Badou Jack interview: Bring it on Badou
Luke G. Williams
PHOTO: Tom Casino / Showtime
NB: This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Boxing Monthly, before the details and date of DeGale vs Jack were known.
Underrated WBC super middleweight champ Badou Jack tells Luke Williams that he’s focused on a collision with James DeGale - a fight that’s been likely since both men were Olympians.
Few boxers had as good a 2015 as 32-year-old Badou Jack. In defeating Anthony Dirrell and George Groves to win and then retain the WBC super middleweight title, the Stockholm-born former Olympian twice upset the expectations of bookmakers and fight fans alike, who had made him the underdog each time.
British bookmakers have already installed DeGale as an odds-on favourite to defeat Jack, who is rated as a 2-1 outsider for a super middleweight unification fight expected to take place later this year. However, in the wake of retaining his title via a majority draw against Lucian Bute (a fight the vast majority of observers felt he won), Jack said in a telephone interview with Boxing Monthly that he revels in being written off, as he was against Dirrell and Groves.
“Everybody said they were going to beat me,” he declared, his laid-back American drawl containing no discernible trace of his Swedish background.
“Even though the Bute fight was scored a draw, we all know I won that fight. But you know what? I want to continue to be the underdog. I want people to continue to doubt me. I like it. And I’m not done yet. I’ve got a lot more to prove.”
Although frustrated with the judges’ decision in the Bute fight, Jack expressed his disappointment in a calm manner. “I thought I clearly won the fight,” he said, his voice not rising an octave. “But I guess you can’t trust the judges. You’ve got to go for the knockout.
“He was very tough, you know, as expected. After all, he’s a former world champion who defended his [IBF] title nine times. So. he’s a veteran, and a tough guy, but I landed 61 per cent of my power punches, which says it all, I think.”
Jack’s showing against the seasoned Bute was all the more impressive when you consider that during the build-up to the fight he became a father for the first time, after his wife, Jasmine, gave birth to a girl named Malaniyah.
“I had a lot of things going on during this training camp,” he said. “I moved into my first house - a new house - my daughter was born and I had a big fight coming up.”
Despite the stress and emotion, Jack said it wasn’t really difficult to stay focused on the fight. “Well, [his daughter] was born two weeks before the fight, and my wife and her mom and our family helped a lot,” he said. “I didn’t really change too many diapers before the fight. But it’s my turn now, so I’m getting stuck in.
“It also gave me extra motivation. I was thinking about her [my daughter] after every round. I did this for her.”
Jack’s somewhat peripatetic route to the status of a successful Las Vegas-based world champion is one of the more unusual back stories in boxing and demonstrates his determination and fortitude.
Born in Stockholm in 1983 to a Swedish mother and a Gambian father, Jack did not take up boxing until his late teens. At this stage, professional boxing was illegal in Sweden, but Jack forged a highly successful amateur career, racking up around 150 fights and winning national and Scandinavian titles.
Jack’s Gambian heritage enabled him to enter the African qualifying section for the 2008 Olympics, and when he booked his place at Beijing, it was the first time a boxer representing the small West African nation had qualified for the Olympics. Jack’s achievement was recognised when he was given the honour of being Gambia’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.
Jack lost to Vijender Singh in the first round of the Olympic middleweight competition. The eventual gold medallist? None other than DeGale, who defeated Singh’s conqueror, Cuban Emilio Correa, in the final. DeGale and Jack’s mutual presence in the 2008 Olympics is one of several twists of fate that have linked the duo’s careers, making their eventual meeting all the more intriguing.
Soon after returning from the Olympics Jack turned pro, his debut coming in June 2009. By now, professional boxing was legal again in Sweden but, under complex new regulations instituted by the government, only four-round bouts were allowed to take place.
Jack realised his chances of advancing his pro career in his homeland were severely limited. “I was only fighting four-round fights,” he said. “I also had two fights in Finland. I realised you’ve got to leave Sweden if you want to become a star, or be a champion, so that’s what I did. I moved my career to America. The style [of boxing] there suited me, and look at me now.”
Jack’s initial, and somewhat unlikely, catalyst for travelling to the US came in the form of the eccentric former heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs. Briggs met Jack at a boxing event in Sweden and persuaded him to move to the States, even becoming something of a mentor. After his arrival in the States in 2010, Jack lived in Briggs’ house for a while.
