AT first, football was my number-one sport, but because a couple of my mates were boxing, I ended up drifting into it with them. Mickey Hughes, who went on to box at the 1984 Olympics, was at the same school as me. And I lived in the same block of flats as ‘Denty’ [David Dent]. They were both at St Pancras Boxing Club, so one day I headed down to the gym with them and it all kicked off from there.
Boxing for St Pancras I got to three ABA finals. I lost the first two at bantamweight, in 1979 and 1980. The one in ‘79 against Renard Ashton was a majority decision. My coach, Ronnie Smith, was fuming after that. He thought I’d won it clearly. The feeling of losing that fight was the worst I ever felt in boxing. I was 18 years old at the time. I still can’t believe I didn’t get the decision. Harry Carpenter was commentating on it and he said: ‘I don’t know what more Jim McDonnell could’ve done to have won.’
On my way to finally winning the ABAs in 1982 at lightweight, I beat Ashton in the quarter-finals on a unanimous decision. I thought I won more clearly in the final in ‘79. In my mind I’m really a two-time ABA champion!
Eighty-two was also the year that I won a lightweight silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia. Kevin Hickey was the England coach and he had us training nine times a day before that tournament. We’d be on the track at seven o’clock in the morning doing 12 lots of 200-metre sprints, all under 35 seconds, with 200-metre recovery jogs in between. There’d be another eight sessions after that! One of them would be a high-intensity sparring session, where you’d spar six four-minute rounds, with a 30-second rest. On top of this you’d have a swimming routine, a strength and conditioning workout, and all sorts. People may say that’s too much, but the results don’t lie. Every single one of us on the team medalled – nine boxers out of nine. Kevin was a great trainer.
Throughout my boxing career, both amateur and pro, I also worked full time. Ronnie Smith got me an apprenticeship with Camden Council as a painter and decorator when I left school. Then when I turned pro, I switched over to the caretaking department, which gave me a bit more flexibility for my boxing training.
Ronnie was a genius. Just look at what he did with Herman Henry, David Dent, Mickey Hughes and myself. He took us all to an ABA title. He doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves. Without him, I’d never have achieved what I did. He knew how to prepare you physically and mentally. In my opinion, he’s the greatest amateur trainer Britain has ever produced. He was also a brilliant amateur fighter himself in his day. Before I beat Gary Felvus in the ABA final in ‘82, I sparred with Ronnie, because like Felvus, he was a southpaw. It was the best southpaw sparring I ever had.
I turned pro in 1983 and won the Southern Area featherweight title in 1985. That was the same year that I also won the European title. I knocked out Jose Luis Vicho in the fourth round with a left hook to the body. I was ready to go 12 hard rounds, but once I hit him with that shot, he just couldn’t catch his breath. I’ve got to give Ronnie credit for that, because he used to work on that shot with me a lot when I was an amateur. I was a naturally left-handed orthodox boxer, so that shot worked well for me.
After this I racked up a few more wins, including against Ruben Dario Palacio and Salvatore Bottiglieri, both in 1986. I done a job on Palacio in seven rounds, which was a good win because he went on to become a world champion. I beat Bottiglieri on points to retain my European title.
By the second half of 1988 I’d moved up to super-featherweight and I was 24-0. This led me to a WBA title shot against Brian Mitchell, but he beat me on points. A big fight like that had been a long time coming for me. I’d become so frustrated about being promised big fights that never materialised. I was trying to make ends meet with boxing and work – training full time, working full time, ducking and diving.
I’d drive from my house in Woodford Green down to Camden. I’d then do a run at Hampstead Heath and be at work for eight o’clock. After a morning at work I’d get to the gym at the Royal Oak in Canning Town in time for sparring at one o’clock. I couldn’t be late otherwise my trainer, Jimmy Tibbs, would bite my head off. I’d spar fighters like Charlie Magri, Ray Cattouse and Mo Hussein. Then after training had finished, I’d have to drive back to Camden for work, before fitting another training session in. I trained like a lunatic. They did an article on me in Marie Claire magazine for a series called Britain’s busiest people! The journalist who interviewed me couldn’t believe what I managed to fit into one day.
