Trussed in talk of Olympic pedigree, of retirement and new beginnings, James DeGale–Chris Eubank Jr. was imbued with the type of gravity American commentators are encouraged to and typically fail to conjure. And yet, with all due respect to our mates across the pond, who sing their pipes hoarse despite marathon efforts of sudsy lubrication, whose boisterous devotion is unlike anything an American fighter can hope to inspire, DeGale–Eubank fell well short of its billing. Although perhaps American skepticism about UK fighters best explains that response. Eubank Jr. won a unanimous decision over DeGale at the O2 Arena in London England Saturday.
Eubank, 28-2 (21), now possesses a title whose beauty is in the eye of the beltholder, the hardware equivalent of a tryst secured as the lights go on at the bar. It is a title befitting a fighter of his meager (for there is nothing exactly modest about Eubank, is there?) ability. With the antics and flex appeal of an Instagram influencer, Eubank has bewitched a surprisingly large constituency. But for anyone outside of those who enjoy watching him terrorize the inanimate opponents (Everlast, Ringside, Lonsdale) who sway and spin defenseless against his telegraphed wrath, he offers little of consequence. His signature win, after all, came not against his best opponent—either George Groves or B. J. Saunders holds that distinction—but against the simulacrum of DeGale, a fighter close enough to the end to talk about embracing it.
And DeGale is without question that near his end; he can thank a combination of injuries and tough fights for that. While never quite world class, DeGale was, geographically at least, a world champion. The Hammersmith fighter won his first world title against Andre Dirrell in Boston and made the first defense of that title in Quebec against hometown favorite Lucian Bute. DeGale, 25-3-1 (15), defended his title on British soil but once, losing a decision—later avenged in Las Vegas—to Caleb Truax. Prizefighters follow the money, and DeGale did, passport in hand, because the money was better anywhere but home.
At his peak, DeGale would have confounded Eubank, something evident even in his twelve-round struggle on Saturday, where his once-superior technique and greater ring wherewithal shone through its faltering application. Unable to avoid the punches or exploit the openings he could see, DeGale was reduced to a switch-holding attack, lunging in feebly from either stance before falling on Eubank like an octopus trying to open a jar. It was an unwatchable but not ineffective strategy for a fighter who seemed to know early that he had left the means to victory in some other ring some on some other night, one who also knew that asking his opponent to adjust to such a draping would buy him a few, even a dozen, rounds.
Which it did, but not without some harrowing moments. While short on champion talent, Eubank has all of a champion’s arrogance, and he channeled it into the counters and long-range bombs he banged home whenever DeGale slipped defensively. He scored a knockdown in the second, hurting DeGale with a left hook, and another in the tenth after snapping DeGale’s head back with an uppercut. In each instance, the follow-up barrage that produced the knockdown was frenzied, mindless, the product of a man who believes in his power more than his opponents do. But DeGale dropped nonetheless, which is the kind of result that will bolster the confidence of any fighter, but especially one easily pleased with himself. And Eubank looked confident throughout, even menacing over DeGale after tossing him to the canvas (and losing a point) in the tenth.
Eubank is a curious fighter: a disaster of technique, he compensates for this weakness with what he called in the aftermath of his victory Saturday his “heart and tenacity”—but which appears more to be the accoutrement of arrogance, a grab bag of nerve-steeling tactics he learned from his father, committed to memory, and calls upon to silence the self-doubt real opposition amplifies within him. He is the type of fighter to swagger over a man he’s tossed to the canvas in a fight he isn’t good enough to end, betraying his frustration at more than the holding. Ultimately, neither heart nor tenacity will serve him so well as prudent matchmaking. If it is indeed “collection season” as Eubank says, he will put defenses, not titles, in his crosshairs.
Worn and weary, DeGale should find himself in the crosshairs when he decides to further walk back his retirement talk. Many among his fraternity suggested he hang up his gloves Saturday night, citing his glaring physical deterioration. And perhaps he should: not because he can’t beat the likes of Eubank but because even less than a Eubank could turn the trick, and because the price of learning as much, coming as it does with the toll not only of the fight but with the fight’s preparation, is more than DeGale need pay. But “Chunky” is likely to fight on because Callum Smith, or Caleb Plant, or David Benavidez could use the scalp (and the daylights) of the first British fighter to win Olympic gold and a world title. Or maybe because a rematch with Badou Jack at light heavyweight beckons and a trip up the scales will be all DeGale tells himself he needs to find his legs again. He’d be wrong, but he’s earned the right to learn as much.