You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but there was a time not all that long ago when James DeGale treated training the way a 4-year-old treats bath time.
“I loved sparring and hitting the pads when I was younger, but I thought that all of the training had to go—I just wanted to get into the ring and spar,” DeGale says. “When it came to doing the bag work or skipping rope or ground work, I used to try to hide.”
Today, James DeGale is as physically fit as any boxer on the planet, the very antithesis of the nickname “Chunky” that he’s had since he was a portly youngster growing up in his native London. In fact, DeGale’s commitment to rigorous gym work is a big reason why he’s a 168-pound world champion who will look to add another piece of hardware to his collection Saturday when he meets Badou Jack in a title unification bout at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York (Showtime, 9:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. PT).
So what got DeGale (23-1, 14 KOs) to change his training ways? Read on to learn the answer, as we go “12 Rounds With” the English champ, who also shares his thoughts on a couple of boxing legends, the mental aspect of the fight game, the one punch that nearly knocked him into next weekend and why “Chunky’s” toughest opponent continues to be his sweet tooth.
Saturday’s showdown against Badou Jack will be your fourth straight fight in North America. How do you believe those previous experiences fighting on this side of the pond will help you against Jack?
I love boxing away from home because half of the pressure has been taken off of me. I’m away from all of the distractions from home, and I’m living the dream, really, being in the big cities of America and the big fights.
I’m only just a little bit worried about the judging, because Badou Jack is [mentored and promoted by] Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Mayweather’s got a lot of power and pull. I just hope the judges are fair.
But, listen, looking at my last three fights, the judging has been spot on. Still, Jack is a Mayweather fighter, it’s a Mayweather [promotion] and I just hope that he has no influence on the judges.
But I feel like I’m proving that I’m ready for the next level with this title unification fight, which could be my career-defining night. This will determine who is the No. 1 man in the division.
A lot of people wrote me off after I lost to George Groves [in May 2011], but the cream always rises to the top, and that’s exactly what has happened with me.
If you could spend 20 minutes picking the brain of any fighter in history—living or dead—who would it be, and what would you want to know?
Two of my favorites are Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard. With Hagler, I loved his attitude and the way that he fought and he didn’t avoid anyone.
I would like to sit down with both of them and talk about that era and the guys they fought—Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns—and their overall careers and their lives. There are all sorts of things that I would love to pick their brains about.
What did you appreciate about Leonard and Hagler, and how do you think you would’ve fared against those all-time greats?
Hagler was all about [seek] and destroy. He was no-nonsense. I loved the way he fought and just went to war. He didn’t give a [damn]; he just wanted to get in there and fight. But I think his style might have suited me, because he was a southpaw and I’m a southpaw who is very good fighting [other] southpaws.
With him being aggressive, I’d like to fight off the back foot and pick my shots. But sometimes I like to mix it up as well. People underestimate my inside work, so I think that would be a fantastic fight with Hagler.
With Leonard, his skill level and boxing ability were unbelievable, and skills pay the bills. Leonard was fantastic and stupidly fast, so I would like to match my skills against him as well.
But those two are legends, so it’s hard to say that I would beat them, because I look up to them so much. But I’m a boxer, and I think I can beat anyone.
“ I first put on the gloves at the age of 10. I was excited and nervous and a bit fearless. I didn’t mind getting hit and didn’t really understand the importance of not getting hit. ” James DeGale
Speaking of your skills: You’re really effective fighting both orthodox and as a southpaw. Have you ever seen anyone who can switch-hit as well as you’ve been able to?
I really like Vasyl Lomachenko—the way the guy fights and moves, and the shots he throws and how sharp and precise and accurate they are. And his hands are great. He’s so talented—pound-for-pound, a special fighter.
How old were you the first time you put on a pair of boxing gloves and stepped into the ring? Can you describe your emotions at that moment?
I first put on the gloves at the age of 10. I was a young man who was excited and nervous and a bit fearless and didn’t care back then. I didn’t mind getting hit and didn’t really understand the importance of not getting hit.
While you loved the fighting aspect of the sport, you weren’t exactly a big fan of working out. When did that change?
At about 17 years of age. I used to win national titles on talent alone up through about 15 or 16 years of age. But when I got picked to box for my country, I went away to Italy or Poland.
I ended up getting into a final and boxing a Russian, and I lost. But the reason I lost was because I was unfit at the highest level. That gave me the kick up my ass to say, “You know what? If I’m going to do this, then I’ve got to train hard and take it seriously.”
