When James DeGale and Chris Eubank Jr meet in the ring at the O2 on Saturday 23 February, the winner will be handed the IBO world title. A fringe belt in the UK, famously discarded by George Groves for lack of value. However there will be even more at stake for the loser and a title that both will be keen to avoid: undelivered talent.
Others may have been more naturally gifted with skills that never translated into titles. Frankie Gavin is the standout example as the first English world amateur champion yet a professional career that failed to fizzle. It is perhaps Eubank or DeGale though that history will forget about with most ease.
Both made impressive starts to their professional careers, both have been through the promotional merry-go-round of boxing, both have divided public opinion, both lost to domestic rivals, both have had the weight of expectation thrust onto their shoulders. Neither has become the dominating presence that had been hoped.
DeGale entered the professional sport to great fanfare, carrying with him the gold medal earned at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Who can forget the gold glove he would hold aloft as his name was announced? He was fast-tracked to domestic belts, capturing the British title in under ten fights. In the same period, Eubank Jr had a mixture of solid domestic names along with foreign imports who would pose a problem to even the most hardened of Scrabble competitors.
This made sense. Eubank Jr came to boxing not with the burden of medals, but the burden of name. A good amateur career behind him, but not the accolades enjoyed by DeGale. The hype was generated because of the persona. Simply The Best blaring over the PA systems of the venues he toured to show off his skills. The Union Jack flag swarming his shoulders. A leap of the top rope before shadow boxing centre ring. The surname. Eubank Jr was not trying to shy away from the legacy of his father, he was trying to continue it.
DeGale has perhaps been unlucky to be a good boxer in a great British era
Both have domestic issues which have been left unresolved. For Eubank Jr his first loss came after a bitter rivalry with Billy Joe Saunders, while DeGale had an equally bitter relationship with nemesis George Groves. Both have looked to avenge their defeats, neither have managed to secure another battle.
DeGale has perhaps been unlucky to be a good boxer in a great British era. Carl Froch for many years was defacto number one in Britain at super middleweight, a man himself unlucky not to benefit from the Sky machine for his formative years, but undoubtedly capitalised upon the opportunities he created. His rivalry with Groves will forever be remembered, the culmination happening in front of 80,000 at Wembley stadium. Even in two defeats, the stock of Groves had risen. What must have been particularly galling for DeGale was the fact he had to make do with being on the undercard. He was boxing under the illumination of the daytime, not the lights of the arena.
For all of this, it was DeGale who got to hold a world title before old rival Groves. Having upped sticks and relocated to America under the guidance of Al Haymon, DeGale claimed the IBF belt in May 2015 by defeating Andre Dirrell. Whether it was the move from home or an underwhelming stretch of defences, still DeGale could not gain full recognition in the UK. Then it happened. Groves captured his own world title two years later, stopping Fedor Chudinov to be crowned the WBA champion. Two old rivals, both now long in the tooth, able to settle a score and decide who was the successor to Froch as the UK's number one super middleweight.
But it didn't happen. That was the time to pull the trigger, put the rivalry to bed and secure the pension pot of both men. No need to marinate, no fake rivalry to build. This was the money fight. But much like a disappointing penalty at Wembley stadium, the two men missed the target and the window of opportunity slammed shut. Groves wanted to chance his arm (which would eventually be his downfall) in the newly formed World Boxing Super Series while December 2017 saw DeGale beaten by unfancied American Caleb Truax. Although a rematch allowed DeGale to right the wrong, there was long term reputation damage.
Neither man will be able to retire saying that they were the best of their generation
Eubank had joined Groves in the World Boxing Super Series, having used a mixture of peripheral smaller titles and talk of bigger rivals to rebuild his public persona. The confidence never waivered, his father continuing to be the verbal equivalent to the flash hands and combinations that Eubank had become renowned for. Stepping up a weight class, he too succumbed to Groves, a fight that seemed to accelerate the Groves retirement and expose the Eubank flaws.
Perhaps this fight represents for each man a chance to settle their old rivalries. They cannot get their hands on the men they wish, but can lay gloves upon each other. It presents a chance to fight the ghosts of their pasts. The two may be more similar than they care to recognise, many of their character traits seemingly mirrored and careers bearing striking resemblances. February 23rd gives a final chance for both to win over the public confidence.
A victory gives the chance for either man to have another run at the top level. More importantly than that though, if they show the ability to do it in style and with ease, it gives them the chance to convince the public that they are what we had hoped. There can only be one winner within a fight, but this is more importantly about a career victory.
Neither man will be able to retire saying that they were the best of their generation, that title has slipped through the fingers of both. With one title off the table they will be keen to avoid another: undelivered talent. February 23rd will see two very motivated and accomplished individuals looking to deliver on the promise that many feared had gone.
Follow Martin Theobald @NewAgeBoxingUK