‘I’m driven by mak­ing my mum proud’

James DeGale re­veals to Gareth A Davies how sport, bal­let and fam­ily saved him

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - SPORT -

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

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