James DeGale interview: Mellow fellow

Nick Halling
12/01/2017 9:42am

PHOTO: Tom Casino / Showtime

NB: This article was published in the September 2016 issue of Boxing Monthly, before the details and date of DeGale vs Jack were known.

James DeGale admits he made some mistakes when he returned from Beijing 2008 with a gold medal. He tells Nick Halling that he’s matured since then and is enjoying his status as the world’s best super middleweight...

James DeGale is in the kitchen of his new house in a stylish suburb of St Albans, making a cup of tea. In the background, on an unwatched television screen, Jeremy Kyle is dispensing his trademark brand of vitriolic social therapy. There have been times in his past when DeGale could have been confused with the daytime ITV talk show host: angry, irritated, yelling at people, not coming across as remotely likeable. Those days are in the past.

“It’s been quite a journey,” he says, staring out across the first garden he’s ever owned. “I can’t say I’ve come from nothing, because I was brought up in a good home with a brilliant mum and dad. But I’m looking around and I’m thinking: ‘Yeah, I’ve done well.’“

This is a relaxed and content, almost philosophical James DeGale, a far cry from the irascible, tetchy Olympic gold medallist who was booed on his debut and who came across as a snarling bully during the build-up to his grudge match with arch-rival George Groves in 2011. DeGale, 30, can look back on all of that now with a smile, and even an admission that some of the disdain he generated was his own doing.

“I’m more comfortable with myself and what I’m achieving,” he admits. “But back then [after winning Olympic gold in 2008], I was just a kid, only 22, and a young 22 if I’m honest. I was under a lot of pressure, and mentally, I wasn’t ready for it. You come back with an Olympic medal and it really does change your life. Now, as I’m getting older, I know more. I’ve become a better person, I’ve humbled myself, and I’ve mellowed. Matured? Yeah, that’s the word. I’ve become a man.”

Doubtless it has helped to win the IBF title, to defend it twice, to be acknowledged as the best super middle in the world and to earn well under the guidance of fighter-friendly adviser Al Haymon. Little, it seems, can annoy DeGale these days - unless you make the mistake of bringing up performance-enhancing drug users. Then, DeGale is full-on Jeremy Kyle once more, hurling out accusations which, if printed here, would instantly attract a flurry of lawsuits. If DeGale had his way, fighters on the juice would be banned for life. End of discussion.

“It’s a big issue in boxing, and I didn’t realise it until the last six months or so,” he says. “So many people come out, get caught, and there’s all these mad excuses. But if you’ve got steroids in your body, how did they get there?

“Look at Lucian Bute,” he continues, warming to the theme. (Bute tested positive for the banned substance Ostarine following his draw with Badou Jack in April, and immediately protested his innocence). “Look at the way he finished against me, and people were saying I wasn’t that good or whatever. Then you see him against Jack, and he’s like some kind of monster.

“We’re both better than him, but if you’re still going like a nutter in the 12th round, something’s very wrong. It’s rife in boxing, and we need to sort it out. This is dangerous. It could kill someone. We’ve got to crack down on it, sling them out, life bans, full stop. I’m a clean athlete and all I want is a level playing field.”

Rant over, DeGale calms down, takes a sip of tea and surveys the current super middle scene from his elevated position at the top of the heap. Next on his agenda is a mooted unification fight with WBC belt-holder Jack, an opponent for whom he holds a considerable measure of respect.

“A couple of years ago, when he got knocked out by Derrick Edwards, I was down to fight him. I think I was No 3 with the WBC and they were talking about us in a final eliminator. Back then, I thought there’s no way this guy lasts 12 rounds with me.”

But DeGale, like many others, recognises the considerable advances the Las Vegas-based Swede has made since that loss to Edwards. “Since beating [Anthony] Dirrell [in February 2015 to win his WBC belt] he’s become a solid fighter, a confident fighter. I rate him, and when we fight, I’m going to have to take him very seriously, because he could be a banana skin.”

Other contenders are given similarly respectful treatment. There is no sign of the DeGale of yesteryear, for example, when he analyses WBO title holder Gilberto Ramirez. “Good fighter, wicked. I’ve not seen too much of him. We have a common opponent in [Gevorg] Khatchikian. I stopped him in 11, and Ramirez outpointed him pretty easily, and I heard that Khatchikian thinks I beat Ramirez. But styles make fights and he’s good: tall, strong, a southpaw and he likes to fight inside as well.”

An all-British clash with Callum Smith could arise in the future, which would be a bittersweet occasion, given DeGale’s friendship with elder sibling Stephen, an association that goes back to their amateur days, a time when nobody was really taking Callum particularly seriously as a potential world champion. That scenario has, of course, changed significantly.

“It would be nuts to fight him, but we’d have to set aside friendship for 36 minutes,” DeGale says. “Obviously it would be difficult because I was extremely close to Stephen and we still see each other. Callum’s good, but I don’t think they should be sticking him right up there, because he hasn’t really beaten anyone. People are going over the top because he knocked out [Hadillah] Mohoumadi, and don’t get me wrong, that was a fantastic win. But let’s be real, he’s not boxed anyone yet. He’s good: he’ll be a world champion one day, maybe when I’m not around.”

Even his conqueror, Groves, is afforded a measure of grace, a far cry from the build-up to their 2011 encounter, when DeGale lost public support over the personal nature of his attacks. “I can laugh about it now, but honestly, I look back at that, and it makes me cringe,” he says. “Now, at a press conference or whatever, I can be feisty, a bit vocal, but I never disrespect an opponent the way I did George Groves. If I ever boxed him again, I’d tell him about himself, but I wouldn’t stoop so low.

“He’s had three chances at a world title, got knocked out in two of them, and lost by three or four rounds to Jack in my opinion. So what does that tell you? He’s not world class. He thinks he is, but it’s proven he can’t mix with the very best.”

Light-heavyweight Andre Ward commands the respect he deserves (“a fantastic boxer”) but mention of the name Sergey Kovalev elicits a sharp intake of breath. “Big lad, isn’t he? I wouldn’t want to step up half a stone, because that boy’s a beast. He can punch, he hurts people, knocks them out. That would be hard, and that’s me being real. I’d fight him, but the money would have to be right.”

Jeremy Kyle has finished, and James DeGale is about to wrap up, too. “From a young age, I knew I was good, but you always doubt yourself, even when I had coaches telling me that I was going to go all the way and win world titles,” he says.

“All I know is boxing. I left school in Year Nine, not very academic. It wasn’t my scene.

“I needed another goal to focus on, and I’m so glad my mum and dad pushed me. They said: ‘If you’re not going to school, you’ve got to be good at something else.’ If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure I’d have dedicated my life to [boxing]. I’ve only ever had one job, apprentice to a plumber for a year, and I hated it. I don’t like work. I’ve had it hard in boxing and, yes, some of that’s been my own fault. But it’s all paying off now.”