James DeGale vs Andre Dirrell: DeGale – from shopping centre to brink of history

DeGale could become the first ever British Olympic gold medalist to win a world championship

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The Independent Online

The moment of truth has arrived for James DeGale. When the 29-year-old was a troubled teenager growing up in London, watching Prince Naseem Hamed light up Madison Square Garden, it sparked a dream which will be realised Saturday evening here in Boston.

DeGale’s first professional fight in the United States is also his biggest, for victory would make him the first British Olympic gold medallist to win a world crown.

Standing in the way of history is the skilful, not to be underestimated Andre Dirrell, the American 31-year-old with just one defeat, against Carl Froch, whose vacated IBF super-middleweight title the pair will fight for.

The stakes are high. A win and DeGale can reach for the stars. Finally he will be appreciated by one and all. A defeat and the ground will open up before him.

Yet this is a fighter who has experienced enough lows in life to realise that when opportunity knocks, it must be taken gleefully and emphatically.

“I remember when I was 12 watching Naz and thinking, ‘I want some of that’,” recalls DeGale. “It’s incredible to think back to where I was – how I had trouble at school, went to ballet for a bit, tried acting school, the lot. It’s crazy that I am now in this position. I’ll always have a small percentage of haters but it’s unbelievable how my popularity has grown. This is all I have dreamt of, though, winning the world title.”

However, in the seven years since that golden evening in Beijing, DeGale went from a gregarious, supremely talented if slightly overconfident performer, who lost his only fight in 21 to bitter rival George Groves in 2011, to a worried athlete forced to fight in a Kent shopping centre on Channel 5.

Mismanagement and lack of focus held him back. However, his switch to Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom boxing stable in April last year has ensured greater TV exposure and means the limelight DeGale craves is shining brightly.

“I will always remind myself about 2008 because it was such a special time,” said the fighter from Harlesden, north-west London. “It’s so hard to get motivated when I was fighting at shopping centres. I wasn’t getting the right fights that would take me to the world title. I was involved in some stupid fights.

“The flat atmosphere must have come across on the TV and that was not doing me any good. Fighting at Bluewater in front of 1,000 people was hard for me. Before that I was being billed as the Golden Boy on Amir Khan’s undercard.

“Now I really feel I have momentum behind me, everything is coming together after my seven years since Beijing. I thought a world title would come sooner. I thought it would be four years after  the Olympics, so I am three years behind schedule. This is a career-defining moment.”

Both fighters are dripping with self-confidence. DeGale’s camp have been wearing T-shirts with “making history” emblazoned on them. Dirrell fancies his chances too, backed by his gaudy, loud-mouthed brother Willy, who, at Wednesday’s media workout, antagonised DeGale, his family and Hearn with brain-numbing cries of “here’s the champ” and “you’re a loser”.

With this event being marketed under the Premier Boxing Champions banner created by Al Haymon, it is hard to realise a title is on the line.

Indeed, Dirrell’s pre-fight diatribe, insisting he and DeGale should forget about any belt and instead consider the impact the fight will have on their respective records, was stomach-wrenching.

It was as if he was wearing an earpiece with a line straight to Haymon, whose desperation to control boxing means organisation titles are not part of his bigger picture.

DeGale, however, turns the other cheek. He plans to watch his beloved Arsenal in next weekend’s FA Cup final wearing a new belt, with the words of Arsène Wenger, who wrote a pre-fight letter of support, lodged firmly in his pocket.

“I have just bought a new house in St Albans so I am looking for a place on the wall to put my gold medal and the World Championship belt, “ he added. “It has five bedrooms so is definitely big enough for a trophy room.”

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