James DeGale: Chunky remains firmly grounded in all the hot air

Olympic gold medallist faces his biggest challenge in an old grudge match with the neighbour from hell – but now it's time to let his fists do the talking. Alan Hubbard meets James DeGale
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The Independent Online

There is so much bull in boxing that it is increasingly difficult to separate fact from friction. But any blood spilled when James DeGale and George Groves meet at London's O2 Arena on 21 May unquestionably will be bad. Their animosity is for real, making this a genuine grudge match which goes beyond the traditional ticket-selling trash talk. It might even be Benn v Eubank revisited.

The public love a bit of loathing and there's that in abundance between the two unbeaten super-middleweights who live within epithet-spitting distance in west London, but whose feelings towards each other are less than neighbourly.

"Yeah, it's personal all right," growls DeGale, the Olympic gold medallist and new British champion. "I can't stand him and it's mutual. It goes back 10 years. Basically he's been living in my shadow. He beat me [holding up his two index fingers to italicise the phrase] in the national championships but two years later it was me they chose for the Olympics. We both boxed for the same amateur club and since I won that gold medal he's always been bitter and a bit jealous."

DeGale's "that ugly ginger kid" taunting of the 23-year-old Commonwealth champion may be wearing a bit thin, but be assured there will be more vitriolic verbals between now and first bell. He is just warming up.

"Groves is a fake. He thinks he's David Haye but he's just a puppet. Adam Booth [Groves's manager] has his hand right up his backside, talking for him, telling him what to say and what to do.

"At least with me, what you see is what you get. I just tell you the way it is. People may say I'm disrespectful and rude, me calling him the ugly kid and all that, but the truth is we don't like each other. It's serious. Obviously some people don't like me either, they say I'm arrogant and that I think I'm it, but if at the end of the sentence they say, 'Well, he's a good fighter', then I'm happy with that."

DeGale may be flash, brash and rather full of himself but he reckons he is entitled to be as an Olympic and now British champion, with only 10 bouts under his belt. He has had his doubters but even they must admit he is beginning to look the business. Moreover, in a trade where chutzpah and charisma carry as much clout as a left hook, he is a not-unwelcome addition to boxing's thinning crowd-pulling club.

For his part, Groves says DeGale is "the most arrogant, egotistical person I've ever known – I can't wait to smash his face in". While he has been training with his stablemate and mentor Haye in Angelo Dundee's famed Fifth Street Gym on Miami Beach, DeGale remains content to do his own sweating in less fashionable Loughton, in a gymnasium attached to a football academy tucked away down an Essex country lane where the white Jaguar XK Coupe parked outside indicates that the boy's done good.

There's also a black Range Rover at home in Harlesden, an apartment some 300 metres down the road from his mum and dad – not that he spends much time there. "I tried living on my own but I couldn't do any cooking or washing for myself. I lasted for a couple of weeks, then moved back home. My mum now looks after my business and they keep me on the straight and narrow. When they are doing my head in, I can escape to the apartment for a night – but then I always come home again."

It is three weeks before the fight and DeGale is in tremendous nick. He strokes his well-honed six-pack. "Obviously this is the biggest fight of my career so far, a massive grudge match. That's why I'm taking it so seriously. I'm on the road at six in Epping Forest, an hour and a half pounding the hills, weights strapped to my back. Then I go back to my coach's place, have breakfast, sleep. Then I go to the gym for a two-hour session, give it everything, and back home to chill and recover. That's all I do. That's it, that's my life.

"It's hard, pretty intense, but you only get out of it what you put in. Boxing is really all I have done since I was 10. It's something I'm good at. I wake up with a big smile on my face every morning, knowing I am going to do something I love. I have friends who envy me, knowing they have got to sit in an office all day long. But of course, I've got to be honest, when that alarm goes off, I sometimes think to myself, 'Oh gawd, I don't want to get out of bed', because I know what that buggerMcDonnell [his trainer Jim, a former European featherweight champion] has got in for me today. Then I think of the fight, the crowds and the packed O2, the eighth or ninth round coming up and I know I have to do it.