The move wasn’t easy. “At first I had problems getting a visa,” Jack said. “It was hard, but I always believed in myself and kept training hard.”
In 2011 Jack signed with Warriors Boxing and DiBella Entertainment, but it was a chance meeting with Floyd Mayweather in late 2012 that provided the breakthrough his career really needed.
While sparring against Andre Dirrell in a Las Vegas gym, Jack impressed the visiting Mayweather, so much so that Mayweather bought out his contract.
Jack is effusive in his praise of Mayweather’s support. “He really changed my career,” he said. “Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I’m forever going to be thankful to him. I couldn’t ask for a better promoter. I’m very blessed and very happy to be with him.”
Jack feels that Mayweather’s experiences put him in an ideal position to mentor and guide other boxers. “He’s been there himself,” he said. “He’s the biggest star in boxing, and it’s easier to have a promoter that’s done it himself. I love him.”
Mayweather’s support was particularly important in the wake of Jack’s sole loss, an unexpected February 2014 first-round TKO at the hands of Derek Edwards, who knocked Jack down twice.
That shocking setback derailed advanced plans for a WBC eliminator between Jack and DeGale, and many in the boxing industry dismissed Jack’s world-title ambitions.
However, after a six-month lay-off, Jack rebounded in style, winning two low-key fights before undefeated Anthony Dirrell faced him in an April 2015 voluntary defence of the WBC super middleweight title Dirrell had won against Sakio Bika.
Dirrell was a heavy favourite but Jack had faith in his abilities, believing the Edwards loss had made him a “better fighter”. Neither did he let Dirrell’s verbal fireworks ruffle him.
“There was a lot of trash talking from him, at the weigh-in and at the press conference,” Jack said. “I’m not a trash talker. I respect other fighters. I just wanted to beat him up and that’s what we did. We got the belt and I learned a lot from that fight.”
Jack’s fighting on the inside and superior stamina were crucial factors in defeating Dirrell via majority decision, while his under-estimated punching power was on display in his first defence against George Groves, who he floored in the first round with a big right hand en route to a split-decision victory.
However, Jack believes it his mental toughness more than anything that carried him through these testing fights. “I can box, I can punch and I’ve got good stamina, but my mental strength is my biggest strength,” he said. “I believe in myself. I know I can fight, I know I can box - I know I can do it all.”
As for the impending date with DeGale, Jack brushes off any suggestion that superior results against common foes Rogelio Medina and Groves might give him a psychological edge over the IBF champ - he stopped Medina in six rounds, whereas DeGale had to go 12 rounds with the Mexican fighter, while Groves is the only fighter to have beaten DeGale.
“Well, DeGale fought George Groves five years ago, so you can’t really compare it,” he said. “Groves was younger and more aggressive back then. When I fought him, it was a world title fight and he had more experience.
“Medina, well, I knocked him out and DeGale struggled with him - some people said it was a draw. But then again I thought I beat [Marco Antonio] Periban pretty easily [in September 2013] but the judges made it a draw, and DeGale knocked him out [in three rounds, in November 2014]. So, you can’t really compare. Styles make fights, and we’re going to fight - that’s the main thing.
“Yes, DeGale’s a good fighter, but I definitely think I’m the stronger fighter, and I’ve got better technique. He might be a little faster and have more movement, so it’s a pretty even match-up. I think it’ll be a good fight.”
At time of writing a venue had not been decided, but Jack said he was perfectly willing to box in the UK if necessary.
“I’ll fight anywhere,” he said. “Of course I’d rather fight in Vegas, and he’d rather fight in London, but if they pay me good money to go over there - then why not? This is a business, and it doesn’t get any bigger than a unification fight.
“We’ll have to wait and see. I’ll sit down with Floyd and he and the [Mayweather Promotions] team will take care of it. They’ve got my back. There might be more people at the fight in the UK and more TV [money] in America, so we’ll have to wait and see. I’m open for anything, and I’m ready to go there if I have to - no problem.”
And if Jack once again upsets the odds and beats DeGale? “First things first,” he laughed. “First we’ve got to get both of the belts. Then we’ll see. Right now, I’m just focusing on DeGale. Before it was Bute, now it’s just DeGale.”