Olympic gold medal winning boxer James DeGale is one the of six shooting stars of sport to appear in the style portfolio in this month's Esquire (July issue, on sale now). In a break from bouncing round for the cameras and speed skipping like a new-age Rocky, we caught up with the effervescent Londoner for a chat...
How are you James? I’m in a very good place at the minute. Life is great. Olympic gold medallist, unbeaten professional, MBE. Life is fantastic.
Do you feel different being a Olympic gold medallist? Yeah I do. I walk in my local shopping centre in Westfield – even down Oxford Street sometimes, and get recognised and stopped. In the last eighteen months my life has changed completely.
Was joining the pro game a shock to the system? Yeah, I didn’t realise how different it was. Obviously I started a bit shaky. Got a few boos in my first fight because I was still boxing like an amateur. Amateur boxing is more like fencing: more about scoring and not getting hit. But in professional boxing you’ve got more time and longer rounds. You can’t get in the ring and not get hit. So, you get tagged a couple of times and have to work on your defence. But I’ve been pro for a year now and I think I’m adapting now and my last five performances have been spot on.
It must have been pretty tough to hear boos during your first pro fight in Birmingham? It was a small minority, but people want to see entertainment. But I think I won over my critics. I’m boxing well now and I’m entertaining.
You weren’t the favourite going into Beijing. Did you surprise yourself by winning gold? I always thought I could go and get a medal – just not the gold medal. When I got there everything went right: my mental state, my weight. Everything was perfect. I got to the semi-finals and won easily and I thought ‘I can do this, I can win the gold medal!’ The final was tough but I won and that’s all that matters.
It was a strange fight, the final…I got bit in the first round! It was nuts. It wasn’t the prettiest of finals, but I’m the Olympic Champion, so I don’t care.
Your Dad won a lot of money on you didn’t he…Yeah, he won a lot! I think I was 250-1 to win the Olympic Gold. I think my Dad won about twelve grand.
What was the post-fight celebration like? I stood on the podium and heard the national anthem. It was fantastic, to have the flag wrapped around me… I was just so proud to be British. It was the happiest day of my life. Afterwards I just spent two and half months celebrating! The homecoming was great. I didn’t realise how big it would be. Trafalgar Square was chocker – it was unbelievable. When I got back to Harlesden it was mad. I’m a superstar in North-West London now!
Your Mum’s been a huge influence on your career…Yeah, I went through a rocky patch when I was 14 or 15. I think all kids do. I was getting mixed up in the wrong crowd, doing things I shouldn’t have been doing. I was roaming the streets, smoking a bit of weed, just doing silly things. My Mum pulled me to one side and said ‘James, you’re not letting down the family. You either settle yourself down and concentrate on the boxing and behave yourself, or you’ll go into social services and embarrass the family.’ That was a big wake up call. I got back into the boxing properly and went down the right path. I was lucky.
Was there ever any post-Beijing thought of staying amateur for London 2012? Definitely. When I won the gold I was still in a bubble and everyone was saying I should defend my title. But when I really thought about it, I realised that I’d always wanted to be a professional and I had to think about my family and myself financially. I think I made the right decision.
What elements of your boxing did you have to improve on to make the step up to pro boxing? I’ve had to slow it down a bit and work on my power and movement – turning my hips, turning my hands. And I’ve had to work on my defence. But I’ve got one of the best coaches in the world (Jim McDonnell) and we’ve been doing it for a year. I think my last couple of performances have shown that.
Do you set yourself specific targets and goals? Yeah, and everything is going to plan. By the end of the year I want to be a domestic champion, either Commonwealth or British. And by 2012 I want to be fighting for a world title. They’re the short and long term aims. Portrait by Des Muckian
To view the complete portfolio buy a copy of the June issue of Esquire, on sale now