The boxing ring is strewn with fallen champions who have slumped into depression after waking up a loser. Ricky Hatton admitted recently that he even contemplated suicide after being beaten by Manny Pacquiao. James DeGale says he can sympathise with those fighters who allow themselves to be driven towards despondency. Sympathise, but not identify.
It is six months since the golden boy of Beijing lost to his most bitter rival, George Groves, at a heaving O2 Arena in London. Accompanying that controversial points defeat was the loss of his unbeaten record, the British super-middleweight title 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 if it makes me sick to the stomach."
However, with a little help from his intensively supportive kitchen cabinet, DeGale convinced himself it wasn't the end of the world, or his world title aspirations. His father, Leroy, recalls how they sat him 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'."
"They told me that when a great fighter loses, all that matters is how he comes back," says DeGale over coffee in the pleasant family home in Harlesden, north London. The only rehab the 25-year-old "Chunky" has required is in his gym in Loughton, Essex, where for the past 14 weeks he has been preparing for his comeback against the seasoned Piotr Wilczewski for the Pole's European title at Liverpool's Echo Arena next Saturday, undercarding the Nathan Cleverly-Tony Bellew WBO light-heavyweight title fight.
Those preparations are being overseen by the trainer he was urged to ditch after the defeat. Jim McDonnell was labelled a cheerleading conditioner who got the gameplan wrong. DeGale retorts: "Rubbish! They say there ain't no loyalty in boxing, but there is for me. I stayed loyal to Jim because I have a great bond with him, he's like family. It wasn't Jim's fault I lost, it was totally mine. I have never seen Groves so negative but I shouldn't have fought that type of fight.
"At the end of the seventh round Jim must have got a nod from someone because he said, 'Chunk, they're making it close. You'll have to stick it on him'. I reckon I won five out of the last six rounds. When they announced 'Majority decision, Groves' I thought, 'This is bollocks'. All that work, all that hype. Losing made me feel a bit of a twat. I felt I let everybody down, my coach and my family."
DeGale was then confronted while on holiday to Marbella by a few jack-the-lads who fancied their chances against the Olympic champion. He says he has learned to rise above that sort of thing. Just as he has risen above some of the racism that has followed him as someone of mixed parentage, most recently among Groves supporters at the weigh-in. "I took a lot of stick because they claimed I went over the top with some of the things I said, but it wasn't all that one-sided, you know. It isn't nice to be called 'horseface' and hear monkey chants."
"I even heard someone shout, 'Go back into the jungle'," says DeGale's white mother, Diane; Leroy, of French West Indian descent, adds: "We've never ever played the race card."
DeGale was also shocked when his promoter, Frank Warren, told him he had a new stablemate. "When Frank rang and said he had signed Groves I felt..." – he searches for a word – "... yeah, betrayed. So the next day I went and met [Warren]. He sat me down and I digested it properly.
"It makes sense, it's a great move. If Groves beats Paul Smith [whom DeGale beat to win the British title] in his next fight, and I win this European title, in the early part of next year we'll meet again and the winner will go on for a world title.
" You never know what Frank's got up his sleeve. I am thankful he has given me the opportunity to fight for the European title, which is actually more important than the one I lost. That will get me a world ranking.
"This setback has done me good, [it's] a blessing in disguise. I can sit here and talk about it and I am happy with myself. Last time someone beat me domestically, in the amateurs [against Groves], I was Olympic champion a year and a half later. This time round he's got a dodgy decision over me again and believe me, I'll be a world champion by next year's Olympics. What do they call it, déjà vu?"
Wilczewski v DeGale and Cleverly v Bellew is on BoxNation (Sky channel 456) from 6.30pm next Saturday
Bellew the belter
Both are British, unbeaten – and they detest each other. So when Welshman Nathan Cleverly and Scouser Tony Bellew clash for the WBO light-heavyweight title in Liverpool on Saturday expect a rerun of the DeGale-Groves hostilities, with a result as close, and possibly as controversial. Ring legend Bernard Hopkins awaits the winner. Cleverly, 24, faces a test of nerve in his first defence in front of 10,000 Liverpudlians against the home-town banger who says the bookies have "dropped a bollock" in making Cleverly favourite. Maths graduate Cleverly vows: "I'll quit boxing if I lose to Bellew." He might be spending more time with his calculator.
Alan HubbardReuse content