Sunday, May 24, 2015

Opinions and Observations: Dirrell-DeGale

For as much as boxing fans love knockouts, speed, skills, gladiatorial displays and fearlessness, the element of surprise may be the most important factor in maintaining interest in the sport. How much fun would boxing be if we could accurately predict title bouts 98% of the time? Why bother if we always know how fights will play out? (Eventually, Golovkin knocking out third-tier opponents will get boring, trust me.) Without surprise, there is less drama and fewer reasons to watch boxing, especially when scores of other entertainment possibilities may be just a click or button away.

James DeGale defeating Andre Dirrell is not a notable upset. As title fights go, the matchup was pretty close to 50/50. However, how both boxers went at each other – with power punches, massive counters and little running – was genuinely shocking. The fight was 20 times more entertaining than I thought it would be and these are the types of surprises that keep me emotionally invested in the sport. Usually, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend is not an anticipated slot for boxing programming but Dirrell-DeGale certainly delivered quality action.  

In viewing the matchup, I saw two fighters who often chose to engage in technical affairs, sometimes, needlessly. As a prospect, Dirrell too frequently had resorted to running, especially in times of duress. He would rely on his speed (foot and hand) and wasn't against trying to stink out a fight to win. In evaluating DeGale, his issues involved ones of effort and confidence. Often, he had fought with little urgency, doing just enough to win rounds. At other moments in his career, he had seemed unwilling to let his hands go consistently.  

In Degale's last two fights, against Brandon Gonzales and Marco Antonio Periban, he deviated from his standard operating procedure; he attacked his opponents relentlessly and went for the kill. The tentativeness of his past performances didn't manifest. After years of sleepwalking, coasting, and bullshitting his way through fights, he finally had arrived as an offensive fighter.

Building off of that momentum, on Saturday he surprised Dirrell (and boxing fans) in the second round, dropping him with a perfectly timed overhand left during an exchange. And, instead of being satisfied with scoring a knockdown, he went right at Dirrell after the count, trying to finish the job. He trapped Dirrell along the ropes and fired off a fusillade of punches, leading to a second knockdown. DeGale was now demonstrating that he could be a killer against top guys, not just the B-team. 

During rounds three, four and five, DeGale continued to pepper Dirrell with big punches and eye-catching combinations. DeGale unleashed his entire offensive arsenal and also took some huge shots in return; but he kept coming. In these moments, DeGale had finally crossed his last barrier to becoming a top super middleweight: the acceptance of risk. In the past, after getting hit with a good shot, DeGale would often resort to moving around the ring and retreating. On Saturday, DeGale didn't let Dirrell's power shots thwart him from being offensive-minded. He pressed the action throughout the majority of the fight. 

Similarly, Dirrell seemed to grow up right before our eyes against DeGale. Instead of disengaging, running or out-cuting his way through a tough bout, Dirrell held his ground and decided to fight his way back into it. Even though he had been dropped twice and bloodied by huge shots, Dirrell remained in the pocket and asserted himself in the second-half of the match, especially with hard counter left hands and right uppercuts. He also stalked DeGale, firing off double jabs to the head and body to set up his power punches. Here, Dirrell was no longer a mere prospect or a talent with skills; he was an actual top contender fighting for a championship belt. Psychologically, he refused to cower or fold; he wanted that title. 

In the final rounds, DeGale regained his offensive temperament and finished strongly, clinching the victory. The scorecards were 114-112, 114-112 and 117-109 (ignore that one). I had it 115-111 and in my estimation it was a fight where neither guy truly lost. Yes, both still have things to work on, as all fighters do, but Dirrell and DeGale demonstrated that they belong at the top level of the super middleweight division. 

As odd as it sounds, Dirrell, at 31, was still somewhat of an unknown commodity coming into Saturday's fight. In 2009, he had lost a close decision to Carl Froch in England (certainly no crime) but in his next fight he was up big against Arthur Abraham before being hit with an illegal punch, which sidetracked his career. During what should have been his athletic peak, he fought only once in 35 months and his subsequent comeback fights provided no further illumination about his true abilities as a fighter; his opponents were all of poor-to-middling quality.

Dirrell was beaten by the better fighter on Saturday but he gave an honest account of himself; there is no shame in that. He displayed several positive qualities, including resiliency, strong recuperative powers, punch accuracy and variety and strong ring generalship. It wasn't his legs or an unpleasing style that led to his undoing but an inability to adjust to DeGale's long left hands. Dirrell had never faced a top southpaw before and it was clear that he was unfamiliar with the types of overhand lefts and rear-hand left hooks that DeGale was throwing. The best defensive fighters (such as Mayweather and Hopkins) can shut down an opponent's best weapon during a fight but that skill is exceedingly rare in modern boxing. Dirrell got hit with something new; it happens. Hopefully, he learns from this experience and can perform better the next time that he faces a top southpaw.

Technically, Dirrell's hand positioning still leaves a lot to be desired. He was tagged so often by DeGale's overhand left because his hands were too low. In addition, Dirrell misjudged range on a number of occasions, throwing long power shots when DeGale was in position to counter with something quicker and shorter. DeGale also exploited a flaw in Dirrell's defense during exchanges. The more punches that DeGale threw in a combination the worse that Dirrell's defense got. By the third or fourth punch of a combo, Dirrell was wide open for a left hand or a right uppercut. DeGale often punctuated these combinations with a clean power shot and then wisely got out of range, which were wonderful displays of boxing at a high level. In these moments, Dirrell was looking for his own perfect counter shot and he was too willing to be hit with three or four punches to land one good one. He needs to be more active during exchanges, tie-up or disengage. This is an area where Dirrell must improve. 

Not all was perfect for DeGale either. He reverted to some of his bad habits in the second half of the fight. Starting from round six, he lost at least four of next five by simply being outworked. He did land big lefts on occasion but he was no longer throwing in combination. It's possible that he was starting to fatigue or maybe he was coasting on a large lead but nevertheless, his lack of urgency in these rounds helped provide openings for Dirrell to come back in the fight. Again, a consistent effort throughout 12 rounds will be imperative in remaining at the top level of the division. I'm sure that he and his team will continue to work on this. 

On a like note, I want to make one final point about DeGale's trainer, Jim McDonnell. Sure, DeGale wasn't flawless against Dirrell, but what I saw on Saturday was a fighter who was truly prepared for the task at hand. Going on the road, in a hostile environment, DeGale acted like a seasoned professional and had a definitive plan on how to win the fight. Facing an opponent who had a tremendous amount of hand and foot speed as well as the ability to switch stances at a whim, DeGale executed his game plan without caution, frustration or hesitancy. It was clear from the opening round that McDonnell and DeGale worked on that overhand left in the gym and that the punch would be a go-to weapon in the fight. That punch enables a boxer to land a shot higher on the head and with more force than a normal straight punch or cross – an ideal offering against an opponent who keeps his hands too low. In addition, whenever Dirrell turned to the orthodox stance, DeGale wisely tied him up, smothering Dirrell's ability to do damage, or disengaged, making Dirrell's switching irrelevant. 

Too often we see fighters and trainers not perform to the best of their abilities in big moments; however, DeGale and McDonnell worked beautifully together on Saturday. McDonnell, who had faced severe criticism after DeGale's loss to George Groves, showed that he could create a fantastic game plan. In addition, DeGale revealed that he can be teachable and is willing to put the time in the gym to fulfill his potential. 

After Saturday's fight, there is no more need to talk about potential regarding DeGale or Dirrell. One is a world champ and the other very well could be. Both had rocky moments in their ascension toward the top of the super middleweight division but as their thrilling fight revealed, the summit is where they belong. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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