IT was called Heart of Harlesden and ran for eight episodes back in 2001. I recall, as a 19-year-old, becoming increasingly consumed by the trials and tribulations of people living in a part of London I had never heard of let alone visited. Prompted by the alarming number of gang-related murders that had been committed in the area the previous year – 11 – the BBC commissioned a documentary that, while suitably urban and gritty, focused on the dreams, struggles and accomplishments of Harlesden’s ‘strivers’ – long before David Cameron appropriated that phrase. These were the embryonic days of reality TV; there was no script, no guaranteed happy ending.
James DeGale turned 15 a few weeks before the show premiered, but it’s unlikely he watched the series, despite residing in the borough where it was filmed and his life at the time mirroring many of the project’s core themes. DeGale had been kicked out of school over a year before, the teachers unable to harness his misguided energy and the teenager himself steadfastly unwilling to focus on his education. When he was not being tutored at home, DeGale wasted time and endangered his early boxing promise by smoking, maintaining dubious friendships and eschewing the gym.
It’s a chapter of his life that rarely emerges now DeGale is a 29-year-old millionaire owner of three properties, an Olympic title, the IBF 168lbs world championship belt and has a girlfriend, Kelsey, who is training to be a lawyer – not to mention his having achieved history-making distinction as the first Briton to capture each boxing code’s most revered prize. Much has changed but when I meet DeGale we find ourselves in Harlesden, back where it all began. The boxer owns the swanky flat in which he and I, his mother, sister, young nephew and Action Images photographer Alan Walter all congregate, but it is about to be placed on the lucrative rental market, as he moves to a new house in leafy St Albans, near his dad, Leroy, and mum, Diane. DeGale is also the proprietor of his sister Eloise’s flat in Wembley and both women work for him: lithe and pensive Eloise is a long-suffering PA of sorts, with blonde, bullish Diane serving as a manager few sensible characters would dare cross.
Harlesden itself looks in dire need of regeneration. It’s desirable London location is offset by abandoned buildings, faded architecture and groups of youths who could easily be perceived as threatening.
A brief scope of his soon-to-be-former bachelor pad inspires admiration at DeGale’s progress as both fighter and businessman. The open-plan kitchen is immaculate and I’m charmed that no attempt has been made to hide the box of Celebrations on top of the cabinet or the bottle of champagne that rests on the work surface and enhances the impression of luxury. Diane frequently interjects from the glass dining table near the door, while Eloise mostly listens and Zack darts in and out atop a Segway. Light relief is provided by a miniature model near the kettle, supposedly depicting DeGale – his name adorns it – but looking nothing like him; the figure appears Caucasian for a start, while DeGale is mixed race, but thankfully the gold medal around its neck is coloured accurately.
I opt to sit on the grey sofa while Degale – displaying a constant restlessness that echoes his youth – fidgets on the matching swivel chair like some demented Bond villain. As DeGale gazes out from his balcony onto a concrete-filled landscape that has sadly failed to keep pace with his own development, he is moved to reflect on the factors underpinning this rapid rise.
“When I first turned pro I got my signing-on fee and bought my first property, this one,” he remembers, twisting the seat slowly back and forth. “Everything’s just getting bigger and better. I’m lucky coz I’ve got good parents behind me. If it weren’t for them I’d have loads of cars, loads of clothes and no investments; I’d just spunk my money basically.
“It started off very well, obviously Olympic gold medal. Coming back, I signed with Frank Warren. I won the British title within nine fights. Then I had that one loss against George Groves. But that was a blessing in disguise coz it’s part of the journey. It’s a learning curve.”
Soon after suffering his first defeat, DeGale left Warren to be promoted by Mick Hennessy but, in spite of drawing impressive figures for terrestrial TV station Channel 5, he became synonymous with fighting in small halls before moderate crowds, regularly appearing at one venue in particular. Earlier, when I’d told DeGale I lived near the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, which boasts a nightclub, Glow, that doubles as a staging ground for boxing, he responded, with a wry chuckle, “Yeah, I know it pretty well.”
“I wasn’t motivated and I was getting a bit depressed,” he says, shaking his head ruefully, but now able at least to process a situation which until recently had deeply saddened him. “I weren’t getting my chances and I was seeing different fighters that I’m better than, get chances, boxing for world titles. It was very frustrating and it was annoying me. I was getting depressed for about six months.”
Next – page 2 of 3: DeGale the mature, successful man