By Terence Dooley
Remember James DeGale, the 2008 Olympic middleweight gold medalist who raced to 10-0 in his early days as a pro, picking up the British title en route before losing a close one to local rival George Groves? If you don’t, then you’re going to be reminded what the fighter known as “Chunky” is all about come October 13 when he fights on British soil for the first time in almost a year when appearing at Kent’s Bluewater venue.
DeGale’s only other fight of 2012, a fourth-round stoppage of Cristian Sanavia, took place in April amidst a struggle to extract himself from a managerial and promotional agreement with former handler Frank Warren, who is still appealing the BBBoC’s decision to allow DeGale to determine his contracts.
Now signed with rival promoter Mick Hennessy, who has a TV deal with terrestrial network Channel 5, DeGale hopes to put his recent inactivity behind him. The 26-year-old spoke to BoxingScene over the phone earlier today to express his happiness over his new deal and his October defence of the EBU 168lb belt he wrested from Poland’s Piotr Wilczewski by majority decision after twelve tough rounds last October.
“It has been too long,” said DeGale. “I’m over the moon, trust me — I’m overwhelmed and can’t wait. I’ve just signed with Mick Hennessy and Channel 5, and have been in the gym training for eight weeks, so I was just waiting on the date. Now it is just around the corner. One fight in a year is just not on.”
Many fans feared that DeGale would be sat on the shelf until April — when his contract with Warren was due to expire — which made the announcement of his deal with Hennessy, not to mention an October outing, a pleasant surprise for the fighter, his family and his fans.
However, DeGale fears that some casual fans have missed out on his EBU run, something he hopes to put right now he is in the Channel 5 fold. “Of course,” he said when asked if fighting on Channel 5 will boost his exposure.
“The past months have been quiet. People think the Groves fight was my last one. With them (his contests against Wilczewski and Sanavia) being on BoxNation, I don’t think a lot of people got to see my last few fights. A lot of people don’t know that I’ve won the European title since then and defended it away from home, so my last two fights have been very important.
“I’m glad I’m back on terrestrial telly and my profile should be boosted after this. A lot of people know me already because of the gold medal and the way I’ve been fast tracked, so now it should go through the roof.”
Wilczewski has since dropped a narrow decision to former IBF middleweight world titlist Arthur Abraham. The win over “Wilk” is a good barometer of how far DeGale can expect to go. On the night itself, DeGale took some big shots, but fired back at crucial times to take a deserved, if narrow, win.
“I didn’t box to my best,” said DeGale. “I boxed alright, but I got the win, which is the main thing, although I could have boxed better. The main thing with Wilczewski is that he comes to fight. I showed a lot of heart, that I have a good chin and that I can dig deep.
“I was stopping people through my career. In the Groves fight, people said I didn’t give my all. In the fight after, I put in a decent performance and showed a lot of decent qualities.”
April’s win over Sanavia took place on a Nisse Sauerland card in Demark after the Germany-based outfit stepped in to help stage the contest alongside Round Zero’s Luca Ferrara.
“Sauerland Promotions held that show and they treated me fantastic,” he said. “The show was great and the win was even better. You know what I’m like, everyone knows what I’m like, I’m willing to fight anyone and will go to their backyard because I’m that type of man and that type of fighter. To stop a former WBC world champion, a genuine world champion, in four (rounds) was really good. Obviously, he wasn’t at his best, and has not fought since, but it looks a really good result on the record.
“All I want to do is box regularly. At this point in my career, I need to be having four or five fights a year. The opponent will announced in a couple of days. I’m defending my European title, so the opponent will be ranked in Europe and will be a top 15 fighter — I’m looking forward to it.”
DeGale’s announcement that he was decanting to Hennessy’s stable raised a few eyebrows. For DeGale it was a natural selection due to the promoter’s past association with IBF world champion Carl Froch.
“Yep, that was one of the main reasons why I chose Mick, he’s a great promoter who has been there and done it, he guided Carl Froch to the super middleweight world title,” DeGale’s take on the decision.
“Mick has got terrestrial telly, but the main thing I said to him was that I needed to be busy, needed the rounds and needed to do it (fight). I’ve got this date in October and will have one in December. We can move on from there and one hundred percent I’ll be busy.”
“That’s it,” he said when asked if the promise of frequent fights was one of the key features of the deal. “This is my job, so I get up every morning and go to the gym. It has been a bit frustrating, but I love training, love running, so that wasn’t that bad. The frustrating part was not knowing when I was boxing. I knew it would be October or November. Now I know the date I’m over the moon.
“Carl’s got a good three or four fights left in him, so I think Britain will be looking for a super middleweight to take his place — and that man’s here. I’ll just keep boxing, stay active and see no reason why I can’t go all the way to the top.”
DeGale’s march to world title contention went skewiff when he dropped a razor tight majority decision to Groves in May 2011; the bitter build-up swayed public opinion to Groves’s side due to the way the Hammersmith boxer handled some strong verbal barbs from the man he beat in the amateur ranks.
DeGale, though, feels that he did enough on the night to retain his British belt. “Yeah, I started far too slow, it was far too close and his tactics on the night were alright, he ran around the ring and got the decision, but I don’t know how the judges can score that to him,” his recollection of his sole defeat.
“People judge the fight differently, and on the night they (the judges) made the decision. I should have thrown more punches in the first six rounds and wasn’t on him enough, but I still felt that I did enough to nick the close rounds. He got the win and that’s history. That’s all behind me now. I’m looking towards the future, to building up my record and I hope it will take me to a world title.”
Olympic gold medals do not always lead to world titles; fighters sometimes find the transition between the unpaid and paid ranks a tough one to handle. DeGale is different, he feels that he can net some stand out wins then eye the top men in the division.
