As James "Chunky" DeGale descended the podium at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, gold medal around his neck, he probably couldn't have imagined it would be another seven years before he once again stood on top of the world. The IBF super middleweight champion finally fulfilled his potential in 2015 and is now widely regarded as the world's best 168lbs fighter. In the long journey, the one man constantly by his side has been his trainer, Jim McDonnell.
The pair have shouldered the burden of expectation placed on an Olympic gold medallist. They have shared the anger and disappointment of defeat at the O2 Arena and the frustration of boxing at the Bluewater Shopping Centre. They have experienced the relief of a career rebirth at a packed Wembley Stadium, and the elation of a world title victory over Andre Dirrell in Boston. They have ran alongside each other for thousands of hard, uphill miles and refused to give in during some long, lonely months in the gym when it seemed the wider boxing world had forgotten about James DeGale.
It would be untrue to say that McDonnell is reliving his career through the IBF super middleweight ruler as - despite his best efforts – the former British and European featherweight champion never quite managed to secure a world title. It is, however, probably fair to say that McDonnell is achieving his dreams vicariously through DeGale, who recently successfully defended his title against ‘Porky’ Medina.
Some "coulda, woulda, shoulda" thoughts from 30 years ago mean that McDonnell is obsessed with ensuring that 29-year-old DeGale doesn’t make the same mistakes as McDonnell did during brave but unsuccessful world title challenges to modern greats Brian Mitchell and Azumah Nelson.
“At lot of people have text me since James’ fight with Lucien Bute [a decision victory last November] after seeing photos of us celebrating,” the 55-year-old Londoner told Boxing Monthly. “They said that because of the feelings I have for my fighter, that was like my world title. There might be a lot of truth in that.
"I felt a little bit short-changed as a fighter because I didn’t get my [world title] belt, because I knew in my heart that I was more than good enough. You can make all the excuses you like but ultimately, when I look back, I didn’t get my world title.
"I’ve heard plenty of people say that I’m getting to live it through James. I’m not saying I am and I’m not saying I ain’t, but it’s certainly a great feeling.
“You can’t help but look back. I always try to look forward but I look at both [unsuccessful world title] fights. I didn’t get going in the Mitchell fight and the referee said to me afterwards: ‘Why did you leave it so late?’ If I’d boxed earlier like I boxed the last few rounds, I’d have been a convincing winner.
“Looking back at why I didn’t start fast or switch on, I can pass those experiences on to James. Look at how fast he started against Bute. It’s probably one of the highest punching super middleweight title fights on record. His punch stats were amazing.
"It’s all through my own experiences. I let a world title slip away from me, and it was so frustrating.
“In the second one with Azumah Nelson, there was a load of trouble with the weigh in scales. We got to the scales the day before, and my weight was good. The next morning, the same scales had me way over. I had to do two [workout] sessions to make the weight and then box Nelson at night. It’s hardly the greatest preparation, not just for the body but for the mind. I gave my all and just came up short in the last round [McDonnell lost on a 12th round stoppage] although one of the judges had me up.
“I don’t think I fell short as a fighter. I just missed the vital, golden moments of preparation which are so important. I say to all my fighters - whether it’s been Danny Williams, Takaloo or James DeGale - that they need three ingredients. Firstly, good nutrition. I never had that. Secondly, you have to train really hard. I definitely had that. And, thirdly, you’ve got to have good rest. Again, I didn’t have that.
“I was watching James’ fight with Andre Dirrell and remembered falling short myself. I said to myself: ’Why didn’t I do this [start faster] against Mitchell?’ If I’d adopted the same style against Mitchell I’d have won the WBA world title.
“James did what you have to do to win a world title from the very first round. He dropped him in the second round but went in there knowing how fit he is, knowing that he spars 15 rounds in the gym and that he does his runs. He knows that he’s rested well and that he’s done the weight right. I drill in to him that you can’t get tired when you’re as fit as he is.
“I remember watching him against Dirrell and thinking: ‘What a great attitude.’ I was able to draw on my experiences and I told him not to give it away like I did.
“The experiences I’ve been through have helped make me a better trainer and in turn make James a better fighter."
Before finding success with DeGale, McDonnell managed to instil self-belief into the talented but mentally fragile Danny Williams for the most intimidating challenge possible for a nervous heavyweight; a fight against Mike Tyson. Williams knocked out Iron Mike and went on to challenge Vitali Klitschko for the world heavyweight crown.
The exuberant Takaloo gave McDonnell a different set of problems to solve. The Margate light-middleweight had an abundance of confidence but McDonnell concentrated on polishing his mechanics and helped Takaloo to overachieve during an exciting career. Coaching DeGale has given McDonnell the opportunity to mould a truly well rounded world class fighter.
Some in the boxing industry were surprised that DeGale chose to turn pro with McDonnell as his trainer, as McDonnell had been unfairly categorised as a fitness trainer and motivator first and boxing trainer second.
