Inside the mind of a fighter
Olympic gold medallist James DeGale gives EXCLUSIVE exclusive access to his pre-fight preparation
THE WEIGH-IN – 4pm. 30 hours until the fight.
James takes to the scales and weighs bang-on the twelve-stone limit. After a stare down and verbal exchange with his opponent there’s only one thing on his mind, food! “It’s my pre-fight ritual that Team Chunky eat at Nando’s straight after the weigh-in. Mentally, I’m relaxed but I’m glad I get to eat. Normally I can get a bit moody a few days before the fight if I’m watching what I have to eat. Yesterday I only ate a small bowl of prawns and veg so I’m ready to smash some chicken now!” MENTAL STATE: Hungry
FIGHT DAY MORNING – 9:30am. 12.5 hours until the fight.
While the family and the rest of James’ team are up and eating breakfast at the hotel, the fighter decides to skip eating and have a lie-in. Around 11am is when he wakes and makes his way down to the hotel lobby, where he sits quietly and reads good luck messages and Tweets from fans. “I don’t like to get up too early on the day of the fight and I don’t tend to eat much either. I don’t want anything heavy inside me so I just have a protein shake and chill out before I do anything else. I get a lot of messages of support and stuff so I just chill and have a look at what people are saying.” MENTAL STATE: Tired.
TRAINING DEBRIEF - 1:30pm. 9 hours until the fight.
Trainer Jim McDonnell keeps a record of every round of sparring and every lap of the running track James has completed in his ten week training camp. The dossier shows steady progress and this is the first time James has seen the results of his hard work on the track and in the gym. “Jim is a fitness freak! He has me up at 6:30am running round the track during training. It’s always been a bit of the training but we stepped things up a bit for this fight. Jim shows me the diary of my progress for the first time on the day of a fight to prepare me mentally. I’m always surprised as to how far I’ve come over the space of a few weeks. What this does is relax the mind. When I see the progress I’ve made it gives me confidence in how well the training has gone” MENTAL STATE: Excited
ARENA VISIT – 2:30pm. 8 hours until the fight.
James and his team always pay a visit to the venue on the day of a fight. This time it’s slightly later than scheduled and the boxer grows agitated having been sat patiently in the hotel lobby waiting for the team to gather so they can leave. Fighters are creatures of habit, so getting familiar with their surroundings is something that helps and pre-fight nerves. Upon arrival at the Glow arena, James and his team check out his dressing room before walking to the ring and stepping between the ropes. The ring is larger than expected but it doesn’t faze the Olympic champion. “This is part of my fight day routine. The ring is a little bit bigger than we thought but it’s not a problem. I can bounce around it and cut my opponent off so it doesn’t matter. I like to have a wander around the empty arena it’s the first time that I feel like I’m in a fight. It relaxes me, I feel at home in the ring and this is just something we’ve done from the beginning of my career. Coming here before the fight means there won’t be any surprises when I get here later on.” MENTAL STATE: Relaxed
FIRST MEAL OF THE DAY – 2:45pm. Less than 8 hours until the fight.
He’s not eaten all day and this will be the first and last time he eats before he gets in the ring. There are eight of us in total heading for a meal, having his team around him takes his mind off the fight ahead. Not for long, though as he’s constantly stopped and asked for photos by fans. When the team finally make it to the restaurant it’s a fish and meat paella entrusted to see him through until he can eat a (celebratory) meal again before the day’s out. “I don’t want to eat anything else other than this as I need to digest properly before going into the ring, so I’ll have a fairly large meal now and nothing else until after. Having my trainer, family and a few friends around helps take my mind off things, we just sit and have banter with each other like anyone else. We laugh at each other’s haircuts and stuff (James’ mate does his own). As for the choice of food, I just need something healthy and something that’ll fill me up so chicken and rice is a good choice.” MENTAL STATE: Chilled out.
LUNCH OVER RUNS - 3:45pm – Less than 7 hours until the fight.
