Jack relishes underdog status

Luke G. Williams
24/10/2016 9:02am

Time and time again, Badou Jack has been under-estimated, and time and time again he has upset the odds. James DeGale beware!  Luke G. Williams speaks to the Swedish WBC super-middleweight champion.

Few boxers had as good a 2015 as 32-year-old Badou Jack. In defeating Anthony Dirrell and George Groves to lift 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 a clear underdog for both contests.

Britain’s James DeGale, who is due to face Jack in a huge super-middleweight unification fight later this year, would therefore do well not to under-estimate the slick boxing Swede.

British bookmakers have already installed DeGale as an odds-on favourite to defeat Jack, who is rated as a 2-1 outsider. However, in the wake of retaining his WBC belt in April via a majority draw against Lucian Bute (a fight the vast majority of observers felt he clearly won), Jack admitted in a telephone interview with Boxing Monthly that he positively revels in being written off.

“I’ve now beaten three guys [in a row] who everybody said were going to beat me,” he declares, in a laid-back American drawl, which contains no discernable 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 expresses his disappointment in the calmest manner imaginable. “I thought I clearly won the fight,” he states, his voice not even raising 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% 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 contest 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 admits. “I moved into my first house, a new house, my daughter was born and I had a big fight coming up.”

When asked how on earth he managed to stay focused amid such potentially stressful and emotional happenings, Jack’s response is typically equanimous, as befitting a man whose answers throughout our conversation steer refreshingly clear of melodrama or hyperbole.

“Well, she was born two weeks before the fight, and my wife and her mom and our family helped a lot. 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,” he adds. “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 boxing champion is one of the more unusual back-stories in boxing and amply demonstrates his formidable powers of determination and fortitude.

Born in Stockholm in 1983 to a Swedish mother and a Gambian father, he did not take up boxing until his late teens. At this stage, professional pugilism was illegal in Sweden, but Jack forged a highly successful amateur career, racking up around 150 amateur fights and numerous national amateur 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 ever qualified for the Olympics. Jack’s achievement was recognised by being given the honour of being Gambia’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.

Back in the ring, Jack lost in the first round of the middleweight tournament to Vijender Singh of India. The eventual gold medallist? None other than DeGale, who defeated Singh’s conqueror, Cuban Emilio Correa, in a bad-tempered 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 later this year 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 enforced by the government, only four-round bouts were initially allowed to take place.

As a consequence, Jack discerned that his options for professional advancement in his homeland were severely limited. “I was only fighting four-round fights,” he recalls. “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, trigger for travelling to America came in the form of the eccentric former lineal heavyweight champion of the world Shannon Briggs. The Brooklyn-born heavyweight met Jack at a boxing event in Sweden and persuaded him to up sticks and move to the States. ‘The Cannon’ even became something of a mentor to the Swede, who after his arrival in the USA in 2010, lived in Briggs’ house for a while.

“It wasn’t easy,” Jack admits of making the switch from Europe to the USA. “At first I had problems getting a visa. It was hard but I always believed in myself and kept training hard.” In 2011 Jack signed to Warrior 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, the visiting Mayweather was sufficiently impressed with the 6’1” Jack’s well-rounded boxing skills to buy up his contract. Mayweather Promotions have guided his career ever since, doing a masterful job in launching Jack into world class.

Unsurprisingly Jack is effusive in his praise of the support Mayweather has provided him with. “He really changed my career,” he says of the former pound-for-pound boxing king. “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 argues that Mayweather‘s experiences inside the prize ring put him in an ideal position to mentor and guide other boxers. “He’s been there himself,” he points out, “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 career loss thus far, an unexpected February 2014 first-round TKO at the hands of Derek Edwards, when the North Carolina-born underdog knocked Jack down twice inside a round before the referee stopped the contest.

That shocking setback derailed advanced plans for a WBC eliminator between Jack and DeGale, and many within the boxing industry used it as an excuse to dismiss Jack’s world-title ambitions as a pipe dream.

However, after a six-month lay-off, Jack rebounded in style, winning two low-key fights before undefeated Anthony Dirrell elected to face him in an April 2015 voluntary defence of the WBC super-middleweight title he had won against Sakio Bakia.

Most experts made Dirrell a heavy favourite but Jack kept faith in his own 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 recalls. “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 England’s 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 fortitude which carried him through these two testing assignments and which is his greatest strength. “I can box, I can punch and I’ve got good stamina, but my mental strength is my biggest strength,” he argues. “I believe in myself. I know I can fight, I know I can box, I know I can do it all.”

Turning his attention to his impending date with DeGale, the ever-modest Jack brushes off my suggestion that superior results against common foes Rogelio Medina and Groves might give him a psychological edge over the IBF champ.

“Well, DeGale fought George Groves five years ago so you can’t really compare it. Groves was younger and more aggressive back then [when he fought DeGale]. 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 and I think it’ll be a good fight.”

One question that remains unanswered at the time of writing is where the Jack-DeGale bout will take place. In his customary laidback manner, Jack is keen to emphasise his willingness to box in England if necessary.

“I’ll fight anywhere,” he declares. “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 here – 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 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 expectations and beats DeGale? What then? “First things first,” he laughs. “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.”

A fight that has long been brewing will go a long way to defining Jack’s career. And given his proven ability to upset the odds, you should write him off at your peril.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue of Boxing Monthly.