This afternoon in Frederikshavn, Denmark, James DeGale will put his European super middleweight title on the line against Italy's Cristian Sanavia, as the two meet on neutral ground thanks to some issues DeGale has had in England with promoter Frank Warren.
In late January, DeGale made a public announcement that he would be leaving Warren's stable, saying simply that it was "time to move on," a move that more or less seemed to come out of nowhere, stunning just about everyone. It was Warren, after all, who had taken on DeGale after the Olympic gold medalist turned professional, and it was Warren who guided DeGale to a British title shot in just his ninth pro fight. But let's talk about how it got to that point with DeGale and Warren.
DeGale would loudly announce his arrival with a win on that first title crack, dominating the fine domestic fighter Paul Smith to win the belt in December 2010. After an easy tune-up in March of 2011, DeGale moved on to a grudge match with fellow top prospect George Groves, a rival dating back to their amateur days, as the two grew up together in the sport.
Their fight drew incredible attention for a pair of fighters who were 10-0 and 12-0, even garnering some rather unusual attention from American fight fans. The story was better than the fight, which turned out to be a nervous, rather tense affair without a lot of action but with plenty of crowd support to keep it interesting. In the end, Groves nicked a razor-thin decision, and DeGale had the first loss of his professional career.
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Warren then pulled some strings and got DeGale into a European title fight in his very next bout, even though EBU rules clearly state that a fighter cannot challenge for a European title with a loss in his last fight. By hook or crook, DeGale got the fight with Piotr Wilczewski on October 15 of last year, part of the Cleverly vs Bellew card in Liverpool, which meant DeGale was returning to the site of his greatest pro triumph, his British title win.
That night didn't go so well as the first one, as DeGale had his struggles with the tough Polish battler and eked out a majority decision over 12 rounds, winning on scores of 115-113, 115-113, and 114-114. DeGale and Warren moved on from there, putting together a card for late in the year with Groves (Warren's latest major signing) and DeGale co-headlining, which fell apart in short order.
Then in January, with another DeGale date called off, the EBU stepped in and enforced that mandatory challenger Cristian Sanavia would have to receive his title shot. DeGale made his statement about leaving Warren, which saw Warren respond very quickly, saying that DeGale's contract is valid until April 2013.
A month later it was announced that DeGale would face Sanavia in Denmark, and rumors flew that he would be "defecting" to Sauerland Event, Europe's biggest promoter and an outfit with a fine relationship with Warren. Sauerland will be co-promoting the card in Denmark.
So after all that, what about this actual fight?
The 26-year-old DeGale is a blue chipper in many respects, and having the "0" off his record early isn't really the worst thing in the world. Interest in him doesn't really seem to have dropped much at all, though interest in both he and Groves has indeed waned since their fight, not because the bout was a disappointment, but because the two have had a series of canceled dates that has kept them out of the spotlight too much. DeGale has fought just once since losing to Groves, and now he won't even be on British soil for this bout. Groves has also fought just once since the DeGale bout, beating Paul Smith in two rounds back in November.
But most worrisome is that DeGale (11-1, 8 KO) struggled with Wilczewski, a solid but rather ordinary fighter who didn't figure to be a serious test for the standout young Brit. There is a chance that DeGale has suffered mentally from the loss to Groves, or even that he's just not quite the surefire star he was once thought to be. While obviously and clearly talented, DeGale seems to lack any excellent qualities in the ring; in other words, if you made a report card of DeGale's talents, he would probably get a series of Bs instead of any As. He is a fighter who doesn't seem to have any glaring weaknesses, but also seems to lack truly special skills.
Sanavia (45-5-1, 13 KO) likely is not the man to expose DeGale as a fraud, if that were something to be done. The 37-year-old Italian is very, very small for the weight class, listed at 5'7½", so he's going to be giving up around five inches of height in this bout. He also doesn't have much punching power, and his current five-fight winning streak has come over fighters with incoming records of 8-3, 7-0-1, 14-13, 5-13-1, and 7-16-2. In other words, he's received this title shot on the "strength" of wins over what Americans would call club fighters or novices. Prior to those wins, he lost two straight to Karo Murat.
Sanavia did beat former titlist Markus Beyer back in 2004, but lost a rematch via sixth round knockout, and Beyer was frankly always overrated anyway. That win was the high point of Sanavia's overall rather undistinguished career. DeGale really should not have any problems with this fight on paper. If he struggles again, it might be time to really get worried. DeGale via TKO-10.
Middleweights, 12 Rounds
Patrick Nielsen (13-0, 7 KO) vs Gaston Alejandro Vega (17-4, 6 KO)
21-year-old Nielsen is a Danish southpaw prospect who has been pro for about two-and-a-half years now, fighting largely at home with a few trips to Germany thrown in, as well. He's yet to take a serious challenge in the ring, but that's to be expected. He's young and still quite inexperienced, having fought just 57 rounds total as a professional. This is scheduled to be his first 12-round bout, and he'll be facing the 28-year-old Vega from Argentina, who has also never gone 12 rounds, but has gone 10 rounds on three occasions (Nielsen has gone ten just once). Vega has been knocked out twice in his last six fights and has fought just once outside of Argentina, when he made a trip to Brazil and was stopped in three last August. Nielsen is heavily favored (-1100 to +550, -1200 to +775) in the fight, and is physically a potential successor to Mikkel Kessler as a Danish fight star, with similar tattoos. He does lack Kessler's sparkling smile, however. Nielsen via TKO.
Featherweights, 12 Rounds
Andreas Evensen (15-2-1, 6 KO) vs Willie Casey (13-1, 9 KO)
These two are probably best-known internationally for their failures. Norway's Evensen was one of the soft opponents who faced Ricky Burns for the WBO super featherweight title, losing badly over 12 rounds in December 2010. Since then he's gone 2-0-1 against exceptionally easy opposition. Opposing him will be the Irishman Willie Casey, a fun little brawling southpaw who stunningly won a Prizefighter tournament back in May 2010. That was the high point of his pro career. The low definitely came when Guillermo Rigondeaux went to Dublin and completely trucked him in 2:38 in March 2011. Since then Casey has gone 2-0, including a win over decent journeyman Daniel Kodjou Sassou. If Casey has anything to say about it, the fight could be fun to watch. The two are probably about evenly matched, so while this isn't a fight that's going to show you a future (legitimate) world title challenger or anything, it's at least not some crappy mismatch designed for someone to hit cruise control and win a fight. Evensen is listed as a -210 favorite, with Casey at +175. Evensen via decision.
There are also four other fights scheduled for the card, which may or may not be on TV:
Junior Middleweights, 8 Rounds
Reda Zam Zam (24-1, 11 KO) vs Bronislav Kubin (12-8-1, 7 KO)
Light Heavyweights, 8 Rounds
Erik Skoglund (8-0, 4 KO) vs Alberto Antenucci (3-3, 1 KO)
Junior Middleweights, 6 Rounds
Torben Keller (2-0, 0 KO) vs Aliaksandr Abramenka (17-29-1, 6 KO)
Super Middleweights, 4 Rounds
Simen Smaadal (pro debut) vs Pavel Staravoitau (11-15-1, 10 KO)