Poor service means the meal goes on longer than expected. While the team begin to get agitated James sits quietly in the corner checking Tweets on his phone. There’s no sign of him wasting energy on something he doesn’t need to. When the bill does finally arrive James picks it up for the table and even poses for a photo with the waiter despite the poor service. “My dad embarrasses me sometimes when we’re out like this, I just pay the bill and get on with it whereas he’s always wanting a discount! I’d rather focus on getting my entrance music right for tonight, and if I waste time using up energy and getting frustrated, that gets everyone else frustrated because they want me to be as relaxed as possible ahead of the fight. I don’t get nervous at this stage because I see it as just another day at the office. I’ve got an opponent in front of me and so I’ve going to beat him, and that’s it. ” MENTAL STATE: Still chilled.
BACK TO THE HOTEL – 5pm – Five hours until the fight.
For the first time today James’ camp all meet in the same place. His corner team , his family and some friends all sit and mingle in the lobby of the hotel. Tea and doughnuts are shared among the group. He allows himself one of the sweet treats as there’s enough time to go before the first bell. Trainer Jim McDonnell goes over a few tactics with him, no game-plan is revealed at the moment, the talk is just of basic movement and cutting his opponent off. Having seen the ring earlier on in the day, the team have a better idea of how to execute their plan to wear down James’ opponent. After posing for a few pictures with hotel guests and fans, it’s time for the boxer to retire to his room for a rest before leaving again for the arena. He’s been surrounded by people all day so it’s important to get a lie down and some peace and quiet, not only physically but mentally too. “All the preparation has been done now, there’s no more I can do to get myself ready. Physically, I’m in shape so now it’s all about preparing the mind. I like to have people around me a lot but it can make you tired, so now’s the time just to rest a bit. It’s the calm before the storm basically. I’ll go upstairs and just get into fight mode. The team have taken care of everything else so now it’s down to me to get my head in the right frame of mind.” MENTAL STATE: Weary
AT THE ARENA
ARRIVE AT THE VENUE – 8:30 – 90 minutes until the fight.
Rested and mentally prepared, James and his camp arrive at the arena. The atmosphere is different from the visit a few hours ago. The smell of sweat is in the air and the sound of gloves peppering pads rings as out as the undercard fighters warm up. The show is well underway but the main event is fast approaching. The dressing rooms are close and intimate. Rival Chris Eubank Jnr has the dressing room next-door-but-one which is heavily guarded with security. There’s no such thing with James’ dressing room. His space is empty except for the surprise visit of a random drugs tester, who has been sitting patiently in the corner. James takes it in his stride as he routinely tries different mouth guards for size. He sits down and his corner prepares for the fight the referee comes in and explains the rules. Nothing more than a formality in boxing so it doesn’t bother James or his camp. “I’m ready now. I’m focused on the fight, this is what I’ve worked hard for and trained for other the last few weeks. There’re a lot of distractions going on, the dressing rooms are close together and there’s a lot of people walking around but it’s always like this, so it doesn’t bother me.” MENTAL STATE: Fully focused.
IN THE DRESSING ROOM – 9pm – 60 minutes until the fight.
Music sounds in the dressing room to help pump James up with an hour to go before the ring walk. He loosens up with some light shadow boxing and stretches his limbs. The atmosphere is relaxed but more focused than before. Although there’s a lot of smiling, fewer jokes are told and James is largely left to mentally prepare himself. “I listen to Sean Paul, Kevin Little, stuff like that. Just music I can vibe to and sing along to really. There’s not much too it, I’d rather have some noise going on than it be totally silent before the fight.” MENTAL STATE: Calm
HANDS WRAPPED – 9:20pm – 40 minutes until the fight.
A trainer from the rival camp has requested to watch James’ hands being wrapped. There’s nothing to hide and it’s not an unusual request from the other camp so it doesn’t faze DeGale. Promoter Mick Hennessy comes in to wish James well for the fight as well as a TV crew to get a quick word with him before he begins his walk to the ring. In total there’s fifteen people in the dressing room, it’s the busiest it’s been all night. Having been through all this before, James remains calm and listens to some instructions from his corner as the fight draws closer. “It’s just mind-games when they send someone in to have a look at your hands being wrapped. They want to try and put me off but I take no notice. When you’re this close to a fight people are always trying to talk to you and give you last bits of advice and things but you can’t take it all in. Jim (McDonnell) will be talking to be again on the way to the ring so I’ll listen closely then, but I know what I’ve got to do at this point.”
GLOVES GO ON – 9:55pm – 25 minutes until the fight (The ring-walk is slightly delayed).
