By Terence Dooley
James DeGale has every reason to feel optimistic going into 2011, the 2008 Olympic middleweight gold medallist won his first major title as a pro last December by stopping Liverpool's Paul Smith in nine rounds. DeGale travelled into the lion's den for that one, vying for the title in front of Smith's voracious hometown support.
A left hook thrown from the orthodox stance put Paul on rubbery legs, the follow-up attack contained enough accuracy and spite to force referee Howard Foster to halt the bout at 2:08 of the round. Now, though, DeGale can only go in one direction. You cannot unring the bell once you've picked up an established belt. Other fighters will be gunning for DeGale, who hopes to accommodate all comers as he seeks to secure the Lonsdale belt.
“Ideally, I'd like to defend my British title three times and win it outright (Writer's note: Three British title wins, including a mandatory defence, means the title-holder gets to keep a copy of the belt). I'm willing to do anything that [promoter] Frank [Warren] and [matchmaker] Dean [Powell] put in front of me, whatever, man. We'll wait and see, either I move on or stay at British level to defend the title. Whatever I do, it will be fun,” enthused DeGale when speaking to me over the phone on Friday evening.
“Yeah, that would be nice”, says ‘Chunky’ when asked if he wants a Lonsdale belt to keep as a family heirloom, “all the great British fighters have won it so I'd like to win it outright, definitely.”
Smith won the title via a split-decision over fellow Liverpudlian Tony Quigley in October 2009; his first defence was another local derby, a points win over Tony Dodson in March of last year; the ‘Real Gone Kid’ went into the DeGale fight as the last man standing in Liverpool's gruelling super-middleweight ‘cock of the dock’ series. Virtually the entire ECHO Arena crowd was cheering for Smith, the fans gave the visitor a rough ride as he made his way into the ring.
“All the booing didn't bother me one bit. I went there and won the title in front of eleven thousand people and after I won it I felt even better because most of those people wanted me to lose – I schooled him and then stopped it so it was a great feeling when I won,” mused DeGale when recalling the crowd's reaction.
Still, the North-Londoner hopes to one day return to Liverpool in order to make amends. “Listen, I'd love to go back,” he stated. “I used to love going up there as an amateur. It is a great city full of great people.”
Size played its part on the night. DeGale stands at 6’ 0½’’, Smith is around 5’ 11’’; the reach differential was minimal yet the challenger fought tall, he tightened his guard, only leaning in when Smith came forward. James also used his size to control the fight from range, preventing Paul from using his muscularity on the inside. Quigley and Dodson were drawn into dogfights with Smith, who then out-dogged and out-scored both men; DeGale maintained his patience, allowing the stoppage to come of its own accord.
“You know what, around rounds five and six I could feel him getting weaker,” he confirmed. “I could feel it in his punches, he wasn't throwing much, and I knew it was a case of the speed killing him. I felt him tire. The ref made the right decision because he wasn't throwing nothing back – I hit him and hurt him at the start of the ninth round, he nearly went then. Then I knocked him onto the ropes and stopped him. If the stoppage didn't come then he'd have gone out on his back so it was a really good decision.”
A shift of balance followed by a left hook started the rot. Smith's legs reacted to the shot. Foster told me that he had made a note of this, the fact that the following blows made Paul's head bob too and fro forced him to intervene. That initial counter punch was the key to the stoppage.
DeGale was keen to reveal the name of this signature slingshot, “It is called 'the Trigger', mate, Floyd has got the 'Check' and I've got the 'Trigger'. Trust me. You take it on the elbows when he's coming back with his shots and then you time your perfect shot.”
He added: “The whole night was unbelievable. I was thinking about it for weeks in training. I felt confident going in. Check it out on your TV, I had a t-shirt that said ‘And the new’, it was written in little glittery bits – I was dead confident going in there.”
Indeed, the 24-year-old had been pestering promoter Frank Warren for fights like the Smith one ever since turning over in February 2009. Warren is now rumoured to be exploring the option of a WBA title fight against Dmitri Sartison.
“Hopefully,” confirmed DeGale when asked if he will continue to take big strides. “Ever since I turned pro I've been calling for the big fights at domestic level and I beat the best guy in Britain so definitely. I want to go on and box for a world title down the line, I'm getting better and better. I perform at my best the better the opponent. Put me in with excellent fighters and you will get excellent performances.”
Joe Calzaghe won the British belt in his sixteenth contest by stopping Mark Delaney, eighteen months later and Joe was duking it out against Chris Eubank for the WBO super-middleweight title left vacant by the shock retirement of Steve Collins. The former WBO, WBC, IBF and WBA boss rates both DeGale and London rival George Groves but has plumped for James should the two meet.
