By Thomas Gerbasi
A unification bout is a big deal no matter how you slice it, but if anyone in boxing is more well-equipped than most to handle the pressure and hype of a big fight, it’s IBF super middleweight champion James DeGale.
Being in the eye of that hurricane has been a part of his life since his amateur days, when he won a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, and his ability to perform when the spotlight shines brightest should be on display once more this Saturday when he faces WBC 168-pound champ Badou Jack at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Yet it was a moment in between that may truly define London’s DeGale, a 2011 decision loss to George Groves that handed him his lone pro defeat. In his 11th pro fight. In a grudge match. With all of the UK watching at the O2 Arena.
“A lot of people wrote me off, a lot of people doubted me after that and thought that I wasn’t the real deal,” DeGale said of the Groves fight. “But I worked my way back to the top in some fights that I didn’t really want to fight in. I was boxing in small arenas and just building my way back.”
For a fighter who was the toast of the town thanks to his Olympic gold medal, touted for big things, multiple championships and all the things that go along with them, it was a blow to his ego to have to basically start over.
“That was very hard,” DeGale said. “When I first came out of the Olympic Games, I was the new golden boy, so it was hard and I had a perfect start to my professional career – 10 fights, eight knockouts – and I was touted as the next big thing, basically. So that hurt my ego, it hurt my pride because there was a lot on the line in that fight against Groves because it was basically a grudge match – two London boys boxing in London at the O2 in front of 17,000 people. So it was pretty big, but I believed in my ability and I knew I was going to reach the top. The famous saying I keep on saying is, ‘The cream always rises,’ because I left George Groves in the dust and choking on my dust. I left him way behind.”
What may have hurt more is that many believed DeGale won the razor-close fight, but the end result is the end result, and the Londoner soldiered on, getting back into the race, ironically, on a Groves undercard.
“I got the chance to box in a final eliminator against Brandon Gonzales at Wembley on the undercard of Froch and Groves and I knocked him out,” he said.
Groves lost his second bout to Froch that night in 2014, and he would drop a subsequent title fight to Jack in 2015. DeGale has won 13 straight since losing to Groves, and while it won’t come out of his mouth, he may want to thank Groves for the wake-up call.
“From then (the Gonzales fight), I just went from strength to strength and I’ve been great since then,” DeGale said. “But the Groves loss was a blessing in disguise. It showed what kind of person I am, what kind of man I am.”
He also believes he wouldn’t be where he’s at today without the night of May 21, 2011.
“No, I think that fight changed me as a fighter and as a man as well. It made me mature and it made me grow, definitely. That was a hard, hard loss to take, but I’ve come through the other side. So I’m happy and pleased how it’s worked out.”
Owner of the IBF crown since defeating Andre Dirrell in May 2015, the 30-year-old DeGale has gone on to successfully defend it twice with wins over Lucian Bute and Rogelio Medina, and, like Jack, he could have opted for easier pickings than a risky unification bout, but that’s not the point of this whole thing for the Brit.
“Listen, I’m a prizefighter, I do care about the money,” he said. “But put that aside and when I retire, I want people to say, ‘James DeGale, he was a helluva fighter, he fought everyone and he won everything.’ The money comes after that. I’m a prizefighter, but legacy and people giving me credit and kudos, that means so much more.”
There’s no retirement yet, but plenty of legacy building to do this weekend in Brooklyn.
“When I first turned professional, I wanted to be the best,” he said. “I wanted to be number one at my weight. Obviously, I’ve had a couple good wins over the past year or so since I’ve been the champ, and I think this fight determines who is the number one in the division. If I win this, I’m there, I’m number one. And hopefully somewhere in the pound-for-pound list. The last couple years I’ve been on a good run – I’ve got momentum, I feel strong, and by fight night I’m gonna be a beast.”