James DeGale: 'I regret that I'm not there defending my Olympic title'
He was fast-tracked on to the professional scene after Beijing, and the man with the golden gloves knows how life can change for Team GB when the Games end
This time four years ago, James DeGale was the new golden boy of British boxing, freshly crowned in Beijing as the Olympic middleweight champion and poised to sign a professional contract worth around £1.5 million.
But for "Chunky", life without the headguard and vests has been something of a rollercoaster, as he won and lost the British title, became European champion but now has one fight on his hands he never anticipated, with the promoter Frank Warren who signed him on that six-figure deal in the opposite corner.
They are locked in a contractual dispute which is now in the hands of the lawyers and the British Boxing Board of Control. DeGale claims he has been unhappy with the way things have been going over the past few months and wants out of their arrangement.
"I just want everything to be settled so I can move on," he says. "My promotional contract is finished anyway and it is just a matter of sorting out the management situation. I don't want to say too much about it but maybe in time I will.
"There are all sorts of different things going on. For the first couple of years it was fantastic, but then the problems started." For his part, Warren argues that he has always done his best for DeGale, but that unsettling outside influences have been at work and that some of the boxer's financial demands have been unrealistic.
One of the more obvious reasons for DeGale's discontent is the fact that Warren has also signed George Groves, a bitter rival from their amateur days who deprived the then unbeaten Olympic champion of his British super-middleweight title on a controversial points decision 15 months ago.
"When Frank rang and said he had signed Groves I felt, well, betrayed," says the 26-year-old DeGale. "So the next day I went and met him. He sat me down and when I digested it properly it seemed to make sense. The idea was for me to win the European title and then Groves and I could fight again, maybe for a world title. But that doesn't look as if it is going to happen."
Accompanying that defeat to his fellow Londoner Groves was the loss of his unbeaten record, and, he confesses, his pride. Hubris took a bad tumble that night. "Losing was bad enough," he says, "but losing to George Groves? The thought of it still makes me sick to the stomach."
DeGale says he can sympathise with those fighters who allow themselves to be driven towards despondency. Sympathise, but not identify. However easy as it may have been to hit the booze – or worse – DeGale, with a little help from his intensively supportive kitchen cabinet, convinced himself it wasn't the end of the world, or his world title aspirations.
His father, Leroy, recalls how they sat DeGale down the day after the fight. "Me and mum simply told him, 'Pick yourself up, son. OK, so it was close and controversial, but you lost. Deal with it'." So he did, and five months later in Liverpool he beat Poland's Piotr Wilczewski in a tough battle for the European title. The subsequent defence in Denmark, against the Italian Christian Sanavia, saw one of his finest performances as he won in four rounds.
In company with other past Olympic champions, DeGale has kept an eye on London 2012 and the successors to himself and the boys from Beijing. "We had a great team, youth and experience. But looking at this squad and their achievements here and in the World Championships, I am really impressed. And to be honest, while I'm not a fan of women's boxing, some of them have looked quite good, especially Nicola Adams. I thought she was terrific and she really carries a dig.
"Even now I have a tinge of regret that I'm not up there defending my Olympic title. To go to the Olympic Games was always my target, the only thing I ever talked about. I know my final wasn't the best to watch, it was a bit scrappy, a lot of hugging and pulling, and the Cuban bit me on the chest. It wasn't my best performance but the main thing is that I won.
"Winning a gold medal really is life-changing. Our coach, Terry Edwards, said to me, 'If you win this gold medal, Chunk, your life's going to change and I don't think you understand that yet'. I didn't realise what was going on at home, just how big it was. Everything just blew up.
"But I've no real regrets about turning pro. Hey, I made my decision and I'm happy where I am. To be honest, I think I'm one of the handful of Olympic champions who've been fast-tracked after the Games and have achieved. I was British champion within nine fights.
"Once things are sorted, if something comes along in the way of a world title next summer I'll probably take it, but I want a good 10 months to a year to get some more fights under my belt.
"I keep in shape – I'm no Ricky Hatton. I don't put on three stone between fights, I don't go out bingeing. I like a drink now and again but nothing serious. I've got one of the best coaches in the world in Jim McDonnell and he doesn't let me have too many days off.
"One thing's for sure. I'll be a world champion well before the next Olympics. That's a promise."
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