ON this day a decade ago, August 23 2008, James DeGale won Olympic gold. It had been eight years since GB had last had a boxer at the top of the podium at an Olympic Games, though in later years a gold rush followed, with Nicola Adams, Luke Campbell and Anthony Joshua all triumphing at the Olympics.
For DeGale it was the start of a journey that would see him become the first boxer to win Olympic gold for GB and then win a professional world title. “Where has the 10 years gone?” he wonders. “It’s been a decade since my Olympic gold medal. I remember turning pro and Jim [McDonnell, his trainer] saying your career goes like that, literally. I don’t know where the 10 years has gone. It’s been a good journey, there’s been some ups and downs.”
“I’m a 22 year old boy from Harlesden, I’m thinking what’s happening here. We flew back, we had a big media day when we landed. I couldn’t deal with it, cameras shoved in your face, interviews, everyone wanted five minutes of your time. I wasn’t used to it. Even as an amateur, I boxed for Great Britain [but] I wasn’t one of the golden boys, it was Frankie Gavin, David Price. They got more media attention,” he said of the moment his life changed. “Turning pro and getting booed on my professional debut and then turning everything around.”
He won the British title early on his career but would lose to arch-rival George Groves. “I lost to Groves and that next year and a half, two years, the rebuild, the building back up, it was difficult. And I changed promoters, I was boxing on Channel Five. People were giving me stick for that. I was boxing on terrestrial telly and people were still giving me stick. Signed with Eddie Hearn, had a couple of fights, quality fights with Brandon Gonzalez, looked quality there and then [Marco Antonio] Periban,” he recalled.
He worked his way to a mandatory position and fought Andre Dirrell for the IBF super-middleweight title in Boston. “I got my chance. I got a chance against a real good fighter. It weren’t just someone, it was a quality fighter. Someone that’s been in the ring with [Carl] Froch. He had an argument that he beat Froch. Abraham, he’s been in and a beat a lot of good quality fighters. Good pedigree, Andre Dirrell and I probably don’t get the credit there, beating Andre Dirrell for the world title,” DeGale said. “This Brit was going abroad and he’s fighting for a world title. Our Olympic champion, he’s going away, he’s ready, he’s fit, he’s going to do it for our country.”
He won the title craved, and something more. “People started giving me respect – ‘he’s cocky but he’s good’ – was after I won my world title,” DeGale said. “People say I’m arrogant. It’s confidence. I’m confident in my own ability.
“I honestly do believe on my day people will find it hard to beat me.”
“I always knew that I was going to be world champion. That’s every boy’s dream, becoming world champion. Those four world titles, everyone dreams about lifting one of them,” he continued. “That night in Boston was great.”
He returned to London and was just watching at the O2, sitting ringside, the camera focused on him. The arena erupted with cheers. He had gone from being booed on his debut to being celebrated in his hometown. “I was sitting there and they put the camera on me and there was a massive roar around the arena,” he smiled. “I was like what? This is for me?
“I was surprised. I didn’t realise that the camera was on me. The boxing public can sometimes be cruel, a bit harsh. But I think deep down they respect me as a fighter and what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved.”
There were further twists in the tale. After a sequence of hard fights in America he lost his title in a homecoming bout in London, only to become a two-time world champion when he took a revenge win over Caleb Truax in Las Vegas.
The story isn’t over yet. DeGale’s next move will be announced soon. “I’m normal boy from north west London. Harlesden, the ghetto, 15 years ago that was the knife capital of London,” he said. “I’ve done well, I’ve got a good family around me and I’m happy with it. I’m happy with what I’ve done.”