DeGale-Groves is kids' stuff
According to some wise heads in the British press, the mud-slinging between James DeGale and George Groves over the last couple of months has demeaned boxing. They might be right, but only because it has been so much kids' stuff.
DeGale's list of insults is straight from the playground. He has mocked Groves' dress sense, accused him of having bad breath and dubbed him "that ugly ginger kid". Over and over again. For the record, an entirely unscientific poll of the women in my office revealed Groves is better looking. Ner-ner-ner-ner-ner, in your face DeGale!
But the nature of the verbals is entirely in keeping with the fight itself. DeGale may be defending his British super-middleweight crown at London's O2 Arena, but he and Groves have had only 22 professional fights between them. Whatever the hype-merchants want you to believe, compared to domestic grudge matches of the past, this one features little more than a couple of excitable pups.
It has nothing on Mark Kaylor v Errol Christie in 1985. At a pre-fight press conference held at a London casino, Kaylor attempted to push his middleweight rival into a fountain. Foiled, he decided to stick one on Christie once inside.
Such was the fear of racial unrest on fight night that, as well as a ramped-up police presence, members of a London football firm were invited along to provide extra security - which is a bit like asking the Taliban to keep the peace in Afghanistan. To use the vernacular, the build-up to that bout was proper naughty.
Promoter Frank Warren struggles to keep old adversaries DeGale and Groves apart
However, while hardly Kaylor v Christie, DeGale v Groves is coursing with genuine bad blood. As amateurs, the pair shared the same gym, Dale Youth in west London. Both say they were never friends, but mutual tolerance curdled to mutual disdain when Groves beat DeGale on the way to winning his first ABA title in 2007.
"We weren't close before," Commonwealth champion Groves, 23, tells BBC Sport, "but that was the nail in the coffin. It meant he wasn't number one in the country - and he wasn't even number one in his gym. That was a bitter pill for him to swallow."
"That win is the only thing he's got on me," counters DeGale, who is two years older than his rival. "I don't think I lost that fight and a lot of people in boxing don't think I lost it. I was so far ahead I took my foot off the gas and started showboating. Maybe all the old judges round the ring didn't like that. They were all 70 or 80, it was a joke."
Groves won his second ABA title the following year but it was DeGale who took the middleweight slot at the Olympics in Beijing, where he won gold. "Since I won that medal," says DeGale, "he's always been bitter and jealous." As well Groves might.
The phoney war has been a game of two halves. DeGale's antics at the press conference to announce the fight looked a lot like bullying, largely because Groves had clearly been briefed not to retaliate. Rather than look dignified, the younger man just looked rattled.
Then, in a memorable head-to-head interview on Sky, DeGale tried the same schtick, only this time it backfired. Less passive than before, Groves still managed to make DeGale look insufferably bombastic. The comments below the video on YouTube revealed the champion had managed to leak a few thousand more fans.
"Success can go to anyone's head and he had a big head to fill in the first place," says Groves, who is unbeaten in 12 paid fights and hails from Hammersmith. "He's called me ugly - wow! It doesn't really cut too deep. He's called me ginger - it's not the first time I've heard that. That's the level he's at as a human being, but I'm above all that.
"At the press conference he was shouting insults at me from the other end of the table but sat next to me during the Sky interview, he could feel my presence. He suddenly realised I'm not who he thought I was. I'm a grown man who can string a sentence together, I'm not a child like he hoped I would be."
Says DeGale, unbeaten in 10 fights and from round the corner in Harlesden: "George Groves remembers me from four or five years ago, that's the last time we shared a ring. But I'm a different kind of animal now. I've come on heaps, he ain't, and he'll get a big shock on the night."
A question sports journalists often get asked is "what's he or she actually like?" In truth, it is difficult to get to know someone when contact is restricted to 15-minute interviews. But, I have to admit, I like DeGale: the patter, the twinkle in the eye, the well-timed deliveries ("of course I'll shake hands with him... after I've knocked him out"). He's just playing the game, and it's a game he usually plays well.
"It's all part of it," says DeGale. "I love it, all the mind games, all the banter, all the needle. What do you want me to do? If there were two George Groves at that first press conference, this fight would have bombed. Boxing's missing a bit of banter and, let's not forget, I'm making George money. He's getting a great pay-day, the best he's ever got. Although I'm getting a better one."
Groves is confident he will have the lion's share of support at a sold out O2, and he is probably right: British fight fans do not tend to warm to grandstanders, and DeGale fits that bill. But the $64,000 question is this: who will the boys back at Dale Youth be cheering on?
"Whenever I go down there they're all on my side," says Groves. "But then again, I don't go down there on junior night when the 12-year-olds are training. Maybe the kids are leaning towards DeGale, maybe they understand the things he says."
"This guy is living in some mad dream," says DeGale. "I trained with two of them the other day, Steve O'Meara and Simon O'Donnell - whose team are they in? My God, George Groves is so annoying..."
If this fight had taken place a couple of years down the line, as maybe it should have, perhaps the verbals - as well as the action in the ring - would have been more manly. But it would be churlish to complain. These boys really do not like each other, which is a recipe for a fun old night - and there aren't enough of those in boxing nowadays.