James takes the slight hold-up in his stride and works the pads with his trainer, moving around the people in the dressing room. Now it’s just him and his team (and Nuts) in there. His movement looks good and his jabs are sharp. Mentally, he’s ready. There’s no more joking and the music has gone off. In the time we’ve spent with Team DeGale this is as serious as its been. The smiles have gone from James’ face and he’s not saying much. All he wants to do now is get in the ring. “It’s time. All the hard work is about to pay off. Let’s go.” MENTAL STATE: Ready
THE RING-WALK – 10:20pm
The distance from the dressing room to the arena is short. James is light on his feet as he makes the walk up the stars backstage, towards the aisle. As this is the main event, much of the earlier noise in the dressing room area has subsided. Nuts follows James as he enters the arena and sees the crowd for the first time. It’s noisy, but he remains focused, and in total control. The amount of camera phones pointed at him is staggering. Everyone wants a glimpse, but DeGale has a face like stone. It looks like a totally different place from the arena visit earlier in the day. He walks to the ring with some last minute instructions in his ear from his trainer.
THE FIRST BELL - 10:35pm
This is it, all those weeks of sacrifice, pain and dieting are all for this moment. The fight has begun.
JOB DONE – 23.28 – James wins on points
After going the distance in a fight that was harder than he thought, the victory is in the bag. James is never in any real danger during the fight and earns a comfortable points decision. He reveals afterwards his knee gave him a few problems with his movement during the fight. It’s an old injury that is still healing. It was hardly mentioned during the entire day. As the team return to his dressing room, James poses for some pictures. He’s pleased with the performance and breathes a sigh of relief that he can properly relax for the first time in weeks. “It was nice, he was a very awkward opponent, and he was tougher than I thought he would be. My knee felt a bit heavy but it was all good. My nose is a bit swollen and apparently I ripped a hole in my shorts which is a bit embarrassing! Other than that it was a good night and I’m glad it’s over so I can relax for a while now before starting it all again for my next fight.”
During our day with DeGale I learnt a few things about the Olympic champ.
· His family are all part of his team. That includes his Mum, Dad, brother and sister.
· His driving is terrible (although he’ll tell you different). En route to the arena we got lost three times and had to stop and ask for directions. Despite the fact James fought in that venue in his last fight.
· His Mum and sister do his washing.
· His advisor (Ambrose Mendy) holds the Guinness World Record for most crackers eaten in a minute (3) and offers £5,000 to anyone who can beat his time.
· James paid for everyone’s meal both times we sat down with him.
· His trainer Jim McDonnell beats his time round the running track.
· He never says no to a photo or autograph.
· His favourite food in Nando’s is the chicken livers.
DeGALE'S WORDS OF WISDOM
“Boxing is eighty percent mental. When it gets this close to a fight all the physical stuff is done. When you’re human, you remind yourself of hard-work and dedication but you can forget how hard you’ve trained, so you need to remind the mind, that you’re ready”
“Boxing is a test of the mind. You stretch the body to as far as it will go but when you’re in the ring it’s all in the mind.”
“At the highest point in boxing you can be on a level playing field in terms of skill, so mentally you’ve got to be superior.”
“If you stretch the mind into believing that you can do it, you’re body is forced to do it, so you prepare yourself better.”
“You can have all the physical ability in the world but it means nothing if you’ve not got it mentally. Mike Tyson used to win all his fights before he’d even got in the ring because his opponents were scared of him. That’s nothing to do with the body, it’s all in the mind.”
“Why do you think Floyd Mayweather is the best fighter on the planet? Because he believes it and when you truly believe it you can achieve anything.”
“When I’m fighting I know there are things I can do that my opponent can’t. Its confidence you need but you can’t be foolish.”
“It’s a good sign if I get a bit down when making weight or whatever, all fighters get it. It’s a process we go through. So for the ten days before a fight I know the weigh-in and fight is close and you’ve got to keep the discipline.”
“You’ve got to have nervous because that is your adrenaline kicking in. You don’t feel pain. When you’ve not got adrenaline running though you, you feel everything. Nerves are a type of fear which you need to learn to accept as your friend.”
“You can make fear work with you and then it’ll be your greatest friend. Mike Tyson was so scared as a young fighter they practically had to push him in the ring. Once he got over that fear he was unstoppable.”