By Thomas Gerbasi
It started as an annoyance, as most injuries do. James DeGale, preparing for the second defense of his IBF super middleweight title against Rogelio Medina, felt the twinge in his lower leg but paid no mind to it. He had other, more urgent matters to tend to, namely his shoulder.
“Six weeks before that, I sparred, and I had to stop sparring because of my shoulder,” he recalled. “I threw a hook and it landed weird and, from there, it just got worse.”
But he pressed on, as fighters do. He won a 12-round unanimous decision over Medina in April 2016 to retain his title, then engaged in a thrilling unification bout with Badou Jack that ended in a draw nine months later. DeGale finally got surgery on his right shoulder, but his leg was still giving him issues.
Again, he ignored the pain, and wound up losing his title to Caleb Truax in December 2017. Even when he regained the crown from the American, he wasn’t spectacular in the effort, and the whispers began and then got louder, saying that at the age of 32, DeGale’s best days were behind him.
“I thought I was just training hard,” said DeGale of the leg injury that was finally diagnosed last summer as Achilles tendinitis. “But that’s why my movement around the ring and so much of my boxing skills were affected. I couldn’t bend my knees properly, I couldn’t move my feet, my power was affected, and it was only last summer I thought, nah, something’s up, so I had it diagnosed.”
And now, leading up to the next biggest fight of his ten-year pro career against Chris Eubank Jr. on February 23, the 33-year-old DeGale feels like a new man, or least a 28-year-old man.
“Because of my last couple performances, people are saying it looks like I’m on a decline, looks like I’ve seen better days,” he said. “But that’s down to injuries. I haven’t run for nearly seven months now, and it’s rewound me back to the James De Gale of 2014 when I was about to win my world title. I’ve been feeling fresh, rejuvenated, fit. It’s crazy. I’m getting older, I’m 33, and I’ve got to start training smart. When I was 23, I was doing all kinds of things. I love running, so obviously as a fighter, you think that’s the only way to get fit. It isn’t. There are a lot of other ways to get fit. And if anything, I’m fitter because I’m not battling my body and your joints feel better the next day. So I’m training smart and I’m feeling the best I ever felt. I know a lot of fighters say that, but I really am.”
DeGale pauses, knowing that no matter what he says, the doubters will only be convinced by a convincing victory at London’s O2 Arena a week from Saturday.
“There are a lot of questions hanging over this fight and in four weeks’ time, we will get the answers,” he said. “I’m very confident that it’s going to be a fantastic win for myself.”
Last September, DeGale fought for the first time since putting his health woes behind him, knocking out Fidel Monterrosa Munoz in the third round. It was a fight he was supposed to win, but the act of getting it still set the stage for what is likely the homestretch of the London native’s career. That’s not because he’s being shown the door, but because he has an exit strategy that will cement his place in British boxing history.
“I’ve lived the American Dream,” DeGale said. “I’ve gone to America, I’ve won a world title, I’ve defended it three times, I’ve been the road warrior. But these fights that I’m in now, I call them legacy fights. Groves, Eubank, Smith – domestic grudge matches. And I can see the finish line. I’ve only got a couple years left and I’m going to put everything in to it and I want to be in these big, massive domestic fights because these are the fights back at home that people are gonna remember me for.”
It may not make sense to folks on the American side of the pond, but one of boxing’s greatest treasures are the fights that take place on British soil between domestic rivals. There may not even be anything major at stake like a world title or a spot on the pound-for-pound list, but these fights not only bring out the best in the fighters, but they bring out the diehard British fight fans in droves. It’s a unique phenomenon, and one that we’re seeing again with the reception given to DeGale-Eubank.
“We’ve got some of the most passionate, diehard fans over in England,” said DeGale, Great Britain’s Olympic gold medalist in 2008. “And this fight with me and Eubank, this will be in a sold out, 20,000 seat O2 Arena, it will be on (ITV) Box Office over here, and this is a massive fight, a grudge match. And the boxing fans, they just get behind us and they love a good ol’ tear up. We’ve got the best fans in the world because we’re a bit mad (Laughs); all of us are a bit crazy. We get really into it. We’re mad, but we love our boxing.”
DeGale laughs, knowing that those outside the boxing bubble have to look at all of us as a bit mad. But once the sport gets into your blood, it’s all over, and no one knows that better than DeGale, who has been boxing longer than he hasn’t had gloves on. So when he went through his rough stretch, it hit him hard.
“The past three years have been so frustrating because I’ve been putting in these average performances and having a hard time with people I really shouldn’t be dealing with, and the people really don’t know what I’m feeling and what I’m going through,” said DeGale. “I really should have took a full year off and got my shoulder sorted and my Achilles sorted. But me being me, I just carried on. I wanted to earn money, I wanted to carry on fighting, but really, that’s what I should have done.”
It’s a rare down moment in an otherwise upbeat conversation. As a competitor, DeGale has walked the line between wanting to fight and fighting when he isn’t at his best, and he takes the good with the bad. It’s part of the game. But then he switches gears, knowing that there is no time like the present, and as he awaits his meeting with Eubank, he’s excited.
“Finally, I can honestly say now that I feel fantastic,” he said. “I’m taking it back to when I won my world title, when I was on a rampage, when I beat Brandon Gonzales, knocked out (Marco Antonio) Periban, won my world title from (Andre) Dirrell, beat (Lucian) Bute in his backyard, then I beat Medina, then I fought Badou Jack. I’m on that kind of rampage, that kind of flow, that kind of hype, I just feel so good within myself. Mind, body and soul, that’s what I’m feeling right now. I’m feeling great.”
It doesn’t hurt that he’s got an opponent in front of him that he will have no hesitation punching in the face on fight night.
“One hundred percent,” said DeGale. “There are bragging rights on the line and there’s a lot on the line here because his dad (former world champion Chris Eubank Sr.) has criticized me over the years. When I was European champion, he said I’m not good enough to be world champion. So he’s disrespected me for a long time, and now his son is just the icing on the cake.
“I can’t lose to Eubank,” he continues. “If I lose to Eubank, I feel like it tarnishes my legacy. Because of what I’ve achieved in my career, to go and lose to someone like Eubank would tarnish that. He’s not on my level. When I had my Achilles and shoulder problems, this would have been a real good fight and Eubank would have had a chance at beating me. He is relentless, he’s got a good work rate, he is fit, and he don’t mind if it gets hard. But the way I’m feeling now, I’m all healed up and Eubank hasn’t got a chance. I’m too good for him.”
James DeGale believes every word he says. Just as he’s honest when talking about less than stellar performances over the last couple years, he’s honest in his feelings about his health, this fight and his career. It’s the place every fighter hopes to reach one day, hopefully before it’s too late to enjoy. He’s here now. And he’s ready to enjoy it.
“I’ve been through hell,” he said. “It’s been really hard these last couple years, but I’ve come through the other side. I lost my title, I got it back, had that warm-up fight in LA and now I’m ready for this big one, this homecoming.”