Challenge in the face of adversity is something James DeGale has always thrived upon. As a kid, the IBF super-middleweight champion was expelled from two schools back-to-back for misbehaving and, when he did land his first job at the age of 14, he lost that pretty quickly also.
He claims boxing is his saviour. “If I didn’t have boxing, I don’t know where I would be,” DeGale told Boxing Monthly. “Some of the teachers at school said I would never come to anything with my life. One of them even thought I might end up in prison. I proved them all wrong. When my granddad and dad sent me down to my local boxing gym [Trojan] when I was 10 years old, I instantly became attached to the sounds and the smells. I remember sparring for the first time and got my head punched in. Instead of running away, the day after, I was in that ring and giving it back to that kid. Within two months, none of the kids I originally sparred wanted to get in the ring with me anymore.”
Having won the ABA middleweight title in 2005 and 2006, DeGale added a Commonwealth bronze in 2006 and Olympic gold in 2008, before turning pro in 2009. Despite a blistering start, stopping eight out of his first 10 opponents, after his narrow points loss to George Groves, ‘Chunky’ DeGale was struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“There was a period a couple of years back after the Groves fight when I was boxing at smaller venues, against opponents who were low in the rankings,” said DeGale. “I was getting a bit depressed to be honest. I did think, ‘Is my chance ever going to come? Is it really going to happen?’”
Just over six years after turning pro, that chance finally came as DeGale took on 2004 Olympic bronze medallist Andre Dirrell in Boston in May. With both fighters entering the contest on even terms, most bookmakers were predicting a very tight points decision in favour of DeGale. Their prediction proved correct, but Dirrell very nearly caused the upset.
“The second I got cut over the right eye in the second round, I started dabbing at it,” remembered DeGale. “I instantly got flashbacks of the Groves fight. I remember in that fight that every time I was dabbing away at the blood, I was getting caught and I thought lightning was about to strike twice. As I started to dab away this time round, I couldn’t see out of my right eye. Then, in a split second, it cleared and I saw my opportunity. I remember moving and bouncing and then saw a gap to his body. I threw a straight right and then thought to myself, ‘I’m going to throw the left hand over the top’. Next thing – Bosh. Dropped him! If there was another 20 seconds in that round I genuinely believed I would have stopped him.”
By round six, DeGale had only dropped a round on two of the judges’ scorecards and had a clean slate with the third. This put him six and seven points ahead respectively. So why did he seem to pull up at the gas station between rounds seven to ten?
“Andre Dirrell caught me with a mad uppercut on one occasion, which made my head go flying up, and on a few other occasions, he just missed my chin,” recalled Dirrell. “I remember thinking, ‘That was close!’ It was a tactical decision to slow it down between rounds seven to ten. The thing is, I wasn’t tired at all. I was moving around the ring as I wished and went into cruise control – which for a fight like that was perhaps not the right thing to do. I’ll put my hands up and say that I let Dirrell back in the fight too much. Watching it back I can totally see where people may have been disappointed and frustrated with me. I could have pushed the fight a lot more and thrown more punches, but I just didn’t see the point of taking the risk whilst I was ahead.”
Going into rounds 11 and 12, DeGale was given a verbal shake up by trainer Jim McDonnell, which given the fact he’d been cruising the last four rounds and was fighting in Dirrell’s backyard, was a wise choice. ‘You have to win these rounds. This is a very close fight. Do not cry tomorrow. Please – do not cry tomorrow.’ “Those words will stick in my head forever.”
When the bell finally rung, anxiety kicked in. “The second the bell went, I walked over to Jim (McDonnell) and he said, ‘Chunk. This is close.’ I was looking for reassurance for everyone to tell me I’d won. Everybody was saying ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’, but away from home, anything can happen.”
I thought that DeGale’s footwork and timing on occasions during the fight was immaculate. He managed to duck under Dirrell’s jab on a number of occasions and end up 90 degrees to his left ready to unleash a right hand. It’s a shame we weren’t treated to this in the middle rounds, but I was delighted he reignited his engine for those last two rounds, to take a unanimous decision (114-112, 114-112, 117-109), for a merited world title, and make history.
However, not everyone was happy with DeGale’s performance. Carl Froch said on Sky that DeGale did just enough to win. He went on to say, "I was disappointed with the fact he didn’t throw enough shots or look like he wanted the world title”. Here’s how DeGale responded:
“Five years ago when [Froch] boxed Dirrell, he shouldn’t have won. He came away with a split decision. He was getting hit with clean shots – lots of clean shots. For him to sit there and say he’s disappointed is crazy,” said DeGale. “He knows how good Dirrell is. It hurts him to sit there in front of the television and give me any credit. It really hurts him to say, ‘James DeGale is the new IBF super-middleweight champion of the world’. He vacated that belt because he didn’t want to fight me. If I was him, I’d shout my mouth.”
Reflecting on his gifted opponent, DeGale said: “When Dirrell fought against Froch, I thought he was winning that fight, but he wasn’t showing the determination to see it through. I doubted his heart before the fight, but he proved me wrong. He’s an unbelievable fighter and a very skilled opponent.”
Although delighted with his newly crowned achievement, DeGale was eager to air something. “I‘ve had DS on my shorts since [Darren Sutherland] passed away in 2009 as a sign of respect for him. We had some great battles in the ring and it’s just so sad when he passed away so young. When I won my world title, he won his world title.” Class touch James.
What does the future now hold for DeGale? Carl Froch has since retired whilst a fight with old foe Groves would also be very lucrative and no doubt cause a media frenzy. Ever since their battle in 2011, it seems that both fighters have embarked on a drag race to the world title. Initially, all the money was on Groves. Now the shoe is on the other foot. If Groves is able to shine again, after his two flat performances, and defeat Badou Jack for the WBC crown, the public will be crying for this fight to happen. You never know – it could even be a domestic classic.
Well done, Chunky. History has been made, box office awaits and, with a flurry of new British world champions on the horizon, these are exciting times to be operating in.
Photo credit: Mark Robinson