This story appears in the April issue of THE RING magazine, which is on sale now.
James DeGale had Audley Harrison on his back when he turned professional two years ago, but it hasn’t taken him long to shake off the big man.
His problem was that “Fraudly” won massive acclaim after winning the Olympic super heavyweight gold medal in the Sydney Olympics, only to fizzle into a much-ridiculed object of contempt when fighting for pay. DeGale was also a cocky southpaw gold medallist from London, so by the time he made his own much-heralded professional debut against Georgian middleweight Vepkhia Tchilaiain February 2009, the fight crowd was already skeptical. And DeGale confirmed their suspicions when he boxed exclusively off the back foot, barely taking a punch but landing only pitty-patty amateur taps in turn. A section of the Birmingham crowd erupted into hearty boos.
The rap against him after that bad night was that his hit-and-run style was not suited to the rigours of prize fighting. DeGale responded by declaring himself the “Marmite of boxing,” a reference to the British sandwich spread. “People are either going to love me or hate me.” In truth, he was so shaken by his reception that he instantly made adjustments that have earned him accolades from previously hostile pundits and fans.
“To come back as Olympic middleweight gold medallist and to be noticed by the country was great, but then boxing in your professional debut with a small minority of the crowd booing, well, of course it was upsetting,” said DeGale, who faces a yet-to-be-determined opponent on the Ricky Burns-Joseph Laryea card Saturday in Glasgow, Scotland. “But I’m a strong-minded boy, and I went back to the gym, and you can see the results: The last eight performances since then have been spot-on.”
His trainer, former European featherweight champion Jim McDonnell, went to work teaching his elusive protégé how to plant his feet, and the transition was remarkable.
“A lot of people think of Jim as just a fitness fanatic, but he’s also one of the best boxing coaches in the world. He got me working on drills to develop my power – like turning my hips when I punch and turning my wrists, as well as different defensive techniques – like tucking up, Winky Wright-style. I had a style that worked in the amateurs, so I had to start from the bottom. Fortunately, I’m a fast learner.”
DeGale’s promoter, Frank Warren, has been accused of over-protecting his stars, but he had enough confidence in this $2.3-million investment to put him on the fast track. His nine opponents have had a combined record of 110-41-1, but he blew them all away with contemptuous ease.
Still, there were surprised murmurs when it was announced that No. 9 was the 29-1 (15 knockouts) Paul Smith, for the British super middleweight title, in Smith’s hometown of Liverpool in December. DeGale had a mere 21 rounds to his name and several old hands predicted Smith would be too hard, strong and experienced, and that the 12-round distance would be too much for a man who had never gone beyond five.
Once again the 24-year-old novice arrived to a ripple of boos, but he believed he had the conditioning and the skill to handle a world-rated 28-year-old.
“I knew I could do 12 with ease because of the training I was doing with Jim,” he said. “For example, we do lots of interval work on the track. We had one session where I did 10 times 400 meters, and I did them all in between 71 and 75 seconds. But it was not just fitness. I’d watched Smith throughout his career – I was good friends with his younger brother Steven – so I knew exactly what I was up against, and I’d been sparring with Nathan Cleverly (the world-rated light heavyweight) and Tony Bellew (Commonwealth light heavyweight champion) and held my own against both. I was just so confident.”
What emerged from the combination of 101 amateur fights (85 wins) and 23 months of McDonnell’s tuition was a surprisingly mature switch-hitting style – perfect balance, purposeful footwork, head well tucked in, lots of upper body movement and a blistering array of accurate head and body blows.
Although not a devastating puncher at the elite level, he has extremely quick hands, naturally sharp reflexes and impeccable timing. He put all this together to win every minute of every round before stopping Smith in the ninth. With each round, he cranked up his attack, often standing in the zone to punch it out with the British champion, blocking and slipping the return fire. In the ninth, he really opened up and after wobbling the tungsten-chinned Smith, which forced referee Howard Foster to stop it at the 2:08 mark.
In nine fights, DeGale proved that, unlike Audley Harrison, he knew how to built on an amateur career that began at the age of nine when his father sent him to the nearby boxing gym in Harlesden, London
“I was naughty at school, so he sent me there to get my frustration out and to get some discipline in me,” he recalled. “I remember my first spar against an Irish kid who’d had 10 fights, and I got my head punched in, but I didn’t mind it. I just knew it was for me.”
At that stage, DeGale was a chubby fellow who was called “Chunky” by his friends, a moniker that stuck, although it hardly fits his current lean fighting physique (he stands over 6 feet). He won his first youth title at 16 at 178 pounds, but slimmed down as a senior, although he gains weight between fights.
“I get an extra layer out of training, and I go up to 190 pounds, but it only takes a couple of weeks before I’m back to 176,” he said. “I’m so comfortable at super middle and I could make middleweight with enough notice. In fact, I’d consider that if I was offered a world title shot at 160.”
