English super-middleweight champ James DeGale has a rare voice in his corner -- one willing to express a degree of regret, even sadness, about his time in the game.
That may just be to DeGale's advantage when he fights another title-holder -- the half-Swedish, half-Gambian Badou Jack -- in a major 168-pound unification bout this Saturday night in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and live on Showtime.
Jim McDonnell, who trains DeGale, was a world-class featherweight in the 1980s who was able to capture both the British belt and the European one but failed twice to snag a world title (one of those matches was against hall-of-famer Azumah Nelson).
Even as he transitioned with great success into the role of trainer, McDonnell described his disappointment in his personal narrative arc. "I'm not gonna lie," he told an interviewer five years ago, "on how I feel unfulfilled...Deep inside, it still hurts."
Which isn't to say the man's career was for naught or his accomplishments, even without his current training gig, don't stand on their own. Just the opposite: McDonnell is a remarkable man.
He was brought into Watford Football Club's ranks as a youth and trained to be a professional soccer player (for perspective, Watford is competing in the Premier League this year -- so at the top of the world, essentially).
He started boxing at the late age of 16 -- and only to keep fit for soccer. When his aptitude for the avocation surpassed that of his actual gig, he made the switch. It wasn't long before he had turned pro and began a major win streak.
By Nov. 1985, when McDonnell was just 25, he had knocked out the European champ and become the mandatory defense for then-world champ Barry McGuigan. But McGuigan wouldn't enter the ring with McDonnell for nearly a half-decade, at which point McDonnell won by TKO and McGuigan decided he'd had enough and retired.
These are points worth making because those '80s rivals have such a profound impact on the fighting scene today. Saturday night, McDonell's champion, DeGale, fights on Showtime. Two weeks later, McGuigan's -- Carl Frampton -- does the same.
At Thursday's press conference for the DeGale match, I suggested to McDonell that perhaps that grind British and Irish fighters put themselves through in the '80s -- which by and large resulted in them falling just a wee bit short of greatness -- has lifted the millennials now at the fore.
He seemed to agree -- although he stressed that his training isn't merely born of bittersweet reminiscence -- he's no Gordon Bombay and DeGale is far more naturally-talented than any of Disney's "Mighty Ducks."
James DeGale won a gold medal at the Beijing games in boxing, and his preternatural athleticism, his freakish ability to fight in any style with ease, his southpaw craftiness were all obvious even then.
McDonell also doesn't let DeGale earn back the nickname bestowed upon him for his rotundity when the pug was just 10: Chunky. McDonell calls his current training method "The Pit," and while he wouldn't disclose particular exercises to me, he related the philosophy of the thing: Take a previous workout regimen for another fighter and double it.
Make the kid run the track as though that were his primary sport, Usain Bolt his competition (McDonnell asserted seriously that DeGale could've been a pro runner had he chosen to devote himself to that).
That brutally physical routine is built upon a poetically symmetrical relationship. When McDonnell was 25, a sanctioning body proclaimed him the top challenger in the world -- the man who should next fight for a title. He lost the ensuing bout.
When DeGale was 25, he fought fellow Brit George Groves in a massively publicized domestic throw down. Groves trash-talked his way into DeGale's head until McDonnell's star student was utterly unfocused. He lost (although McDonnell puts the words in air quotes because the verdict is much disputed to this day).
DeGale had been Britain's pride after winning gold, so the loss prompted national soul-searching in the back pages of the tabloids. Countless pundits and even Groves himself suggested DeGale drop his trainer -- that McDonnell was holding back the Queen's greatest pugilistic ambassador.
As McDonnell said to me today, nearly every other boxer would've succumbed to that pressure and made the change. That DeGale didn't -- and laid the loss at his own feet -- bespoke a champion’s maturity and dedication.
Exactly four years and two days later, the kid from Harlesden, London became one officially, his old sensei still very much by his side.
Saturday night is just one more defense not only of that title but of their intimate, increasingly-accomplished union.
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