"When I turned pro, I weren't too sure who I was going to go with and when I came to this gym and he put me through a session, at first I thought: 'Do I need this shit in my life? Is this for real?' But I am so glad I went with him. He's unbelievable.

"Boxing makes you look at yourself and feel all your fears and doubts. You can seem very alone when you are waiting to go into that ring. But I've got a fantastic promoter [Frank Warren], a coach who's been there and done it and a great family. If it weren't for my family, I'd have gone the wrong route, and who knows where I'd be today. Not here doing this, that's for sure. So I owe every last bit to them. I'm a very lucky boy.

"This is going to be a very emotional fight, I know I've got to keep my cool," he adds. "When you fight, you have to be controlled. Controlled aggression is the name of the game. And it's hard holding it back. Step through the ropes and it hits you, it's like trying to hold back a runaway train. That's what you train for, to learn control. It's an art. It is. People think you're going in there and trying to smash the other guy's face in. But it's a million miles from that.

"I honestly can't see how Groves is going to beat me. He can't outbox me – in fact I don't think there's anyone in the world who can do that – and if he comes to fight, he'll get knocked out. Whatever he brings, we've got covered. The trouble with gingernut is that he has more balls than brains."

So there's no love lost between DeGale and Groves, but that commodity is no stranger in the life of "Chunky". Olympic gold proved to be a magnet for the ladies, and while he admits to having been "a very busy boy" in that direction, he is now in a stable relationship. "I've been seeing the same girl now for seven months. She's a PA in a City bank. She's met the family and she's actually lasted for two fights, which is a bit of a record for me. She's all right."

The one thing that scares him, he confesses, is the thought of losing. "Nothing else. That's why I put heaps of pressure on myself. I pile it on, especially the verbals. A couple of people have said, 'Don't go with the mouth', but I'm not going to change. Before the Olympics, they tried to give me lessons, trying to make me sound more posh and articulate, but it made me feel a bit of a prick.

"I've got a fast mouth but I ain't particularly articulate and I'm thinking even as I'm doing it, 'What are you talking about, boy, stop it. Be yourself.' And that's what I've decided to be: just be me, a normal 25-year-old doing something he loves.

"I ain't super-rich yet, though I ain't complaining – but I want to earn lots more money, win lots of world titles and be considered one of the greatest fighters ever to come out of Britain – if not the greatest.

"I know I'm far from the finished article, but on a scale of one to 10, I say I am a five. No, make that a four. But I'm getting there."

Life and times

According to his mother, Diane, James "Chunky" DeGale looked like a boxer from the day he was born in Hammersmith, west London, on 3 February 1986.

She said the first thing she noticed was his clenched fists, which got him kicked out of two schools in his early years. But with a little family guidance he began to put them to better use at the Dale Youth Boxing Club, winning numerous amateur titles and international honours.

A switch-hitting southpaw, he beat the Cuban favourite Emilio Correa at the 2008 Beijing Olympics to become the first British middleweight gold medallist since 1968, an achievement which earned him an MBE and a seven-figure professional contract from promoter Frank Warren.

His father, Leroy, who is of French-Caribbean descent, hid in a cupboard because he couldn't bear to watch the final on TV – but emerged £11,000 richer after betting on his son to win at pre-Games odds of 80-1.

Since turning pro in January 2009 his record is 10-0 with eight knockouts, and last December he became the British super-middleweight champion in only his ninth bout, pounding holder Paul Smith in nine rounds in the Liverpudlian's home town. He also holds the WBA International belt.

Nicknamed "Chunky" by his first coach because of his youthful chubbiness, the flamboyant DeGale was booed on his pro debut and jokes that nowadays he is better known as "Marmite", "because they either love me or hate me".

Such is the genuine animosity between him and Commonwealth champion George Groves, who once beat him as an amateur, their domestic showdown is set to sell out London's O2 Arena on 21 May.

Research: Scott Mason