His first major international success came at 20 when he won the bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games. The following year he lost in the opening round of the World Amateur championships, but twice won British titles (ABA) and represented his country at numerous international tournaments.
One of his rivals was his club mate at Dale Youth Club, George Groves. They fought in 2006 and after four tight rounds, the 18-year-old Groves got a majority decision, which riled DeGale.
“I used to beat him up in sparring, so maybe I took it a bit easy, but I completely outboxed him. I was hitting him and making him miss. I’ve been abroad and I’ve been robbed – that’s how amateur boxing is – but I was gutted to lose that decision.” (Incidentally, the YouTube video shows a close and competitive fight with DeGale probably deserving the nod.)
Groves went on to win the ABA title that year and the next, but it was DeGale who got picked for the Olympics, although few expected him to come away with anything.
His draw was the toughest imaginable, starting with Egypt’s world bronze medallist, Mohamed Hikal (a 13-4 victory), followed by the highly rated American, Shawn Estrada (11-5). Next came Kazaskhstan’s 2004 Olympic gold medallist, Bakhtiyar Artayev (8-3), taking the Englishman into the semi-finals against Ireland’s Darren Sutherland, who’d beaten him in four of their previous five fights.
“Obviously I thought, ‘Ah, no, I’ve got him again,’” he said. “All of our previous fights were very close, but in those I was fighting his game – standing in the center of the ring. I knew it was going to be hard, but I was confident of winning if I could stick to the tactics given to me by our coach, Terry Edwards, which was to hit and move and keep a tight guard, and I won easily, 10-3. The movement was too much for him.”
The pair seemed set to resume their rivalry as professionals, but a year later, Sutherland, suffering from clinical depression, committed suicide by hanging himself.
“I was shocked and really upset when I heard about it,” said DeGale “We’d always had a very healthy rivalry, competitive but healthy.”
In the Olympic finals, he faced Cuba’s Emelio Correa (who’d won gold at the 2007 PanAm Games by knocking out Shawn Porter). Correa had twice beaten DeGale (in 2005 and 2007), but by the end of the first round, the Englishman was 5-1 up. After that, the Cuban tried to rough him up and even bit him, earning a two-point penalty that proved crucial because DeGale ended up winning 16-14.
He believes that in 18 month’s time he could top that gold medal by winning his first professional world title, but first he has local business to take care of. If he wins on Saturday, he is expected to face Commonwealth titleholder George Groves (11-0, 9 KOs).
DeGale comes across as friendly and engaging, but when the conversation turns to Groves, he struggles to contain the bile. He admits he hates Groves, whom he calls “that ugly ginger kid,” an odd description, because although Groves is a redhead (and British redheads have a hard time), he is reasonably good-looking. The British champion clearly resents the fact that the Commonwealth champion is routinely dubbed “the man who beat DeGale as an amateur.”
“He’s lived in my shadow half his life, so obviously he’s a bit jealous and bitter, and he’s living off my name,” DeGale said.
In his last fight, Groves got off the floor to stop the previously unbeaten Scotsman Kenny Anderson in six, and DeGale was shouting for his rival. “I was screaming, ‘George, hold, hold, no, put your guard up, come on!’ because I didn’t want anyone else to knock him out. I want to knock him out – if he mans-up and fights me. If I hit Groves, he will not get up like that. I’ll knock him out within four rounds.”
After that, DeGale wants the European title (currently held by the Irishman Brian Magee) and then a “big-name” U.S.-based fighter (he mentions Kelly Pavlik and Edison Miranda) before challenging for a version of the world title.
“I know you shouldn’t run before you walk, but if I had my way I’d box for a world title in 2011,” he said. “Still, give me 18 months, after the Super Six is over, and I see myself fighting Carl Froch in what would be a massive fight in Britain if I keep on performing the way I am. It would be a fantastic fight.”
Unlike so many boxers, he has few serious distractions outside the ring – unmarried, with no children, and still extremely close to his parents, Diane and Leroy. He recently bought his own apartment in Harlesden, London, a few blocks from his parents, “but I’m hardly there because I get looked after too much by my mum.”
Chunky is handsome and articulate with an engaging personality, somehow managing to come across as cocky and polite at the same time. If he keeps on winning in style, he could well be the next British boxer with crossover pulling power.
His aim is to “become undisputed world champion and to be known as one of Britain’s best-ever fighters – if not the best,” and once that happens he might contemplate retirement. “By about 32 I could be out of the game; a millionaire with all the accolades and world titles.”
He smiles and quickly rows back from that assertion. On the one hand, he knows that in less than two years he’s achieved what Audley Harrison failed to do in a decade, but he’s under no illusion that he has already arrived.
“I can’t really talk about how many years I have left,” he said. “I’m a fighter, that’s what I do, and boxing is in my blood, I still have a long, long way to go.”
Gavin Evans is a London-based freelancer and a regular contributor to The Ring.