In a sport where chutzpah and charisma carry as much clout as a left hook, James DeGale is a welcome addition to boxing's extrovert club. With Britain's platoon of Olympic gold medallists, he has been celebrating his New Year Honour – an MBE – and professes himself well chuffed. "It's wicked man, wicked. It gives me goose pimples and shivers just thinking about it."
We recall that soon after DeGale won the Olympic middleweight title in Beijing he joshed: "Maybe I'll become a millionaire and beknighted". Well, he was half right, a two-year deal said to be worth £1.5 million with the promoter Frank Warren providing a comfortable cushion upon which to launch a professionalcareer, although he quickly points out: "I don't get the money in one hit." Even so, he acknowledges it is "serious cheddar", and a new Range Rover Sport parked outside his Harlesden home is impressive compensation for the old saloon he had to sell to help make ends meet in his amateur days.
We will be hearing a lot of – and from – the hip-hop switch-hitter in 2009 as he launches his bid to become the first British Olympic champion to win a world profes-sional title. It is not only his opponents' ears that face a bashing.
In a sport where gab and jab go hand in boxing glove, the voluble DeGale makes his paid debut next month with his fellow Olympian Billy Joe Saunders and the world amateur champion Frankie Gavin, the trio all now under Warren's wing. He has spent the holiday "chilling out" with his family, and preparations for his pro career begin in earnest tomorrow, though he has still to settle on a new trainer – Jim McDonnell and Jimmy Tibbs head the shortlist. As his new stablemate Amir Khan will affirm, this is something he has to get right from the off. "This is a new chapter in my life. I'm looking forward to it. Ever since I was 10, when I used to watch videos of Prince Naseem [Hamed], I've wanted to be a professional boxer. I used to copy his ring entrances, the verbals, everything. The pro game will really suit me, 'cos my boxing brain will be too much for those other geezers."
With the bronze medallist Tony Jeffries signing for the northern promoter Dennis Hobson and the coach, Terry Edwards (also awarded an MBE), on the brink of quitting, Team GB have been denuded of the nucleusof their squad for 2012. DeGale reckons the Amateur Boxing Association have got what they deserved.
"Beijing turned my life upside down. When I got back I was still in that Olympic bubble, my emotions were all over the place. I didn't want to turn pro because I had a good relationship with Terry, but then I realised I'd be stupid if I didn't. I'd reached the pinnacle of my amateur career with an Olympic gold. But what clinched it is the way the ABA behaved in refusing to pay the bonuses to those of us who won Olympic medals. There was never any doubt the money was on the table but they reneged on it, which is why me and Tony [Jeffries] are suing them. The sheer cheek of it. Bomb the twenty grand, I don't care about the money, I'll give it to charity. Now it's about the principle. We always understood we'd be getting a bonus, but then we heard that if we went pro it would be stopped. Fuck it, what a liberty – and the way they behaved towards us in Beijing was disgraceful. Others might put it better but to me the people who run the ABA are arseholes, hopeless."
He says he has put on "a bit of weight" over Christmas but has been in the gym most days. "I'm 22, I like socialising but never overdo it." He thinks he is more likely to box at super-middleweight than middleweight. "But I'll see how the dieting goes. When I'm in training I'm pretty strict. My mum cooks me proper food, I won't eat no shit, burgers, sweets, nothing. Plenty of fruit and smoothies in the morning."
If DeGale does campaign at super-middleweight, it will be the same division in which Joe Calzaghe made his name. The Welshman has not only been dismissive of DeGale, suggestinghe will never make a world champion,but claims boxing is dying. "Bollocks," says DeGale. "I'm so disappointed, because he is one of my all-time favour-ite boxers. I'm hurt, man. As a fighter he is wicked, I love him, but why should he slag me off, dissing me like that, and saying my hunger's gone because I'm a millionaire already? I wish I was. People read I'm getting £1.5m for turning pro, but that's not in my bank yet. It's spread over two years. OK, if things go right I will be a millionaire, but even then I wouldn't want people to think because I get a bit of money my hunger's gone. Boxing's all I do, and anything I get I earn the hard way."
David Haye is another who has been less than complimentary aboutDeGale. "Silly sod. Do you know what it is? He's got the hump because I'm better-looking than him. How dare he say I won't make a good pro? I just can't wait to prove people like him wrong."
DeGale, whose father, Leroy, is of French Caribbean descent and his mother Diane, a white Londoner, comes from the same manor as Britain's last Olympic boxing champion, Audley Harrison. "Some peoplesay, 'He'll go the same way as Audley', but I'm totally different. Audley's a good boxer, but in the pro game heart is everything. You've got to have some arsehole, some heart, if you ain't got that you're in trouble."
Nicknamed Chunky by his first coach because of his youthful chubbiness, DeGale jokes that maybe now he should be known as Marmite, "because they are either going to love me or hate me. I hear some say, 'He's a lovely lad, fantastic', but others reckon I'm a flash git, and that I hold, run and spoil. But you don't win an Olympic gold without ability. I live and breathe boxing, it consumes me, I just want to make it to the top so badly."Reuse content