James DeGale: How a bad boy came good
The Brian Viner Interview: Expelled from two schools and nearly kicked out of home, the boxer has since grown up, knuckled down, and won Olympic gold. As he faces his second professional fight, the London lad and his parents talk about family, Bentleys and 'uncle' Frank Warren
Friday 08 May 2009
James DeGale is seeing the producers of Strictly Come Dancing today with a view to him waltzing and quickstepping into the hearts of the nation, or that part of it that watches BBC1 on a Saturday night. He'd be good, too. In his early teens, as a pupil at the Barbara Speake stage school in west London, he showed some promise in tap and even ballet before being asked to leave, having led his teachers a merry dance of altogether the wrong sort. But DeGale is minded to say no to Strictly Come Dancing. He wants the world to know that boxing is his game, not light entertainment. The sequins can come later. Right now, the 23-year-old Olympic middleweight champion wants to save his quickstep for the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, where a week tomorrow he laces up against an unbeaten Czech, Jindrich Kubin.
It will be DeGale's second professional fight. The first was in Birmingham in February, a victory on points over the little-known Georgian Vepkhia Tchilaia, during which he was shocked to hear a few boos echoing around the arena, issued by spectators who thought his performance unconvincing. They were perhaps reminded of another British boxer who won Olympic gold, Audley Harrison, a charismatic fast-talking Londoner just like DeGale, whose eloquent promises to take the professional ring by storm were dealt a series of right and left hooks that left the boxing public feeling distinctly shortchanged. Is DeGale another Harrison? I can hardly wait to ask him.
But I have to wait, because when I arrive at the large detached house on a main road in Harlesden, north-west London, where he still lives with his parents, he hasn't yet got home from sparring practice. So instead I sit in the kitchen talking to his hugely engaging mum and dad, Diane and Leroy, while their Staffordshire bull terriers, Charlie and Dexter, sniff my trouser leg with what looks worryingly like intent. Happily, Diane orders the dogs into the garden, and they both obligingly pad out. Her youngest child was not always so biddable.
"You will NOT ruin this family! I will NOT let you destroy this family!"
Diane DeGale will never forget what she screamed at him, the night she reached the end of her tether. He had been expelled from Barbara Speake, and then he was expelled from his secondary school, Whitefield. Diane prefers the word "excluded" but whatever the semantics, the reason was the same: disruptive behaviour. At first the borough paid for him to have tuition at home, then the funding stopped, and Diane and Leroy had to find the money themselves. But he was hanging round with the wrong crowd, smoking the wrong stuff, betraying the talent he had shown since the age of 10 at Dale Youth, the boxing club down in Ladbroke Grove, where he had first been sent because his granddad knew the trainer there, Mick Delaney. The night they caught him climbing out of his bedroom window, after being grounded for more bad behaviour, was the night Diane hit the roof. She stuffed his clothes into carrier bags and told Leroy to take him to social services. She had raised her three other children, and two nephews, and they had never given her lip, disobeyed her, forced her and Leroy into playing bad cop/good cop, all the time. She'd had enough. He could clear off.
In a way, that was the night the Olympic gold medal was won. DeGale was 15, and traumatised by his mother's explosion. He cried. He promised to be good. He would rediscover his appetite for boxing. He would make her and Leroy proud of him. And he has. Diane has given up her job, office manager in a special school, to run his life as he plots a course to the world title. Britain has had Olympic champions before, but none has ever gone on to conquer professional boxing, least of all the man from a few miles further round the North Circular, big Audley. My wait to ask him if he is the next Audley Harrison is nearly over. DeGale's black Range Rover is back in the drive. It was given to him by his manager, Frank Warren, and if anyone can sat-nav a boxer's way to a world title, Warren can. As DeGale enters the kitchen, Leroy is saying, "those other promoters, Moloney and that, they can't even kiss the inner lining of Warren's jacket."
But Warren is a promoter, not an alchemist. The gold has to be there, and not just in the form of an Olympic medal. Is DeGale the next Audley Harrison?
"No," he says, stretching his big arms out over the back of the sofa. "Audley talked the talk, but I will walk the walk. I know where I'm going. I know I'm going to be world champion."
