THESE days, as the IBF super-middleweight champion, allied with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom group and advised by omnipotent Premier Boxing Champions guru Al Haymon, DeGale has little to be downbeat about.
“Chunky” still has significant affection for the place in which he was born and raised but, having grown up a great deal in the last decade, he desires a home that befits his current mindset.
“I think 15 years ago this was the gun capital of London,” he points out. “I’m proud to be from Harlesden, I’m a Harlesden boy, I’m north west and I love it, but you get a bit older and I wanna be somewhere a bit quieter. I don’t wanna hear police sirens constantly and yeah, to see some more greenery would be nice.”
Vegetation? Tranquility? Who is this man and what has he done with James DeGale? Jokes aside, it feels like a radical departure from the largely misspent youth he enjoyed and his loved ones endured. He was brought up as the baby of the family in an old Victorian house (the clan occupied the entire ground floor) that remains only a few hundred metres away – ironically we could see it from here were it not for an example of the foliage DeGale values so highly – alongside his two older brothers, Eloise and three of his cousins. It was a hectic, loving environment and DeGale struggled when left to his own devices, a wavering attention span proving his most significant handicap. Neither the stage school he followed Eloise in attending nor traditional education succeeded in calming him down and DeGale was ultimately expelled from the latter, aged 13, gaining no academic qualifications.
“I was naughty at school so my granddad sent me down the local boxing gym at the age of 10,” James comments. “I was just mischievous, fighting, didn’t do my work. I wasn’t a horrible child, just cheeky, init mum?”
As if she had been awaiting her cue, Diane picks up the subject. “Concentration,” she swiftly concludes in the manner of a university lecturer. “He couldn’t concentrate for a long length of time so he’d drop his pencil on the floor and cause a fuss.”
“That’s just like in the ring,” DeGale adds, as if only at this moment making the connection. “Sometimes it’s so easy I go into cruise control and switch off and that’s how I lose rounds.
“Boxing has been in my life since then. I loved it, I loved the sparring side and the pads but for the first seven years of being a boxer I wouldn’t run or do groundwork, I used to hide. When I got to about 13 or 14, I was hanging around with my mates, weren’t very good at school, smoking, doing stupid s*** and I didn’t really wanna box. My mum and dad… not forced me, but pushed me.”
Even Diane and Leroy found their son exceptionally challenging at times. A turning point came the evening DeGale snuck through his bedroom window to hang out with his misbehaving mates across the road. Diane sent James’ brother Alex to locate the errant child but by the time his sibling arrived on the scene stealthy DeGale had re-entered the their abode via his initial escape hatch. A formidable and resourceful woman, Diane identified an opportunity to pull her boy into line.
“I said, ‘Go in your room and pack your bag, I’ve had enough’, coz the boxing gym in Stonebridge where he trains now used to be Social Services,” recalls Diane, a natural story-teller with a resonant voice. “So he’s there crying but me and his dad had this plan, ‘You be good cop, I’ll be bad cop.’ James got his bag and he’s outside going, ‘Dad, please don’t do this, don’t let her do this.’ Leroy said, ‘Let me go and try to help you.’ We’d already decided that he had to go back to school – because he wasn’t going or he’d get sent home – or have tuition at home every day, he had to get rid of the friends he was hanging round with and he had to go back to boxing.”
Their cunning plan worked and DeGale summoned a degree of focus. He finds it hard, even today, to pinpoint why he was so erratic, but Diane is convinced she has the answer. “I’ll tell you why, because he was spoilt,” she states firmly, brooking no argument. “You ask my first two sons how strict we were. You have a girl, you mellow a bit, then you have your youngest. He was the most miserable baby going, we called him a ‘hip baby’ because he was constantly on my hip.
“You was a momma’s boy,” she continues, looking her son dead in the eye, “and always ill, always had a snotty nose or a chest infection. I think it’s being the baby as well, they get away with blue murder.”
DeGale frowns and pouts – he’s not entirely happy with his mum’s diagnosis and briefly reverts to the petulant kid under discussion. The pair bicker, playfully for the most part, but it never descends into anything more. DeGale clearly has the utmost respect for his mother and all she has done and continues to do for him, while Diane is well-accustomed to the occasional diva strops emanating from her youngest, but remains immensely proud of the huge amount he has achieved and overcome.
A commitment to private tuition and a brief plumbing apprenticeship illustrated DeGale’s new-found application as he approached manhood, but this characteristic was put to best use in the boxing gym, as James first excelled as a senior amateur then belatedly came good as a pro. Having experienced myriad ups and downs since the amazing high of Beijing 2008, DeGale finally, six years after his professional debut, garnered the vacant IBF belt against the talented Andre Dirrell on away turf in Boston.
Next – page 3 of 3: The future for DeGale