Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017 | 2 a.m.
In the first big boxing match of 2017, locally based Badou Jack will defend his Super Middleweight belt against James DeGale on Saturday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
When he looks at DeGale across the ring, anxiously awaiting the opening bell, he will do so with the confidence that his good friend and trainer, Lou Del Valle, is by his side.
Born in Sweden, Jack fought for his father’s country of Gambia in the 2008 Olympic games. After turning pro, he caught the eye of former heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs at a Swedish boxing event and soon moved to the U.S. to fight for Briggs’ promotion in Florida. That’s where Jack met Del Valle, in 2011.
“The company went down and we got stuck in a house with no money, no nothing, and he didn’t have anywhere to go,” Del Valle said. “Badou was calling people trying to see if he could go here or go there, and trying to find a home because he didn’t want to go back to Sweden.”
Del Valle had his home in Brooklyn waiting for him and easily could have gone back any time, but he waited for Jack to land on his feet.
“We built a relationship,” Del Valle said. “We went to the beach together and trained with the bicycle. I did everything from cooking meals to working the pads in the gym for him.”
Jack found a home, training in Las Vegas under Eddie Mustafa Muhammad.
“Everyone said that there was better sparring in Las Vegas, and I wanted to do anything that was better for my boxing career,” Jack said.
He built an impressive résumé, and landed a contract to fight with Mayweather Promotions.
“He wanted me to come to Las Vegas to train him, but I couldn’t,” Del Valle said. “I don’t know anyone in Vegas, so how would I make some money? He would tell me updates and how he kept winning. He told me he signed with Mayweather, and I was so happy for him, but I still told him I couldn’t go out to Las Vegas.”
In February of 2014, Jack signed to fight Derek Edwards in Verona, N.Y. “He invited me to the fight in upstate New York, but I couldn’t go because I had a boxer fighting in Golden Gloves on the same day,” Del Valle said.
That night, Jack suffered the first loss of his career, hitting the canvas twice in the first round of a knockout defeat.
“It broke my heart,” Del Valle said. “I called him right away and asked him what happened, and he said he got caught by a punch, and that he really wanted me to come with him back to Vegas and help him. That was it; I flew out and now I’m here most of the time.”
Jack is unbeaten in five fights since the loss, including winning the WBC title and successfully defending it twice.
“Badou is married to this game,” Del Valle said. “He’s a real, legitimate pro. The guy doesn’t drink or smoke or party and hang out. He’s a family man and he loves what he does. It’s easier to teach somebody and build somebody like that. I’ll take a fighter like that all day over skills or confidence or whatever.”
The 33-year-old left-hander takes his five-fight unbeaten streak to Del Valle’s home state for the first time since the loss to Edwards.
“I don’t really think about it like that,” Jack said. “That was upstate New York and I’m undefeated in New York City.”
Jack won his only fight in the city when he out-boxed Grover Young to a unanimous decision at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in 2012.
He hopes to replicate that performance on a slightly bigger stage, as Barclays Center’s capacity approaches 19,000.
“I like the big lights,” Jack said. “It would have been nice to fight here in Las Vegas at the MGM or something, but the Barclays Center is nice, and I love New York City. I have a lot of family and friends there.”
Before moving to Florida with Briggs, Jack’s first stop in the U.S. was in New York, where he trained at Gleason’s Gym — only a 2-mile walk down Flatbush Avenue from Barclays Center.
On Saturday, Jack can bring his career full circle with a victory that would send him back to Las Vegas with a pair of championship belts draped over his shoulders.
Del Valle, who has been with Jack from nearly the beginning, said no one deserved it more.
“Why? Because he loves it,” Del Valle said. “This is what he dreams about. It’s what he talks about every day. It’s his life.”