But not everyone saw a future champ in Birmingham, I say. He leans forward, riled by this jab to his pride. "I don't know how people can judge me after one fight. You'll see a change in this next fight. I was still fighting like an amateur in that one. My hands were a bit low, I left my chin in the air a bit. And I'd hit him, then step back to have a little look at him. Amateur boxing is all about point-scoring, and I knew I was ahead, so I let him rest. On video I can only watch my entrance and the first round, because after that I should have stuck it on him. I'm ready for this next one."
In the meantime, some illustrious ex-boxers have been queuing up to talk down his career prospects. Chris Eubank has asserted that he is "guaranteed" to fail, because he has had too much money too soon, robbing him of the "hunger". DeGale's hero, his fellow southpaw Joe Calzaghe, has expressed similar concerns. He wishes they wouldn't.
"They keep talking about money. It drives me mad. Yeah, I'm buying my own flat, but it's still in Harlesden, know what I mean? I'm not a millionaire yet. I also want to sort my mum and dad out, pay off the rest of their mortgage. And one day I'd like a Bentley Continental, a black one. I can't do them things yet. Anyway, if you ain't got aims, what's the point? I want to be British champion by the end of next year, and knocking on the door of the world title by the next Olympics. I know I've got a lot to learn, but I'm way ahead of schedule. I've only been pro for eight months or something. Imagine me in two years."
The indiscipline of his teens has gone, as have the friends he knocked around with back then. They haven't resurfaced even to scratch the paint off his motor. "I've had none of that. Everyone round here knows it's mine, but I get no trouble, no jealousy, no abuse, only love. That's why I was a bit bamboozled when I heard those silly boos."
There will, he assures me, be no booing in Belfast. I ask him, with just over a week to go before the fight, what his regime will be for the rest of the day? "Going to get my hair cut, man." He runs a hand over hair already cropped close to his scalp. "It's a mop, man. Then I'll get home, speak with my parents, have a little flick on Facebook or whatever, have something small to eat because I'm watching my weight, then maybe a lady friend will come and chill with me."
By his own cheerful admission, he wasn't short of lady friends even before the Olympics added fame and the foundations of fortune to good looks and bags of natural ebullience. It is another topic on which the talkative Eubank has pronounced. "Maybe he's jealous, I don't know. He says I shouldn't let pussy get in the way." A broad grin. "He shouldn't worry for me. Boxing's my pussy."
It was Naseem Hamed and Nigel Benn who turned him on, or at least who made him yearn to be a professional boxer. And he likes the fact that they were both in Warren's camp. "I always chat about those days with Frank. Or Uncle Frank as I call him. I love watching old fights. It's hard to watch the black-and-white footage, although I know about Randolph Turpin and people like that, but I'm talking about Hearns, Haggler, Leonard, those guys. Sugar Ray Leonard, he was way before his time, throwing bolos and all that, those big wind-up bolo shots ..."
I tell DeGale that I once interviewed Sugar Ray Leonard, and was struck by his unblemished looks. "Yeah, I met him too. He kept his looks, yeah." Does he ever worry about some brawler rearranging his? He strokes his uneven nose. "This happened when I was an amateur, sparring with a heavyweight. He nicked my nose. But I quite like it, actually. I think it adds character to my face."
He has never wanted for character, in fact maybe it was character that saved him from himself. His mother has already told me that even at the height of his behavioural problems he was essentially a kind boy, that when he saw other kids being bullied at school he would sort out the bully, then get into trouble for it. Yet he could, he admits, have gone right off the rails. I ask him whether it amuses him that Whitefield, the school that kicked him out, put up a James DeGale display when he came home from Beijing last year? He shrugs. "They got rid of me, now they want to claim me. No, it doesn't amuse me. But I just leave them to do what they've got to do."
It's time for me to leave, and for DeGale to get more hair cut off. He gives me a lift to Harlesden tube station in the swish Range Rover. Next time, I say, it might be the Bentley Continental. "Yeah, but I've got some work to do first, man." Starting in Belfast, where his opponent is a largely unknown quantity. "I don't think we've got video footage of him. But he can't be better than me, know what I mean?"
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