“Of course it is, and these are the types of fights I want,” he said as talked turned to the exploits of Froch and Andre Ward. “Give it a year, four or five more fights, and I want those fights because this super middleweight division is exciting — it is jammed with talent and there’s great fights out there. I’m pleased I’m at super middleweight.”
DeGale’s approach to the Groves fight went a long way towards souring a public persona that had already taken a few blows during the early days of his career. Certainly, the verbal digs he directed towards Groves were unnecessary, but DeGale also happens to one of the most fan friendly fighters in the sport, spending a lot of his time at ringside signing autographs, posing for photos and discussing his career.
It is a shame, then, that this personable persona became lost amidst the Groves rivalry. British fans have also failed to appreciate that the fighter was thrust into the limelight at a young age, was massively successful early in life and found himself in a position that few people find themselves in, let alone a 21-year-old who has known nothing but the gym for the majority of his life. A few missteps and a bit of bluster can be excused, no?
“A lot of people think I’m this arrogant, silly boy, but people who know me and are around me know that I’m genuine and that I’m a big softy, really,” stated DeGale. “I love my sport. I’m confident about what I do and hopefully, with the profile of Channel 5, they can see a different side of me and can all start getting behind me.”
Speaking of getting behind people, the 2008 Olympian spent his summer supporting Team GB at London’s ExCeL Arena. Anthony Joshua, Anthony Ogogo, Fred Evans, Luke Campbell and Nicola Adams secured medals, and DeGale enjoyed every second of the tournament.
“I loved it,” he said. “It brought back lots of memories. The arena was fantastic, the atmosphere was great and it made me think, ‘I want to be there (in the ring)’, but I’ve had my time as an amateur in the Olympics — it is their time now. They performed fantastically to get five medals. It is unbelievable. They did really well. I’m dead proud.
“I saw Anthony Ogogo (before he secured his place in the semi-finals by beating Stefan Hartel) and then watched him go out there and do what he does best to get a fantastic win that day. I’m pleased for them all. Hopefully they can go on and do big things.
“I won domestic and other titles, but that (the Olympics) is where it all started for me. To go to that big stage, fight for your country and win an Olympic gold medal is, so far, the biggest feeling I’ve had. I’ve won British and the European title, but to win the Olympics is something I can’t describe. It is a special time and special event.”
As mentioned above, DeGale ticked over in the gym during his brief sabbatical. One particular sparring session caused a few ripples after Chris Eubank Junior broke boxing’s sparring code of Omerta by Tweeting that he had “Schooled” the former British and Current EBU champion.
“I’m going to have to expose him now,” DeGale’s response to Eubank’s claim. “The guy and his dad (former WBO middleweight and super middleweight title holder Chris Eubank) are on a different planet. It all started a year ago, when I lost to Groves, and the guy (Eubank Junior) sent me a longwinded message on Facebook saying, ‘I’m not your friend, I’m not you enemy, but I am your rival and in a couple of years time if we carry on being arrogant and carry on being brash the fight will be massive’. It went on and on. It was a load of rubbish. I was thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’
“Now he’s turned pro, had a couple of fights (Eubank is 5-0) and he came to spar at my gym. By the way, he was very rude and arrogant. He didn’t say ‘Hi’ or show any respect. So we sparred and I actually moved him around — that’s the only way I can put it. It was all really crazy.
“That night, I got a message telling me to look at what Junior had put on his Twitter. I didn’t have Twitter then, but I typed it in and saw he said he ‘schooled me’ — I couldn’t believe it. I don’t understand it.
“There’s a lot of people in boxing, a lot of haters, and obviously Chris Eubank Junior is one of them. I don’t know, I just know that I’d brought him into my gym to spar and the attitude of the boy was bad. I hope that I was nothing like that when I turned pro.
“That (telling sparring stories) is not what a true professional does. What does my head in is that he’s a five-fight novice. I’ve sparred the best in Great Britain — guys like Tony Bellew, Nathan Cleverly and Darren Barker — so for someone like Eubank Junior to go on Twitter and say all that is laughable.”
Indeed, DeGale believes that the 23-year-old prospect should stop trying to take after his famous father, both inside and outside the ring. “He needs to find his own identity,” he stated.
“I was doing my pad work, and he does whatever his dad tells him, if his dad told him to pick his nose he’d do it, I swear to god, so his dad told him to do the Chris Eubank jump over the ropes. I’m there in the ring doing my pads, and he jumps over the ropes. I was thinking, ‘What are you doing?’ It is all about mind games, what is it with these people?
“I just don’t get this guy. I’d heard he’d broken Cleverly’s rib, that he’d beaten up George Groves in sparring, and there’s all these different rumours — I don’t know what he’s going around telling people. I heard he has been kicked out of three gyms for his conduct and he wants to cause trouble everywhere, he is crazy. Imagine what he must feel like now he is going to be boxing on my undercard.”
Given their respective positions and divisions, that rivalry looks like it might never leave the sparring ring. DeGale is instead focusing on resuming his love affair with the sport that has defined his life thus far.
“It is going to be exciting for the next couple of years and I can’t wait,” he enthused. “I’m happy to be back doing my job, something that I love. Boxing is all I know. I started doing it when I was ten. Boxing on Channel 5 makes me so happy. I’m going to put on a good show and hope everyone tunes in.
“Without boxing, I don’t know what I would have done with myself. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I could have ended up in jail. Boxing taught me discipline, has kept me on the straight and narrow — I thank boxing.”
Should his career catch fire again on Channel 5, boxing fans might end up thanking the 12-1 (9) fighter for portraying the sport in a good light on a big platform. Inside and outside the ring, the real James DeGale could be about to stand up, and deliver.
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