By John Evans
Having operated in the shadows for much of 2012, Jim McDonnell’s stable of fighters has finally begun to grab some of the limelight. Star pupil James DeGale has emerged from months of contractual disputes to make a promising start to what will hopefully be a lengthy run on terrestrial television with Channel 5 and, following a year of injury and illness, Steve O’Meara gets the opportunity to claim his first major title when he meets the undefeated Liam Smith for the Commonwealth light-middleweight belt this Saturday.
Let’s begin by looking back. Last Saturday, European super middleweight champion James DeGale moved to 14-1 (9) and added the WBC silver belt to his collection by comprehensively out-boxing former world title challenger Fulgencio Zuniga. It was DeGale’s second outing in eight weeks since teaming up with promoter Mick Hennessey and, with an EBU title defence against the accomplished Mouhamed Ali Ndiaye, 22-1 (13), already scheduled for January 26th, the Olympic gold medallist is finally getting the activity both he and McDonnell have craved.
“Activity’s a big thing for James,” McDonnell told Boxingscene after the fight. “He always wants to be on it. Inactivity was difficult for James because he just gets bored. He’s saying ‘when am I fighting?’ all the time. When he wasn’t fighting he was just a nightmare because he just wants to box.”
‘Chunky’ received some unwarranted criticism from the television commentary team for working off the ropes against Zuniga. Never mind the fact that the 26-year-old barely took a decent shot and countered well, Dave Farrar and the legendary Al Bernstein grew frustrated that DeGale was allowing Zuniga to unload at all. McDonnell, however, was comfortable with what he said on the night and puts it all down to improving DeGale’s armoury.
“When James first turned pro, he was sparring with a very good fighter and went to the ropes and took too many shots,” says McDonnell. “I got him in the gym next day and taught him how to fight on the ropes. We watched video tapes at my house of Wilfredo Benitez, the greatest off the ropes of all time. Incredible.
“I showed him Duran on the ropes. I showed him Sugar Ray Leonard against Hagler on the ropes. I showed him Floyd Mayweather. None of those fighters chose to go on the ropes, maybe once in a blue moon. Boxing’s an art and to learn the art, you have to learn to box on the ropes. Good fighters trap you. If you don’t learn how to fight on the ropes, somewhere along the line you’re going to have a major problem. He knows what he’s doing on the ropes.
“I said: ‘When you’re in the centre of the ring moving and you have that lovely jab working, nobody can touch you. Guess what James? Life ain’t like that. One day you’re going to be boxing a good fighter like Andre Ward or Carl Froch and you’re gonna be on the ropes. You’ve got to know what you’re doing’.”
Against Zuniga, DeGale began aggressively and dropped the Colombian in the third with a perfectly timed uppercut. Once it became clear that his hard headed visitor wasn’t going anywhere, he demonstrated his impressive hand speed and boxing brain to pick his man apart. He may have dictated the pace the bout was fought at but it was also the fourth time he has completed twelve rounds in just 15 paid contests.
“James won every round against this kid the other night,” insists McDonnell. “I thought he was really, really mature in his performance. The referee prevented a guaranteed stoppage in the third round [when Mr Muratore heard a phantom bell with Zuniga in trouble] and he didn’t panic. He stayed calm and went about his work. We worked to a game plan and he carried it out to the letter. This kid could switch you off with one punch and was a very dangerous puncher. James is getting better and better. He’s maturing into a real world-class fighter and the best is yet to come.
“If you check in world boxing, I don’t think it can be topped. That’s his seventh twelve rounder and he’s only had 15 professional fights. Hats off to James, he had his first twelve rounder in his seventh fight and he’s becoming a real thoroughbred professional.”
Hennessey Sports also seem to be going to great lengths to repair DeGale’s public image. The prefight film of him joking around and comparing dance moves with his sister may not have launched a second career as Michael Jackson’s natural successor, but they did demonstrate a personality which those within the sport often talk about but one that casual fans have seldom seen.
“I couldn’t agree more,” says McDonnell. “James is a real wind up merchant but it’s the little things he does too. We were in the gym one day and he had a little logo on his shorts. I asked what it was and his mum said it was a charity he’d been paying into for three years. He’s never mentioned it. On my son’s birthday, he took him out in the car and bought him a couple of things. He’s a genuine, honest person and he does things for no publicity.”
McDonnell returns to the corner this weekend when he oversees Steve O’Meara’s challenge for the vacant Commonwealth light middleweight title. O’Meara, 16-2 (5), faces Liam Smith at London’s Excel Arena and while McDonnell respects the Liverpudlian, he is positive that his charge will continue his run of good form.
He said: “Steve’s on it. He’s a very strong kid mentally too so it’s all systems go for the weekend. We can’t wait,” said the trainer. “He [Liam] is a fast handed fighter. I wouldn’t say he’s an explosive puncher but I think he’s got a fantastic variety of punches and mixes it well to head and body. Giving him that credit, I say to myself: ‘Is he as fast as DeGale? No. Does he punch as hard as DeGale? No. Has he got as much variety as DeGale? No.’ Steve’s done thousands of rounds with DeGale and nothing Smith does will surprise Steve O’Meara.”
Over the past year, O’Meara has emerged as something of a banger and his past three opponents combined have lasted less than ten minutes. During a recent conversation with the 28-year-old, we discussed the fact that Smith has so far appeared to be an extremely solid operator and that the fight seems likely to last longer than his recent outings.
“Don’t hold your breath on it!” says McDonnell when I suggest the same to him. “I’m not gonna mention names but quite a big name in boxing — outside of our gym — got counted out the other day by Steve. It’ll be a shock when you find out. This kid’s a household name. With those little gloves on? Please believe me, people will get knocked out.
“Steve O’Meara is a proper dark horse. He’s a real danger man. His timing is unbelievable. I look at Smith and he’s a welterweight boxing at light middle. With those little gloves on Steve’s hands, please don’t be surprised if it happens because he hits bloody hard.
“Steve’s sparred with all the boys. DeGale, Carl Froch, Floyd Mayweather, Darren Barker and when you watch him you can see he knows what he’s doing, he’s switched on. Liam Smith’s a welterweight but I’ve seen what he does to light heavyweights and he’s a powerful boy. I’m not underestimating Smith for one minute. He’s an ABA champion, 12-0-1 with 5 knockouts and comes from a good stable of fighters and a good fighting family with a good pedigree. It makes for a fantastic fight and it’s intriguing.”
Should O’Meara come through successfully, McDonnell will enter 2013 with two major titlists under his wing, both with the best part of their careers stretching out in front of them. There shouldn’t be any more years spent in the shadows.
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