Looking back on my career now, I wonder how much more I could’ve achieved if I’d been able to focus on just boxing, rather than having to work full time as well, in order to pay my bills and mortgage. I would’ve been able to concentrate more on rest and recovery. I was boxing at the highest level and having to juggle that with my work commitments – doing three training sessions a day on top of a full-time job. I have to laugh when I read about these 100-grand-a-week footballers being tired after playing two matches in a week! I can laugh because I played football at a good level. I was at Watford for four years. I know what it’s like, and I know that you can’t compare it to boxing.
In 1989, the year after losing to Mitchell, I got the biggest win of my career, against Barry McGuigan. The referee stopped it in the fourth round. I’d always wanted the fight with Barry, because I wanted to prove myself. That was a night of acceptance for me – people couldn’t deny that I was a good fighter after that. Later that year I got my second world title shot, this time against Azumah Nelson for the WBC belt. That ended in a knockout defeat in the 12th round.
To this day I know I was good enough to win a world title. I could’ve earned a lot more money, and been a lot more successful, if I’d been a bit smarter. My problem was that I was willing to fight anyone. I never backed down, inside or outside the ring. Both of my world title shots came against Hall of Famers. I wish I’d been a bit more business-minded and taken more control of my career. Instead of going after the Nelson fight at that time – which I considered a 50/50 fight – I should’ve gone after one of the other world champions, which may have been a 60/40 fight in my favour. If I’d won one of the other world titles, I could’ve then fought Nelson in a unification fight, which would’ve meant more money.
Realistically I knew it was over for me after I lost on a fourth-round knockout to Kenny Vice in 1990. But in 1998, I came back for one final fight. I was 37 years old and I needed one more fight just to show myself that I was no longer good enough to become a world champion. I needed to get that out of my system.
I got a licence to box in a six-rounder over in Slovakia against a kid called Peter Feher, who wasn’t even good enough to be my sparring partner. I was hitting him with treble jabs, but somehow they gave him the decision. I’m not saying I was brilliant on the night, but I won easy. My brother, Marcus McDonnell, is a referee, and he said if he’d been scoring that fight as a neutral observer, he would’ve given every round to me. Them giving him the decision was a political thing. I never wanted to retire on a defeat, but I’m not bitter about that fight, because I know I really won it. I just laughed when the referee raised his hand.
Once my career was over, I always knew I’d become a trainer. It was just a natural progression for me. I was so lucky with the coaches I had – men like Ronnie Smith, Kevin Hickey, Jimmy Tibbs, George Francis, Frank Black and Terry Lawless. I was always in good hands. I think that’s why I’ve gone on to do well at coaching, because I took a lot of their methods on board, especially Ronnie’s.
All of the fighters I’ve trained have given 200 per cent effort. The likes of James DeGale, Danny Williams, Herbie Hide, Scott Welch, Takaloo – all of them gave it their all. I’m a hard taskmaster – I’ve run seven sub-three-hour London Marathons, after all! – and I couldn’t have asked for more from them. With Danny Williams, obviously everyone always mentions the huge win over Mike Tyson and the loss to Vitali Klitschko for the WBC heavyweight title. Danny was riding on the crest of a wave after beating Tyson, but Klitschko was a bridge too far. He was a nightmare – a big unit but also very technical. Danny was like myself in that he was good enough to become a world champion, but he just didn’t have the right fights at the right time.
Another heavyweight I worked with was Herbie Hide. Although I wasn’t in his corner on the night he beat Michael Bentt for the WBO title, for that whole camp I trained him twice a day, every day. I got him in unbelievable shape. That’s why he’s said in the past that, unofficially, he was my first world champion. But if I had to choose my proudest achievement in boxing, it’d be training James DeGale from his first pro fight to his last, and winning two IBF super-middleweight titles along the way.
At the moment I’m training Reece Bellotti, Chris Kongo and Lucian Atana, who’s a big undefeated heavyweight from Romania. He’s a powerful boy. Reece has won the Commonwealth featherweight title in the past and he’s always got a chance against anyone with his phenomenal punching power. He’s a great talent. Chris is an undefeated welterweight – a very talented fighter. He’s mixed in good company in sparring and he’s a massive prospect. It’s going to be hard for anyone to beat him because he’s very headstrong and dedicated. I believe he can be the man.