‘I’m driven by making my mum proud’
James DeGale reveals to Gareth A Davies how sport, ballet and family saved him
J from London’s gun culture ames DeGale admits he is a diva. So much so that his family, during his training camps, call him ‘DeGold’. They all find it funny. He is precious. And difficult. But without his family, and especially his mother Diane, he also admits that he would never have become the only British Olympic gold medallist to win a professional world title and secure both a sporting legacy and his financial security by the age of 30.
Dancing saved James DeGale first; then boxing. As a teenager, living in Harlesden, London, DeGale was a step away from gangs, drugs, guns and prison. He hated school; he was a tearaway, so Diane enrolled him at the Barbara Speake Stage School. He excelled as a dancer, including ballet. Those dance skills have given DeGale wonderful footwork and fluency in the ring, and a flashy style which allows him to create angles from which to flourish with his fists.
On Saturday night in Brooklyn, New York, and now at the peak of his powers, DeGale, the International Boxing Federation world champion, faces the Floyd Mayweather-promoted Badou Jack, the World Boxing Council title holder, in a super-middleweight world unification contest that will determine the No 1 12-stone fighter in the world.
DeGale is the favourite, and a victory would put him in fine company, alongside Joe Calzaghe, as the last British fighter to be the leading boxer in this division. But it could have been so different, had it not been for DeGale’s love of boxing – and his family’s love for him.
“I love Harlesden and I’m proud to be from Harlesden. But 15 years ago this was the gun capital of London. Madness,” explained DeGale as we spoke at one of the gyms in the north west London area which was once his stomping ground.
“Boxing didn’t just save my life. It has made me the man I am. It sounds such a cliché. But if I didn’t have boxing I’d probably be in prison now or up to no good. I’m a normal kid and I’ve achieved so much. But I couldn’t have done it without a brilliant family behind me. And my mum is the boss.”
In training camp, always joined by Diane, father Leroy and sister Eloise – as well as his trainer Jim McDonnell – there are plenty of disputes. “There’s arguments, falling outs, everything,” said DeGale. “My family call me ‘DeGold’ because they say I change: I act like a diva, get moody, ratty, demanding. But my immediate family are so close we get through it. I love my mum and dad. My mum’s the most special woman in my life. She’s like superwoman, the rock of the family. I’d do anything for her.
“That’s my motivation as a fighter: to please my mum and dad, make them proud.”
It is an extraordinary dynamic, one which sports psychologists describe as “scaffolding on the building of an athlete’s career”. It can work against some families. But it works for the DeGales.
The boxer’s mother Diane told The Sunday Telegraph: “James lets me run his business and look after him. But he is the one who makes all the decisions, really. I don’t think some people understand how close we are. Some people find it weird, other people admire it. To me, my kids are my kids to the day I die. “I’ve worked in education and I believe there’s something out there for every child. If they’re not academic, there’s sport, or there’s art. That’s how James has ended up where he is today. The dance school complemented the boxing. Boxing did save him. He wasn’t challenged in the classroom. When he got in the boxing ring that’s where he was challenged and that’s where he found his forte and that’s where he’s blossomed. “I’m just really happy for him that he’s living his dream and smashing it.”
Diane gets her rewards, too. “He’s always been very affectionate and kind. The nice thing about him is he doesn’t care who he’s around, whether it’s his friends, the media, anyone, he’ll still give me a big kiss and a hug and tell me he loves me. It comes from the heart. We have a very close bond.”
DeGale’s younger sister Eloise, who has been a dance teacher herself, said: “It’s definitely a team effort from all in the family. During the fight camp everyone is, ‘James, James, James’. Our focus is him for those 10 to 12 weeks of fight camp. But we love it.”
Diane admits that her son, who competes in the toughest individual sport there is, needs her.
“James needs someone in his life that will keep him focused and on the right path. I’m not a pushy mum. When he’s out of camp I might speak to him once a day and that’s if he rings me for something. I leave him alone. I let him get on with his life. When he’s in camp, I do everything for him. Literally.
“I’d also rather us be doing the deals for him than some of the sharks out there doing it and not looking after his best interests. So when he finishes
‘I love Harlesden and I am proud to be from there, but 15 years ago it was the gun capital of London’
boxing he has made it and can have a good quality of life.”
Yet when DeGale prepares for his dance with Jack on fight night in six days’ time, Diane will make herself scarce. “I can’t watch his fights,” she says. “I always watch them back. I get him ready and he leaves. My last words to him are ‘break a leg’.
“That’s when the nerves start. I literally feel sick. I get a dodgy stomach, I’m on the toilet. I stay in a room with other family members. And I try to go to sleep.”
When the fight is over, Diane then gets a call, or a text.
DeGale smiled knowingly. Then he talked business. “Look, I can’t underestimate this guy. He’s a serious fighter, a confident fighter. He’s become world champion, he’s got Mayweather around him. He’s a part of the ‘Money Team’.
“This is a tough fight for me. I’m the big favourite, it’s crazy. But I’m driven by going over the pond, unifying the world titles, and being seen as one of Britain’s best ever,” he said, before adding: “As well as making my mum proud, of course.”
Serious business: James DeGale is preparing to fight Badou Jack, who is promoted by Floyd Mayweather, to define who is the world’s best super-middleweight