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.
Alright, so it seems DeGale and his trainer are endearing, but who's really gonna win? you ask. Perhaps you suspect my very choice of subject indicates my opinion -- you'd be right, but not because I let the story sway me.
I looked at the contest plainly -- and with the help of another trainer who failed in his quest for the title during a fighting career but helped his best student garner one: "Iceman" John Scully, who hails from an area near Manchester, CT., and also by the sea -- Hartford.
Scully is a true student of boxing (too many trainers are called that without the credentials) who has kept diaries since his days as an amateur and is compiling them now into a book. He throws reunions for old, retired boxers who rarely get to gather and has further bona fides as a former ESPN commentator.
Scully fought at the same weight as Jack and DeGale -- 168 and then led "Bad" Chad Dawson to a title at 175 as the teacher. His impression of Badou Jack is that he's sneakily good in the way he tags a guy (even if only to the belly) whenever he gets hit. Never lets an opponent feel he has an advantage for more than a millisecond. Another pro: Jack's high guard, which is so anomalous in an age of hands-down boxers who treat defense as an afterthought.
Then there's his victory over ballyhooed American Anthony Dirrell. Scully recalls Dirrell once fighting in an amateur tournament -- more than a decade ago -- in which he suffered such a bad shoulder or arm injury it was as if the kid had been shot. To Scully's amazement, Dirrell not only won the tourney with the injury, he 20-pointed -- beat by a mercy rule -- his final opponent.
If Badou Jack could beat Dirrell (it was a very close majority decision win, but still), he must be some hell of a fighter, Scully concludes. Yet, he still favors James DeGale.
Badou comes in straight, whereas DeGale uses all sorts of angles both to approach and evade an opponent. There's also the downside to Jack's high guard -- and now I'm speaking more of my opinion than Scully's, though he agreed with me.
Jack turns his arms too far inward on defense, very much like his promoter Floyd Mayweather. As Scully said pithily, though, there's a reason Floyd can get away with his moves -- and kids trying to emulate him without the natural gifts are making a huge mistake. Floyd has the hand speed to covert that bicep-contracted guard into a potshot or jab or even flurry (though he rarely uses combo). Jack lacks the speed -- so there's a long transition between his defense to offense.
James DeGale has the fast-twitch muscle to switch with ease. "He's a little bit more versatile and quick on the trigger," Scully said. "He's a two-hand fighter even to the body."
Oh, and he's a southpaw -- so his already Roy Jones-esque improvisations look further distorted to stand-up, righty opponents.
The final bit working in DeGale's favor -- "Iceman" Scully also believes a trainer's shortcomings can be marshaled to boost his acolytes' games. His big losses are "the basis of my training career," he said. "More so than anything, I use my failures."