Chunky dory: Win in New York should earn DeGale overdue recognition at home
The IBF world champion can make history by beating Badou Jack, but still has business to attend to in Britain...
“Britain has always been a country full of heart, but very little skill,” said Eddie Hearn in the final press conference before James DeGale’s super middleweight unification fight with Badou Jack on Saturday night.
“In fact, the British public sometimes prefer you to lose. You become more popular.”
Hearn’s tongue was placed firmly in his cheek at the time, but there is a little truth to what he says.
The UK has always preferred a spirited underdog to a gifted technician in the ring.
Perhaps that is why DeGale has never been the golden boy of British boxing that his stellar amateur career suggested he could one day become.
Unlike other fighters who have endeared themselves to the public by overcoming their shortcomings with sheer willpower, the Londoner has always been supremely talented.
He seemed to find it easy when he won Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008.
Ditto when he beat Andre Dirrell in 2015 to become Britain’s first Olympic champion to win a world title.
And that, coupled with the cocky demeanour he demonstrated earlier in his career, is why this weekend he is fighting in New York, rather than selling out Wembley or the Emirates Stadium.
DeGale has acknowledged that he is unlikely to ever be recognised among the country’s most appreciated fighters.
"I will never be Anthony Joshua or Ricky Hatton, who are loved by everyone,” he said this week. “Some people will always call me a prat.”
He has, in fact, been an underdog, though.
DeGale’s majority decision defeat to George Groves in 2011 – a fight that many considered far too close to call – set his career back after starting with 10 comfortable victories.
It left him watching and chasing as Groves and Carl Froch met in two of the biggest bouts in British boxing history.
DeGale was the forgotten man in that trio of fine British super-middleweights, forced to rebuild his career with low-profile fights in places like Bluewater and the City Academy Sports Centre in Bristol.
He deserves huge credit, then, for becoming what he is now: just the fifth British fighter in history to attempt to unify world titles in America.
His CV already far surpasses Groves’, and should he beat Jack, he will arguably have achieved even more than Froch – one of the country’s finest champions in recent history.
Fighting away from the spotlight and criticism of the UK has liberated DeGale.
He is a better fighter than ever, and has repeatedly stressed that this unification fight has sparked a new drive and focus in him.
He is also in fantastic shape.
Footage of him training shirtless this week confirmed that his ‘Chunky’ nickname is now entirely inappropriate.
But regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s bout, DeGale will not be able to shake the feeling that he still has business to attend to in his home country.
The 30-year-old’s career is reaching its later stages, and should he emerge from New York with the IBF and WBC belts, a return home is a must.
The UK is where pay-per-view records are constantly being broken, and where DeGale can find the blockbuster fights that will earn him the acclaim that he so clearly deserves.
He wants to be recognised as one of the country’s great boxers.
“I want to do this right, to get people to say: ‘DeGale, he was a proper fighter,’” he said in the build-up to this fight.
Bringing the belts to Britain will give him the chance to do just that.