Not including yourself, who is the best fighter in your division right now?
I would have to say it’s Badou Jack. But then, you’ve got [168-pound world champ] Gilberto Ramirez (34-0, 24 KOs) and an undefeated young prospect from England, Callum Smith (22-0, 17 KOs). Well, Smith isn’t really a prospect anymore because he’s had loads of fights, and he’s a mandatory challenger for a title.
But after me, I would probably have to say it’s Jack and Ramirez, because they’re champions.
Finish this sentence: If not for boxing, I would be …
… unhappy, because I would be broke, brother. [Laughs.] I would probably be a plumber. An unhappy plumber.
If you had the ability to change your body type, what’s the one weight class you wish you could compete in?
If I was a few inches taller and I had the frame to do it, I would love to go to heavyweight. That would be an ideal division. If I could carry my speed and my movement and my fitness, it would be pretty easy to fight any heavyweight.
Obviously, I could probably go up to light heavyweight [175 pounds] or cruiserweight [200 pounds] right now. But if I could do heavyweight and have a bigger frame, I’d fight anyone.
Describe what it feels like to land the perfect punch.
The fight against Brandon Gonzalez (May 2014), I sat on the ropes, covered up and came back with a four-punch combination that nearly took his head off. I hit him with a left hand, right hand and left hand, and they stopped the fight later on in the fourth round.
But the Andre Dirrell fight [in May 2015], where I dropped him twice in the second round, was probably my favorite. That first knockdown was an overhand left—a fast, accurate and perfectly timed shot.
With good speed and foot movement, sometimes you don’t see [a big punch] coming, and it’s hard to defend.
What is your favorite punch to throw?
I like the uppercut, the left hand to the body and the right hand to the body—there are just so many shots that I like. I like to throw the uppercut with both hands. I like the overhand left as well, being a southpaw. I love landing that shot over the top.
What fighter has hit you the hardest?
The worst I have been hit and hurt was in my 12th fight when I boxed for the European [168-pound] title against Piotr Wilczewski—right after the loss to George Groves.
In Europe, the European title is pretty prestigious and a steppingstone title that you need to win to go to the top. But in the fourth round, Wilczewski caught me with the best punch that I’ve ever been hit with as a pro—an overhand right on my eardrum that nearly dropped me.
My legs went when I got hit, and after that, it looked like the referee was going to step in. I literally couldn’t hear anything. It was weird. I was all over the place for probably only about 30 seconds, but it felt like much longer than that. As it’s all coming back to you, you gradually feel yourself getting better, but it feels like forever.
A lot of people say you get buzzed, but this was at a different level. You see all of these little spots in front of your eyes and it’s like déjà vu—your whole life flashes in front of you. It’s the most amazing thing ever. I boxed the rest of the 12 rounds like that. I beat him by majority decision, and I think I showed that I have a great chin.
What’s the one food item that’s the toughest to give up while training for a fight?
Probably chocolate. I love chocolate. But it can be a bit of everything, because I love my food. My whole family does. Any unhealthy junk food is tough to give up. But the hardest thing to avoid when I’m making weight is chocolate.
What’s the one thing about the life of a pro boxer that most fight fans don’t understand?
The mental side. You will never know the feeling of fight camp or fight week, because there is so much going through your mind as you train.
Fans just think it’s us getting into the ring under the lights in big arenas in Las Vegas, New York or London. They see us go in there and fight and win. They don’t see the mental side of it. I’m always saying that to my mum. It’s crazy.
Obviously, there’s the thought of losing and not being a champ anymore. Life is going so well that you don’t want to go back to being a contender again.
There’s [also] the training side, the making weight, the press conferences. Then, finally, there is fighting in the biggest fight of your life—two men getting into the ring and fighting hard for 36 minutes, which is a long time. Then, after [it’s over], we hug each other and say well done. It’s still the best sport in the world.
If you could have dinner with four people in the history of the world, who would be on your guest list?
Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and I would actually like to meet Barack Obama. I would also like to have met [deceased champions] Arturo Gatti or Diego Corrales.
What’s on your bucket list?
I know that on some people’s bucket list is going to the Taj Mahal. But if I want to go to the Taj Mahal, I’ll go to the Taj Mahal.
I’m pretty lucky in life that I’m doing everything I want to do. I’m traveling wherever I want to, I’m enjoying and living life, I’m doing well in my career and achieving my goals.
“12 Rounds With” is published Wednesdays at PremierBoxingChampions.com. Next week: Former two-division world champion Mikey Garcia.