There’s nothing quite like a domestic super middleweight grudge match to get us Brits pumping. Down the years, the 168-pound division has thrown up some memorable nights under the lights of arenas and stadia up and down the country.
From the glory years of the Chris Eubank, Steve Collins and Nigel Benn era, via Robin Reid, Joe Calzaghe and Richie Woodhall, the new breed of super middles have sprung life back into a sport which was on its knees in Britain in the mid-2000s.
Carl Froch and George Groves led the way in their infamous back-to-back world title fights on British soil, with James DeGale, Callum Smith and now, Chris Eubank Jr, all laying claim to have held titles at the 168-pound limit — albeit whatever your opinion of the IBO strap is.
It’s a weight that seems synonymous with drama inside a British ring. A new chapter was written on Saturday night inside the 02 Arena, as Chris Eubank Jr and James DeGale put it all on the line.
Dubbed the “Retirement Fight” by DeGale in the run-up to this bout, it was clear that a loss for either man would leave them with limited options for the remainder of their careers. DeGale, an Olympic gold medalist and twice IBF super middleweight world champion, had the least to lose. He’d climbed the mountain, achieving all that there was to in the sport — the same couldn’t be said of Junior.
Twice falling to superior opposition in the form of Billy Joe Saunders and George Groves, a third loss to a domestic rival would have been catastrophic for Team Eubank; the hunger that the 29-year-old would go on to show in the fight emphasised this point.
The atmosphere inside the 02 was a strange one pre-fight. Neither man has a strong following of fans and have both often been forced to play the “bad guy” in their careers to date. DeGale’s stint in the US coupled with Junior’s arrogant, brash, “daddy’s boy” persona resulted in more boos during the walk-ons than specific support for either fighter. It felt like pockets of the crowd would rather see a certain guy lose than the other one win.
This being said, “Chunky” DeGale received the bigger approval as the pair touched gloves at 22:20 in East London — what a difference 36 minutes can make.
After a messy, ugly, 12-rounder in which shoulder barges, hugs and WWE-style moves were more common than boxing fundamentals, Eubank won a convincing UD on the cards after swarming a version of DeGale who looked a shadow of his former self. The mass volume of attacks from Junior were too aggressive for Chunky to negate. His slick southpaw style became ragged as he struggled for air, and at times, to stay on his two feet.
DeGale’s heart allowed him to see out the distance of the fight, however, an onslaught from Junior in the championship rounds came close to a first stoppage defeat of his career, and a sickening way to bow out of the sport.
This has to be the end of the road for DeGale. At 33 years of age, the Harlesden-boy can’t continue close to the highest level; following in the footsteps of his biggest rival, George Groves, will be expected this week upon the announcement of his imminent retirement.
For Junior, this is the start of his career. He lives the life and is in perfect physical condition to make a mark on this limited super middleweight division. Sure, his power is still a huge question at 168 pounds, but with the punch volume and work rate that “NxtGen” shows in each of his fights, fine-tuning from his first official trainer Nate Vasquez could see him reap the rewards at world level.
Callum Smith is undoubtedly the man to beat in the super middleweight division. If Junior and the PBC are sensible, targeting any of the other titlists in 2019 could reap significant rewards. Anthony Dirrell, Caleb Plant and Gilberto Ramirez (who apparently hasn’t vacated his WBO strap after all) will all be considered ‘low-hanging fruit’ by Team Eubank, in comparison to the former champions over the past decade. Politics aside, Junior will be eyeing-up a title shot later this year; he could be peaking at the perfect time.
Junior entered the O2 Arena on Saturday to boos and left to cheers. Much like George Groves’ first loss to Carl Froch, perhaps he has won a few more hearts of the British public. He is a fan-friendly fighter. Messy at times, but his undeniable work rate makes him a live dog in every fight.
He’d be wise to stay away from Callum Smith for now and continue to build on this momentum from a career-defining win on pay-per-view. He’ll continue to have his flaws, but boxing is all about timing.
Junior’s time is now.