By Elliot Worsell

WHEN George Groves and James DeGale agreed to meet in May 2011, they were swayed by a couple of things. The first, quite naturally, was the size of the payday, significant given only British and Commonwealth super-middleweight titles were on the line. The second, meanwhile, was an awareness that this, as a rivalry, would amount to more than just one fight and therefore more than just one payday.

The pair backed themselves and gambled, in other words. They knew that they were meeting prematurely, in some respects, but they also knew that meeting prematurely wouldn’t necessarily stop them fighting again somewhere down the line, perhaps with a world title or two at stake.

That Groves and DeGale ultimately didn’t fight again can be considered a surprise – maybe even a disappointment – and attributed to more than one reason. Yet, certainly, at the time of their one and only pro fight much of the excitement stemmed from the feeling that this was just the beginning of the rivalry rather than the end of it. Victory, of course, was important, particularly in terms of one-upmanship, but at no point did anybody ever believe defeat, for the loser, would be the end of their career or something so catastrophic the risk of a fight like this wasn’t worth the payday.

So it proved, too. Groves, although narrowly beating DeGale in 2011 and thus claiming bragging rights, would be forced to wait until 2017 for his world title, whereas DeGale stole a march on his rival and conqueror by winning one in 2015. No shock really, that tends to be how these situations play out; one fighter gets their moment in the sun only to sit and stew as the universe later awards the beaten man for their perseverance.

George Groves boxing

George Groves and James DeGale both wait to pounce

Regardless, by fighting each other so early, no harm was done. They both went on to achieve success and relative fame and even if they feel they could have achieved more, in legacy terms, there can be no doubt that the two boys from Dale Youth made more money than most from a sport apt to take more than it gives.

Indeed, before even winning world titles, the likes of Groves and DeGale were making good money. Bolstered by their unique rivalry, they were set on a collision course from the outset of their respective pro careers and then shrewdly capitalised on this at the earlier available opportunity. A risk, no doubt, it was one for which they were well-compensated, both financially and so far as praise. Also, the O2 Arena, which is where their fight took place, was near-enough sold out on the night, with most in attendance there to see the two young super-middleweights; a sign, if one was needed, that Groves vs. DeGale was more than just your typical battle of prospects.

In many ways, the fight became the template for others, proof that there was nothing wrong with taking a risk and cashing out early. It comes to mind, for instance, when other young prospects, like Adam Azim and Dalton Smith, are ordered to fight for a European super-lightweight title and both momentum and excitement starts to build as a result. Now, thanks in no small part to Groves and DeGale, no longer does the idea of two British prospects meeting prematurely have to seem far-fetched or bad for business. Likewise, no longer does the idea of marinating a fight and stretching it like a rubber band until it begs to be snapped always benefit the fighters and promoters involved.

Often, in fact, this obsession with making a fight as big as it can possibly get only backfires. One, or both, of the fighters involved in the so-called rivalry will inevitably slip up at some stage and then gone, in an instant, is the “Battle of Unbeatens”, as well as the tagline, “Someone’s 0 has got to go!” It is at that point the promoter and the fighters realise they have dropped the ball and that it may have been wise to have collected their winnings at a time when they were ahead and people were interested in what they were flogging.

Even if it’s deemed somewhat premature, as it was in the case of Groves and DeGale, far better to be early than to be late – something as true in matchmaking as it is when a referee stops a fight. At least when you go early there is some reward and payoff and therefore purpose to the rivalry. If, conversely, you test the patience of the audience and leave it until it is too late, all you are left with is regret and a desire to turn back time and do things differently.

In the case of Azim and Smith, there is a sense they will meet and probably soon. Both are riding high at the moment and both are looking for the kind of fight to elevate their profile and status to the next level. Like Groves and DeGale before them, they are two young boxers hard to separate whose skills would appear to represent the other’s kryptonite.

Azim’s promoter, Ben Shalom, has already called the fight “massive” and “one of the biggest fights you can make in British boxing,” so is clearly keen to facilitate it. He also said, “For me, it’s a fight that needs to be on the right stage and it’s a huge fight for both of them. Adam is 21 and his profile is enormous. He’s definitely one of the jewels in British boxing and Dalton Smith is an extremely talented fighter.”

Adam Azim (James Chance/Getty Images)

Of course, the reality is, where Azim and Smith differ from Groves and DeGale is precisely in the area Shalom mentioned: profile. For while it’s true Azim, 11-0 (8), has gained some attention on Sky Sports, where he usually wins fights with eye-catching finishes and celebrates with back-flips, he possesses nowhere near the star power – potential or otherwise – Groves or DeGale possessed around the time of their fight in 2011. Similarly, Smith, although 15-0 (11) and excelling on DAZN, is not yet at that level, either. That’s not to say he, or Azim, can’t or won’t one day reach it, but for now any talk of Azim vs. Smith being the biggest fight in British boxing has to be taken with a pinch of salt, as does, perhaps, any suggestion that this fight will happen immediately.

Because as easy as it is to compare the fight to Groves vs. DeGale, comparisons begin and end at the unbeaten records, in all honesty. No matter its quality, it is hard to imagine a fight like Azim vs. Smith selling out a big arena in 2024 and it is unfair as well to compare either Azim or Smith to DeGale, a boxer whose profile was boosted significantly by an Olympic gold medal, or Groves, who was forever DeGale’s antagonist.

Indeed, despite fighting early as pros, Groves vs. DeGale had been simmering for years and was a rivalry both bigger and deeper than boxing. In contrast, Azim vs. Smith, while exciting, is still very much in its infancy. It is easy to forget, too, just how magnetic Groves and DeGale were as a couple. Rough around the edges, sure, and incredibly immature at times, whenever the two Londoners came together before the cameras it was never anything but compelling, unpredictable, and fascinating to observe.

Of Azim and Smith the same cannot be said – not yet anyway. They are still getting started on this journey, with their rivalry only just brewing, and therefore it will be interesting to see how they both play it going forward. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense to put everything on the line today and give the fans what they want, safe in the knowledge an early pro loss would not be disastrous for either man. Yet, on the other hand, nobody would be blamed for looking at the fight, and this rivalry, as something in need of growing and developing the right way. It is tempting, of course, to call anyone who wins impressively on television a “star”, but just as Groves vs. DeGale can be been used as evidence that two prospects fighting prematurely is sometimes a good thing, so too must that fight, and that rivalry, be used to temper the excitement of promoters eager to prematurely anoint The Next Big Thing.