Jamie McDonnell: One last roll of the dice

In April 2018, Jamie McDonnell had it all. He held a version of the WBA bantamweight world title and, while it may have been the sanctioning body’s secondary strap, McDonnell didn’t care. To him, it was a world title and it was allowing him to earn world title money. McDonnell had the lifestyle he could not have possibly fathomed as a youth growing up in Doncaster: a nice house, several five-star luxury holidays a year and all the latest designer clothes. 

Most importantly, he had his wife Hollie and daughter Saskia by his side to share in his success.

During that Spring, McDonnell was preparing to travel to Japan to make the seventh defence of his belt against one of the most feared punchers in the sport, Naoya Inoue. McDonnell was unperturbed by the prospect, after all he had been in this situation before. He had previously gone on the road and upset an unbeaten Japanese fighter when he defeated Tomoki Kameda (W12) in May 2015, and proved it was no fluke or freak result by repeating the feat four months later. Inoue would be no different, McDonnell was certain.

Within three months, McDonnell’s world would fall apart.

Firstly, Inoue would demonstrate the qualities which earned him a place on many pound-for-pound lists as he patiently stalked McDonnell, waiting for his opportunity. He did not have to wait long. Less than halfway into the opening round, a left hook caught McDonnell high on the head. The Englishman staggered backwards, and Inoue moved in for the finish. A left hook to the body sent McDonnell to the floor, he beat the count, but Inoue knew he had his man where he wanted him as ‘The Monster’ raised his glove to acknowledge his adoring fans. McDonnell retreated to the ropes looking for sanctuary, but in doing so became a stationary target. A barrage of unanswered punches caused McDonnell to slump down to the canvas, obliging referee, Luis Pabon, to halt the contest. It was all over in under two minutes.

A month later, McDonnell endured a blow even more devastating than a left hook from ‘The Monster’, as his marriage collapsed. The divorce, as is often the case, was protracted, acrimonious and bitter.

McDonnell slipped into depression as he mourned the loss of the future he had envisaged and struggled as he was unable to witness significant milestones in his daughter’s childhood. He tried to restore some semblance of normality in his life through boxing, but those periods were fleeting. McDonnell struggled to motivate himself to put his body through the rigours of training at the best of times, but with his mental health in a turbulent state, the task became gargantuan.

Twenty-six months on, the wounds are beginning to heal. During his last weekend off before going into training camp, McDonnell told Boxing Social that he believes he can reach the summit of the sport once more.

“I’ve just had a rough ride in my personal life, really,” said McDonnell (30-3-1, 13 KOs). “I haven’t seen much of my baby, which affected my boxing. When you are down, you start getting depressed and that. I’d go to the gym for a week and then I’d go missing for a week or two. I’ve been working on trying to sort my head out. We [separated] two-and-a-half years ago and I’ve only just sorted my head now.  After the Inoue fight, I think it were a month after [my wife and I] were finished; since then, my personal life has just been a big shithole.

“I’m 34 now, so I ain’t got that long left. I need to pull my finger out if I want to have a few big fights. In the last month, I’ve kind of got my head ‘round it and I’m ready to crack on. Boxing-wise, I haven’t been training or been on it, so obviously Eddie [Hearn] is not going to sort no fights out. I fought last year in Milan [against Cristian Narvaez W6] and I thought, ‘I’m back on track now,’ but then I just went off the radar again. Everyone deals with it in their own way and mine is obviously not going to the gym. I’m ready to get back and hopefully win another world title.”

At his lowest ebb, not even the prospect of a world title shot was enough to ease the pain sufficiently for McDonnell to be able to adopt the mindset required to train. Throughout his career, McDonnell would often struggle to muster the motivation needed to prepare to the best of his ability for six or eight-round fights, as demonstrated in lacklustre performances against Abigail Medina (W8) and Bernard Inoue (WTKO7). However, big challenges lit a fire under the Doncaster man who relished the role of the underdog. 

Under normal circumstances, a shot at the WBA super-bantamweight title, then in the possession of Daniel Roman, would have motivated McDonnell. Not only was he presented with the opportunity to become a two-weight world champion, he had the chance to avenge his twin brother, Gavin, who had been stopped inside 10 rounds by the American in 2018. But depression’s grip was too tight, no matter how hard he tried the prospect of returning to the gym was simply too daunting.

Now that he is in a better frame of mind, McDonnell laments the missed opportunity.

“Eddie [Hearn] offered me the Daniel Roman fight,” said McDonnell. “But he had to have that mandatory with that kid who beat him [Murodjon Arkmadaliev]. Eddie was like, ‘Look, I’ll give you a final eliminator on the same night,’ but I just went off the radar. I was getting momentum at the time and that’s when I was going to come back, but if stuff is not good in your personal life, you can’t get your head around it. 

“If shit didn’t happen in my life, I could probably have been a champion at super-bantamweight by now. I might look back in a few years when I’ve retired and think, ‘What a dickhead,’ but when you go through shit, you’ve got to deal with it. I’ve finally come to terms with it.”

While the 34-year-old is hopeful, the confidence of old is yet to return. At his best, McDonnell believed he could beat anyone at his weight, now, there appears to be an air of uncertainty. This doubt is in stark contrast to the mentality he had ahead of the Inoue bout.

Inoue entered the contest as a two-weight world champion and had never truly been extended in any of his previous 15 fights. McDonnell didn’t care. None of Inoue’s previous opponents had been him.

