Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jack-DeGale: Perseverance and Second Chances

The winner of Saturday's title unification fight between Badou Jack and James DeGale will emerge as the consensus number-one super middleweight in boxing. And although that honor will be fully deserved and disputed only by those who are related to Gilberto Ramirez, it's still nevertheless surprising that Jack and DeGale, after facing significant setbacks in their respective roads to the top, find themselves in this position. 

Less than two years ago, Jack was iced in one round by journeyman Derek Edwards. It was a devastating knockout and further confirmation for many that Jack was less than the considerable Mayweather Promotions' hype. With an earlier draw to gatekeeper Marco Antonio Periban, Jack was now considered by most in the boxing world as nothing more than a pretender. 

However, in another example of boxing being the theater of the unexpected, Jack refused to follow his script. He did something rarely seen in modern boxing after such a comprehensive physical and psychological defeat; he improved. Under trainer Eddie Mustafa Muhammad's tutelage, Jack corrected many of his flaws. His high guard was now a consistent presence and he learned how to initiate offense out of that posture. Gone were the days of winging shots without any concern for what was coming back. Now, Jack was working behind his jab. Instead of being an undisciplined slugger, Jack concentrated on work rate, textbook technique and winning rounds. 

Within 14 months of the Edwards defeat, Jack had successfully won his first title off of Anthony Dirrell, a fighter who had advantages over Jack in power and speed, but lacked Jack's new-found focus and discipline. In a further advance, Jack defeated George Groves later in 2015. Groves had matched super middleweight titan Carl Froch throughout most of their two fights before stoppage losses. And even after earning a surprising knockdown of Groves in the first round, Jack stuck to his game plan and didn't let the unforeseen development derail his overriding strategy (something that might have caused Groves to lose the first Froch fight). 

Jack has now become a difficult fighter to defeat. He gives his opponents very few clean shots at his head. He has a piston-like jab that can often control the ring action and keep opponents on the defensive. Jack has also become a menacing body puncher, launching jabs, left hooks and right hands downstairs with regularity and ferocity. Although he doesn't sell out on head shots like he did as a rising prospect, he still has enough pop to keep foes honest. 

However, Jack does provide opportunities for his opponents. His offense, especially in how he initiates it, can become predictable; he can be timed and countered. In addition, he lacks elite foot and hand speed. Gifted athletes can maneuver him around the ring and beat him to the punch. Perhaps most damningly, Jack doesn't maintain his work rate throughout 12 rounds. It's not that he fades in the second half but he'll give up a round here or there as he takes small breaks and regroups. Notice that in his title shot and two defenses, he's yet to earn a decisive win. Sure, he's beaten good opponents (his "draw" against Bute was really a win) but he lets them stick around and get back into a fight. 

When examining James DeGale in the ring, he emerges with a similar problem. He can dazzle and amaze for portions of a fight – throwing eight- or nine-punch combinations, scoring at will with either hand, out of southpaw or orthodox stances – but he coasts on his leads. At points during bouts, he'll flurry once or twice a round and then shut his offense down, believing (often erroneously) that his work is enough to carry the frame. 

DeGale had both Andre Dirrell and Lucian Bute dead-to-rights early in those contests but he couldn't sustain his energy level for 12 rounds. He wound up winning competitive decisions in those fights but with a different temperament, perhaps he wouldn't have needed to sweat out the judges' scorecards. 

DeGale's lone blemish on his record could be attributed to this frustrating inconsistency. His 2011 fight against fellow prospect George Groves (you'll notice that Jack and DeGale have several common opponents) ended in a razor-thin defeat. In significant portions of the fight, he just didn't move his hands enough. During exchanges, DeGale had the faster hands and better defense but Groves had a more consistent attack. 

Although the Groves loss wasn't the type of devastating knockout that Jack suffered, it was still quite the blow. DeGale was the Olympic gold medalist, the pride of Britain. Groves was supposed to be the lesser talent. Yes, DeGale certainly had a claim to winning the fight but the larger truth had been that too many rounds were close. 

And whichever way that one scored DeGale-Groves, neither fighter won conclusively. However good DeGale thought that he was, the outcome of the Groves fight was certainly a wake-up call that his road to the top would not be a cakewalk. "James DeGale, Olympic Gold Medalist" wasn't enough of a deterrent for able fighters.

But would DeGale learn from his defeat or would he succumb to the type of denial that is so rampant among professional boxers (e.g., with different judges I would have won)?  

Even after the Groves loss, DeGale could be maddening in the ring. He'd carry lesser fighters for several rounds or become overly defensive against opponents who posed little threat. He seemed uncertain at points and his ring identity was always in flux. Was he a mover, a counterpuncher, an aggressive fighter or a boxer-puncher? He had employed these styles and others in his development but often without fluidity or purpose. 

To my eyes, DeGale turned the corner in 2014, when he destroyed Brandon Gonzales in four rounds and defeated Marco Antonio Periban in three. No longer was he plagued by caution. He seemed more comfortable in the pocket and wasn't as afraid to get hit. He sat down on his shots better and learned how to finish off fighters (DeGale could use a refresher course on this last point). 

All of this sets up a mouth-watering main event on Saturday between two excellent but vulnerable fighters. Which boxer will keep his foot on the gas for 12 rounds? Who will take fewer breaks? Will Jack's jab be as effective against a southpaw, and one who doesn't need to be in the pocket to win fights? Can DeGale handle Jack's pressure over the course of a fight? How will he overcome Jack's size and range? 

An interesting aspect of Saturday's fight is the change in Jack's corner. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad has been replaced as lead trainer and Lou Del Valle (who had been assisting Jack and Muhammad in previous fights) will now be at the helm. Perhaps this transition will go smoothly, like when Naazim Richardson took over for his former mentor, Bouie Fisher, in Bernard Hopkins' corner. However, it's also possible that Muhammad's corner work, especially his cogent instructions, will be missed. 

In DeGale's corner is longtime trainer Jim McDonnell. The two of them have been through the wars together. Exhibiting a loyalty often not displayed in the sport, DeGale remained with McDonnell after the Groves loss. Together, trainer and fighter have grown. Although McDonnell can still be flummoxed by DeGale's inconsistency in the ring, he certainly can impart urgency when needed. McDonnell has become solid in crafting game plans and he's quick to note in the corner what's working and what should be de-emphasized.

Ultimately, Jack-DeGale may come down to what the judges like more; Jack's steady work rate or DeGale's flash. And it's certainly possible that Saturday's verdict might be inconclusive. But let's not dwell on the vagaries of scoring for now. Jack-DeGale is an excellent fight between two boxers who dismissed the modern boxing narrative of the loss-as-death sentence. Each has persevered. They have earned their place in the sport with a refreshing approach; they improved and made the most of a second chance. After suffering losses, they put their ego in check and eventually became better fighters. When doubts about them in the boxing world were legion, they ignored the surrounding negativity and believed in themselves even as others were abandoning ship. Each has prospered. 

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