However, the choice proved to be a good one. DeGale is a naturally confident character but McDonnell’s talent for strengthening the mind was needed to reinforce that bulletproof mentality after the loss to George Groves and maintain the boxer's belief during some difficult years in the boxing wilderness.
As for the technical side of training DeGale, McDonnell said: “You’re always learning, but I’ve boxed at the highest level, and as a trainer I think that gives you a big up. I know how 12 rounds feel. All those experiences have been used on the journey of turning an Olympic gold medallist into a world champion.
“I’ve just read Jimmy Tibbs' autobiography. He gave me a massive boost as a boxer. In that gym there was me, Lloyd Honeyghan, Mark Kaylor, Frank Bruno, Gary Mason and he’s said I’m the best boxer he’s trained. I came up short against two Hall of Famers."
McDonnell pointed out that he won the European 130lbs title in his 16th bout and had hardly lost a round going into his fight with Brian Mitchell. "People don’t realise how technically good I was," he said. "I hear people saying: ‘Yeah, Jim will get you fit,' but James always says that the best technical trainer he’s ever worked with is Jim McDonnell.
“When James turned pro the three things people said against him were that he can’t punch, he can’t throw body punches, and he can’t fight inside. If you look at the [Lucian] Bute fight for example, the body punches ruined Bute for the second half of the fight.
"Bute and a lot of people were saying that they thought it was gonna be a chess match. They were hoping to keep it close over the first half of the fight and then come on later with the crowd roaring them on and nick a decision. I knew their gameplan. I said to James that he had to be a lot braver than I’d been during the Mitchell fight. He had to go out there and it was a scruff of the neck job. 'Destruct and destroy,' like Marvin Hagler.
“His performance against Bute was great. The Brandon Gonzalez fight [a fourth round stoppage win] was explosive. In the Marco Antonio Periban fight [TKO3], he stopped somebody who’d never been on the floor, and showed real power. He bossed the Dirrell fight with a real fast style but - for me - the Bute performance is number one. His performance was sublime. He boxed a big puncher and a five-year world champion. James went in to the fight with a gameplan and I’ve never known a kid who can carry one out like him. I was so proud of him.
“I’ve always said that if you gave me an Olympic gold medallist, I’d give you a world champion. I know the jigsaw. I know the geography, and the route you need to take. I know what the transformation from amateur to pro takes.
"It’s not just boxing training. You have to make the body stronger and more efficient. He can run for 20 miles at a good pace. As a pro, it’s no good being able to do it for five or six rounds. You have to be able to do it for 12 rounds and be a good athlete. That’s what James DeGale is. He’s a phenomenal athlete with an incredible array of boxing skills. He’s always willing to learn and he never ducks a challenge. He’ll spar anywhere. He’s a credit to the sport.”
McDonnell clearly feels that he has met something of a kindred spirit in DeGale. He sees a fighter who is willing to push himself above and beyond in order to maximise his potential. Praise and criticism alike are taken to heart. McDonnell comes out fighting with his old vigour whenever DeGale's abilities or achievements are questioned. His whole hearted defence of DeGale is, one feels, borne out of a deep sense of devotion to a man who has grown to become a trusted family friend.
“Even though he’s a lot younger than me, I’ve learned a lot from James," McDonnell said. "He’s the most loyal person I’ve ever met. When we lost to Groves, people tried to blame me and told him he should leave his trainer. To be fair, a lot of fighters listen. It’s never [the fighter's] fault, the promoters fault or the managers fault. It’s always the trainer's fault.
"Where James has been different than anybody else, he fought back and said [the Groves defeat] was nothing to do with his trainer. James has shown loyalty, trust and faith.
"I hope other fighters look up to James and realise that it’s a journey. Things aren’t always going to be smooth, and you’ll hit a few bumps along the way, but you’ve got to realise that you don’t always blame your trainer for things going wrong.
"When he had that little blip against George Groves, he stuck two fingers up to everybody who said he should leave his trainer - and who’s laughing now?
“Look at boxers who succeed. Muhammad Ali had Angelo Dundee. One trainer. Tommy Hearns had Emanuel Steward. One trainer. Larry Holmes had Richie Giachetti. One trainer. I could go through all of them. Facts don’t lie. People get in fighters' earholes and start talking, but James wasn’t having it. He showed loyalty and trust and it’s paid off.
“Nobody ever looks back and says: ‘You know what? If he’d never changed his trainer, he’d have been sweet.' But I see loads of fighters who haven’t made it because they’ve left the right coach.
“As I speak to you I’m driving down a hill that I ran along every day of my professional career. James now runs along it. This is Highgate West Hill in North London [a notoriously steep climb]. These [other] fighters don’t train like James. He’s probably ran this hill around 2,000 times in the last seven years. He’s got it in him now. Look back at the fight with Dirrell, he won the last two rounds which he had to win. He wasn’t caught out short.
“We’re here now. He’s champion of the world and we’ve created history. As he said to me: ‘I wouldn’t change nothing.’”