In training, McDonnell felt in the best shape of his career, preparation had gone perfectly. However, the day before he was due to fight, his body betrayed him. Years of boiling his 5’10” frame down to 118lbs had taken its toll. Losing the last of the weight became a painful, arduous process.

“That were the best camp that I had,” said McDonnell. “But you get to that age, I think, and your body just won’t do it anymore. I think I had two or three pounds to drop and I was trying to get it off for six or seven hours. I don’t make no excuses, Inoue might still have knocked me out, but I genuinely believe I would have beat him at my best. I had a nutritionist, strength and conditioning coach and I genuinely thought I were going to beat him, but at 32, making 8st 6lbs is not natural. My body just couldn’t do it. It just pulls the life out of you; I had no punch resistance. 

“I remember warming up in the changing room and I could feel my legs going. I walked into the ring thinking: ‘Right, I’m going to get chinned here.’ That’s the scary thing! As soon as he caught me with one, I felt it, he buzzed me. I was that fucked and weak.”

McDonnell (right) went through hell to make the weight against Inoue. Photo: Sumio Yamada.

Despite the fact that McDonnell had resigned himself to his fate before a single shot had been thrown, he did not feel a sense of trepidation. Up until the ring walk, he had a resolute belief he would leave Japan with his title, that he would not be another knockout on Inoue’s record.

“Everyone fears him, but he never scared me,” he said of ‘The Monster’. “I genuinely believed I were going to beat him, but it was just the weight, for me. I never thought he’d knock me out, I thought at worst it would have gone on points, but he can bang so who knows, he might have done me in five, six, seven rounds or banjoed me in round three. I can’t take that away from him, he did me in half a round. I stuck it out more than some of the others who got blasted out in 30 seconds, so I didn’t do too bad when you put it like that,” McDonnell said with a laugh, a testament to the fact that even though he has endured dark times, he has not lost his sense of humour.

McDonnell has needed every ounce of that sense of humour as he now finds himself back working in construction, much to the amusement of some of his co-workers. While he climbed up the ranks, he balanced boxing alongside work as a plasterer. After he captured the world title, McDonnell thought he had hung up his trowel for good. 

At the peak of his success, McDonnell earned in excess of £100,000 a year, but by his own admission, he spent it just as fast as he earned it. Exorbitant holidays abroad  and designer clothes accounted for the bulk of his expenditure.

Lawyers’ fees eroded the last of his savings.

McDonnell doesn’t regret the lavish lifestyle, after all, he was a boy from Doncaster living the dream. However, he admitted that returning to work did dent his pride.

“It’s embarrassing,” McDonnell confessed. “I go on [the] building site and they are like: ‘Fucking hell, Jamie McDonnell! What [are] you doing here?’ Everyone thinks you are a millionaire! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve earned a few quid, but shit happens in life. I used to get my purses and before the next fight I’d probably [have] spent that. You wouldn’t think with the money I was getting that you’d be able to spend all that, but you do. I just lived life. They can’t believe I’m working on a building site. I never thought I’d go back [to plastering], to be fair.

“I were getting 50 grand-a-year sponsorship, I call it free money, just to send a few tweets, now I’m back plastering on a building site. It puts everything back into reality. At the end of the day, even if when I finish boxing I have a few million quid in the bank, it’s not going to last you forever, you are going to have to earn some money some way. At first, when I went back, it were a bit embarrassing, but it is what it is. If people give me stick, I just say: ‘I earned some money, I spent it. I just lived my life’. I’m a normal kid, I don’t mind going plastering for £1,200, a week. It’s not the end of the world, I could be in a worse situation. You’ve been on top of [the] world, and now you are back on [the] building site, it’s a bit embarrassing, but it is what it is.”

McDonnell (right) previously defeated Japanese star Tomoki Kameda twice on away soil.

It is what it is. McDonnell may not be content with his situation, but he accepts it. He knows at his age, his body simply cannot make bantamweight any longer, even super-bantamweight may take too much of a toll on him. As such, he is looking to return to the ring at featherweight. Promoter Eddie Hearn is planning to get McDonnell back out in October or November in a warm-up bout ahead of a more significant fight the following year.

McDonnell has parted company with trainer Dave Coldwell, under whom he had great success, but their relationship remains cordial and Coldwell continues to manage him. Stefy Bull has taken over as head coach. The partnership works for McDonnell as Bull’s gym is less that 20 minutes away from his home, which makes it easier to balance plastering and training.

As our conversation came to a close, the self-belief of old crept back in. McDonnell has never been a boxing fan; he just possesses a natural aptitude for the sport. As such, he has no idea who the current titlists are at 126lbs, but it doesn’t matter, McDonnell believes he can beat them – whoever they may be.

“It’s only now I’ve realised I can’t miss this boat,” he said. “I can’t wait another six months because I’ll be touching 35 in March. 35 makes you an old man in boxing. I’ve had a couple of years off so I’m ready to get back on it now. Within a year, I think I’ll get a world title fight. As long as I’m on it, my head is on it and I’m fit and ready, I can beat anyone. I know I can. To be fair, I don’t know who [the] champions are at the minute, but as long as I’m on it, fit and ready I’m sure I can beat ‘em. We just have to see how the next few months pans out; get this tune-up fight and see how I feel. One last roll of the dice I call it. We’ll see what we can do.”

Main image: Sumio Yamada.