The crown fits DeGale
The crown fits James DeGale nicely. There is something of an aura about the IBF super-middleweight king these days. A world title earned on the road against elite opposition has a tendency of transforming a fighter.
On a heady May afternoon in Boston, DeGale floored gifted Andre Dirrell twice en route to a title that appeared a world away two years ago when he was headlining leisure centre shows in boxing’s backwaters.
A promotional switch to Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization and crucial alliance with boxing’s kingmaker Al Haymon altered everything and now DeGale sits atop the throne with old rival George Groves looking up and British 168lbs stalwart Carl Froch happily retired.
“A couple of years ago I went through a bad stage, a dark stage,” DeGale told Boxing Monthly at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium on Thursday. “But I’ve got a good team, a good family and obviously I’m talented, I’m skilled, I’m strong-minded and I came back.
“A change of promoters and everything has gone from strength to strength. I did have some dark times, where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to carry on boxing, but everything’s worked out for the best. Now I’m world champ and I’m doing everything big.”
On 28 November at the swish new Centre Videotron in Quebec City, Canada, DeGale enters the lion’s den once more when he makes his first defence against former champion and the darling of Quebec Lucian Bute. Winning in enemy territory holds few fears for the self-assured Londoner.
“I thrive on it. I’m used to it,” said DeGale (21-1, 14 KOs). “I won my Olympic gold medal in China [Beijing Olympics 2008]. I’ve had it with the British title in Liverpool [WTKO9 vs Paul Smith in 2010], world title in America [WUD12 vs Dirrell] and my first defence is in Canada. It’s all good.
“We’re both Al Haymon fighters. I’m getting paid a lot more to go over to Quebec and defend it. I’m a confident fighter I know I can beat him wherever. As [trainer] Jim [McDonnell] says, ‘Winning the world title is the easy bit, keeping it is even harder. Lucian Bute is a good fighter. Remember, this guy was world champion for five years with 10 defences, so this is going to be a terrific fight. I’m ready for the best Lucian Bute. But, listen, the best Lucian Bute against the best James DeGale – there is only one winner.
“I’m a London boy. I’m proud to be British,” continued DeGale. “I want to be defending my world title over here. But it makes sense going over to America and Canada where it’s more money and for my profile over there as well. I remember watching Prince Naseem Hamed growing up and him breaking America. I’m doing exactly the same thing.”
DeGale’s advisor Ambrose Mendy recently told BM that there was a vacancy at the pinnacle of the sport with Floyd Mayweather’s ‘retirement’ and they are thinking of the Londoner as more than a world title holder but a global star.
“100%, definitely,” agreed the southpaw. “Obviously, it takes years to build, but I’m building it nicely, Olympic, British, European titles and now I’m world champion. What I’ve got to start doing now is unifying those titles and start boxing in those massive fights. Dirrell was probably in the top three super-middleweights in the world, but that just shows how good I am.”
The influential Haymon presents the key to unlocking those opportunities due to his representation of many of 168lbs division’s leading lights.
“Al Haymon brings everything because he’s got a lot of good fighters at super-middleweight,” DeGale told BM. “He’s got [WBC champion] Badou Jack, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, the Dirrell brothers [Anthony and Andre] so he brings a lot to the table. And the opportunities and the money. Badou Jack is the one I want. I’ve spoken to Al about it and, hopefully, we will get that on next year.
“Al is the man, the myth, the legend, but he is a real, real nice geezer. He’s humble and all he cares about is his fighters, really, giving them opportunities and the money.”
Jack, of course, defeated DeGale’s old rival Groves in September and the IBF champion is hit by the irony that the last two years has seen their respective careers move in opposite directions.
“I know, it’s crazy,” reflected the 29-year-old DeGale. “At one point, he was trying to mug me off on Twitter and looking down on me. It’s weird how times change, but the cream always rises, right? It’s karma. There is no real use in fighting him now. He doesn’t bring anything to the table. I don’t think people want to see it no more. Even on Twitter. The interest has dried up – no one cares about George Groves anymore. If he comes back and gets a couple of good wins then maybe, but, if not, he needs to relax and just chill.”
Meanwhile, DeGale is basking in the adulation once denied him in his six-year, almost slow motion, rise to world champion. “I’ve had a fantastic reaction from everyone,” beamed the Londoner. “When I came back from America and they showed me on the screen at the O2, I got a fantastic reception so that was unbelievable. It’s not just about the money, but the people around me respecting me and what I’ve achieved, being proud of me – for me, that’s what boxing is all about.”