“Joe Calzaghe was one of my favourite fighters, it was nice to hear that from him,” revealed the 9-0 (7 early) southpaw. “But people are going to say this after our last two performances. We both won but George got knocked down in his last one and if Kenny Anderson were a little bit fitter he'd have won that fight. I boxed the best super-middleweight in the country and look at how I performed.
“I've never been impressed with Groves since he turned professional. All the hype around him was about him beating me as an amateur, he did Ok in the first couple of performances but he hasn't changed since his amateur days. George is still upright, he swings and his chin is up in the air. People are starting to realise that he isn't the real deal – he’s been exposed. Remember his fight in America against Alfredo Contreras, he got wobbled in the first round, his defence is very leaky and he'll get found out very, very soon.”
Both DeGale and Groves come across as affable, personable characters yet they are ruthless when it comes to the subject of one another. Groves believes DeGale is fuelled by fear and envy; James believes that George is living in a dream world and following a party line.
“George is a very confused individual, his gaffes are unbelievable,” answers DeGale when asked how the feud began. “I don't think even he believes what he is saying, David Haye and Adam Booth must be telling him what to say, it is a joke. I don't know where his ideas come from. We never got on, we were never friends – George has lived in my shadow for half his life.
“Look at our amateur pedigree and history, he was beaten by guys that I beat and guys who would never beat me. When people look deep into it they see the gulf between us. As I say, the guy will get found out very soon.”
Still, the words are empty rhetoric without the catharsis of a fight, both fighters want it yet there is a fear that it is now or never when it comes to making this match a reality. DeGale shares these concerns.
He said, “If it doesn't happen this year then I don't think it will get done because he will be found out when he steps up, or sooner. I've been calling for it, I want to make this fight but there's always problems getting them to agree on things, now we've gone to purse bids and if it doesn't happen this year then it won't happen – I don't need George Groves, he needs me.”
Strong talk from the British champion, his fans will nod their heads, the detractors will write off his words. DeGale has compared himself to Marmite in the past, believing that people will either get him or cast him in the role of black-hat villain. James, however, has the same twinkle in his eyes as James Toney and Floyd Mayweather, the talk smacks of arrogance yet there is an underlying awareness that you need to generate attention in this sport. The 24-year-old feels that his confidence is misconstrued as egotism.
“Oh most definitely, people take it the wrong way,” he concurred when asked about the differing perceptions of his personality. “Everyone who knows me knows that I'm a loving, caring boy and that I'm down-to-earth – I keep it real. People do think confidence is arrogance but you've got to have confidence in yourself otherwise you won't get anywhere. I know how good I am so I tell people how good I am. I am talking the talk but I'm walking the walk so it don't matter.”
Carl Froch is doing the same thing at a higher level; the Nottingham-based boxer holds the WBC title and is coming off a career-best win over Arthur Abraham in Helsinki last November. Next up for Carl is a showdown against Glen Johnson. With Andre Ward a distinct possibility should he beat the ‘Road Warrior’. Can Carl continue to back up his own talk?
“I think Carl can do it,” said DeGale when asked if his compatriot can win the inaugural Super Six Series. “His past two performances have really made people sit up. Carl has got a boxing brain, his arsenal against Abraham was unbelievable and I really like him as a personality. In the next eighteen months, when Carl comes out of the Super Six, then who's to say we can't fight for the all of Great Britain to enjoy, it would be a massive fight.
“Ever since the beginning, I've known that I'm part of an elite group and have that Olympic burden but it gives me a lift. People remember an Olympic gold medal because it’s an important championships and a really important win but you work on it.”
Speaking of work, DeGale is trained by Jimmy McDonnell, one of the hardest taskmasters in the game. When asked what he does to unwind, the newly minted British boss told me that he is too busy training to think about anything else.
“I'm always ticking over in the gym. I'm really into my training. Everyone knows that Jimmy [McDonnell] is a total fitness fanatic and he works me like a Trojan. But he's very good in other ways.
“People don't realise this but it is about more than fitness with Jim, technically he is very good and is always working on different things. I am never bored in the gym. Some mornings I might wake up and go 'Oh no, what is he gonna have me doing today!' That is why I go into the ring with a smile on my face. I know that all the hard work is done in the gym and that I will be alright fitness-wise. We are a fantastic combination.”
When it comes to DeGale, the die is cast, you either like him or dislike him, the main thing is that he provokes a reaction and grabs your attention. Recent performances have ensured that even his fiercest critics are now giving him his due. Ironically, James was booed for under-performing in his professional debut and jeered for over-performing in his title win, the tide has turned, he is now seen as a man to reckon with in the 168lb division.
“Tell the US fans to keep looking out for me. All my fans are keeping the faith and that faith is going to be rewarded. I am on a mission and in the next eighteen months I will definitely be world champion. Watch this space. I've said it before, the future's bright, the future's 'Chunky',” he promised.
Thanks to Richard Maynard for setting up this interview at such short-notice.
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