By John Evans
The last time BoxingScene.com spoke to Jim McDonnell, the trainer of former British super middleweight champion James DeGale, he was an angry man. The scars inflicted upon the team by the defeat to bitter rival George Groves were still raw and the frustration came across clearly in the interview.
DeGale returns to the ring later tonight as he faces Piotr Wilczewski for the European super middleweight belt and BoxingScene caught up with McDonnell to find out how ‘Chunky’ has reacted to his first professional defeat. This time around the mood in the camp is as confident as ever but also seems a lot more relaxed.
“James did around 175 rounds [of sparring] in this camp. He was doing 15 rounds a few weeks ago, 12 rounds last week and did 40 odd rounds with Darren Barker before his world title fight. He’s done everything. He’s in tremendous shape and he’s sitting here now laughing his head off. He’s confident and looking forward to it,” says McDonnell.
Although the history between the pair ensured the defeat to Groves was a difficult one to take, listening to McDonnell talk the loss may actually have a positive effect on the Olympic Gold medallist. I enquire if the criticism he received following the reverse has made him more determined than ever to succeed?
“I wouldn’t say he’s more determined. He’s always been determined,” disagrees the former world title challenger. “I think focused is a better word. The difference now is that whereas the Groves fight was “Did he? Didn’t he?” this time it’s gonna be emphatic. There’ll be no ifs, buts or maybes. In sparring, from first round to last, nobody has been able to get a look in. His punch ratio is tremendous. He’s been coming back to the corner saying ‘Nobody is ever gonna take a round off me again’ he says.
Although personal rivalry elevated the importance of the Groves clash, 33-year-old Wilczewski shapes up – on paper at least – to be DeGales toughest test to date. With his newfound focus and assertiveness demonstrating itself in training though, McDonnell is hopeful that his charge takes his gym form into the ring.
“Taking a leaf out of Brian Cloughs book, we’re gonna let him worry about our strengths rather than the other way around,” he says. “We’ve looked at all his strengths and weaknesses and James has covered them all. We’ve worked with some very strong guys and also some exceptionally fast guys. We leave no stone unturned. We’ve watch sparring sessions of him on Youtube and DVDs of his fights and used that in our technical sessions. It’s worked out really well and he’s doing everything it’ll take to beat the Polish kid”.
The hours of study seem to have paid dividends. McDonnell is able to provide a thorough breakdown of the 29-1 (10) European champions style. This time around there is no personal edge to the fight. The trash talking and disparaging criticism have taken a back seat and left only a high level of respect for the opponent.
“He’s a very good technical boxer. James has seen a lot of eastern European boxers over the years and with his wealth of amateur experience he has come across his style quite a few times.”
The compliments don’t end there. McDonnell sees similarities between the Pole and the most technically gifted fighter in the world today. “He’s very cute, smart, physically strong and very similar to Floyd Mayweather in that he does a lot of work with his back hand. He likes to sit in the pocket and do a lot of feeling with the left hand while he looks to counter with the right. James has done some sessions purely working on that hand and it’s been quality.
“He’s got quite a tidy defence too which has impressed me. He doesn’t take shots and if you hit him with one you won’t hit him with two. This fights a lot easier for James because it’s not personal. He just has to go in there with an opponent like he’s always done. He’s so on it and up for it. I’m really optimistic that this could be the best performance of his career.”
McDonnell himself came under fire following the defeat to Groves. In some corners he was seen as letting his man drift to defeat in a winnable fight. “No plan b” and “complacency” were just two of the criticisms levelled at DeGale and his team following the decision. Does he himself feel any additional pressure to prove the critics wrong?
“Not at all. I know I will but I don’t think I need to,” he says. “I’ve trained world heavyweight champions, British champions and European champions. If it’s my peers criticising then I’ll take it personally when, and no disrespect, its websites or whatever then to be honest I don’t even read them. If it’s a professional with no hidden agenda then I’ll listen.”
“People say there was no plan b but we always carry a few different game plans into the ring. In the Groves fight, James was defending his British title. Groves was on the back foot and never engaged the whole fight or put more than three punches together,” he continues.
“At one stage in the fight, James backed off and the whole crowd booed! In the ninth round I said, ‘Close the show’. If you’ve watched the fight closely, in the ninth round James goes through the gears and the knockout would have come. James then got cut right at the start of the tenth round, the first cut of his career amateur or pro. He started dabbing at the cut and the whole game plan went out of the window.
‘When the tenth round was over, Groves got back on his bike, running and running and running. The great thing for me as a trainer is seeing the improvements he’s made since that fight. I just spoke to James and said, ‘Here’s your diary, here’s your running programme, here’s your strength programme. You’ve just completed 175 rounds of sparring. Are you happy with it?’ and he said, ‘Yes’. We’ve ticked all those boxes so I’ve done my job, now its time for you to go do yours.”
The hard work is in the bank and all that is left is for DeGale to convert five months of frustration into a convincing performance. What would the ideal outcome be in McDonnells mind? Would it be a spectacular, quick KO to wipe the memory of George Groves from the publics mind or maybe a tough fight in which the 25-year-old has to change tack to prevail? Neither. In McDonnells mind the answer is much simpler.
“Just for James to be James DeGale. For him to carry out everything he does in the gym in the ring. Nothing different. When he’s himself, he’s an absolutely storming fighter. If he does that, he will win this fight and become the European champion. I’ll say this now – after the fight, people will be saying that this was his best performance so far.”