out but you can say Medina probably was in better shape when he fought DeGale, because he probably had a longer time to prepare. Periban was in better shape for my fight. That was also a controversial draw. That's why it's an interesting fight. We've got a lot of common opponents, but come fight night it'll be a brand new fight."
Jack bases himself at the Mayweather Boxing Club gym and recently replaced head trainer Eddie Mustafa Muhammad with friend Lou Del Valle, telling Ben Thompson of Fighthype.com that he credits a somewhat unconventional training routine with his recent improvement. "He [Del Valle] started crying when he heard I lost. So he came down. That's when there was not no [sic.] big money involved or anything. He stayed in my apartment for three months.
"We worked every night. We even did mitts in my apartment. So the reason for my improvement; since that loss, everything went straight up, like all the way almost to a unification bout."
For his part, DeGale expects to enjoy that long-delayed homecoming if he wins. "That's the plan: to go home. If everything goes to plan, I beat Badou Jack [and] next May I'm going home. I'm having a big fight at home. Everyone's calling for the champ to come home. So yes, that's next in line if things go to plan."
Interestingly, two of the super middleweight division's most high profile past unification bouts ended in draws as Thomas Hearns and Nigel Benn gained some semblance of redemption in their 1989 and 1993 rematches against Sugar Ray Leonard and Chris Eubank respectively.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to see history repeat itself on Saturday (the draw looks great value at 25-1, folks) but my final prediction is to plump for DeGale's superior athleticism, cuter southpaw boxing and promised added fitness to deliver a close but clear decision win.