“It is doubtful whether a finer physical specimen has been seen in a British ring.” The BBC were not the only ones to fall for Anthony Joshua from the start. He won the Olympic gold medal in front of an adoring home crowd in London. The excitement grew as he worked his way easily and occasionally spectacularly through the early career procession of the overmatched. When the level of competition improved, he dispatched them just as comfortably. He moved from being on the undercard at big venues to being the main attraction who sells out these same venues in minutes. He gets the fights he wants, when he wants them. But when Joshua beat Charles Martin, he didn’t become the first British Olympic champion to win a professional world title. James DeGale had got there first. Just without the adoration.
The first fight of DeGale’s professional career should have been a chance for fans to celebrate an Olympic hero. Instead, they booed him. Veteran boxing correspondent Kevin Mitchell wrote of his disgust at the crowd’s behaviour and asked readers to “never underestimate the jungle tendencies of boxing fans.” DeGale was a victim of his own skills. Boxing purists could see he was putting on a masterclass but casual fans in search of action and gore were left disappointed. You don’t fill arenas with boxing purists and you don’t gain widespread popularity without winning over the casual fans.
His style outside of the ring was just as problematic. After winning his gold medal, DeGale chose to adopt a brash big ego persona. Prince Naseem Hamed was hugely popular in Britain with a similar approach but DeGale alienated fans from the start. After only his second fight he dubbed himself “the Marmite Man - because people either love or hate me.” By the time he fought George Groves, he was the villain. Floyd Mayweather’s extensive sports car collection is proof that a villain can attract plenty of attention when they keep winning. DeGale’s reputation fuelled the hype around the Groves fight but when he suffered the narrowest of defeats, he had no fanbase to fall back on.
The Glow Exhibition Centre was a large shed tacked onto a large shopping centre. It was in this soulless and unloved setting that DeGale fought a trio of bouts at a stage in his career when he could have expected more. This is not a plea for sympathy; plenty of boxers show deep dedication to the sport without ever getting the chance to fight in big venues. It is, however, undeniable that finding motivation is easier when you are the golden boy starring at another packed out glitzy London venue. With fights at the O2 Arena, Upton Park and the M.E.N in Manchester, DeGale had already tasted the big time and it took a certain character to keep getting it done when he was left outside of the limelight.
DeGale could have stayed within his comfort zone and continued to rebuild his career in the UK. Promised riches and a mixed relationship with UK promoters seemed to play a role in pushing him to North America. His decision also proved that he was willing to forego attention from UK fans in search of the best possible fights. Notable wins over Bute and Dirrell were all but ignored back home. He was prioritising achievement over acclaim; he talked about how he had dreamed of a world title fight in America ever since seeing Naseem Hamed fight Kevin Kelly at Madison Square Garden. Now he does want his public’s recognition and there are signs that he is finally receiving it. The build-up to his fight against Badou Jack has been greeted by several positive profile pieces in the UK press. DeGale describes being at the O2 for a Joshua fight, hearing a big cheer go up and wondering who had walked in. Then he saw his own face on the big screen. While the Joshuas of this world win over the public on exciting potential alone, the DeGales have to build up a record of achievement that can’t be ignored. The upside of fans’ fickleness is that reputations can always be retrieved.