“I’m calm but I know there’s a storm brewing,” Daniel Dubois says he prepares for his crucial fight on Saturday night against Joe Joyce. “It helps that I’ve got my dad and my family behind me. I’m going into battle by myself but I’ve got them fighting with me in spirit.”
Dubois and Joyce are both unbeaten British heavyweights and the winner is likely to be given a crack at a world title next year as he moves into the realm occupied by Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. Joyce has an impressive amateur pedigree and won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics. He has also fought a higher-calibre level of opposition and some boxing insiders have picked him to win on Saturday. Yet Dubois is regarded by many as the coming force in heavyweight boxing. Amid rumours that, as a teenager, he dropped Joshua in sparring, Dubois has won all 15 of his pro fights, 14 by knockout. He is, clearly, a destructive puncher.
But even heavyweight drama cannot match the compelling saga of the Dubois family. Daniel is one of 11 children fathered by Dave Dubois, a former Camden Market street trader who would fly to New York in the 1980s to sell posters and make a million dollars in one trip. In 1997 Dubois, having secured his financial future, became a dedicated single parent.
His children were born to two women, his first wife and subsequent girlfriend, but the seven youngest have been raised exclusively by their dad. They live with him in a large house in Essex where the swish interior is complemented by the outdoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi and gym. Dave describes all his sons and daughters, who are mostly boxers or musicians, as gifted and he attributes their fighting genes to one of their remarkable ancestors. Sylvia Dubois was an African-American slave in the 18th century who won herself freedom as a bare-knuckle fighter. And so an idea formed in the mind of the former street trader. Soon after he was conceived, Daniel was imagined by his dad as a future heavyweight champion of the world.
Dave is convinced Daniel (23) will be joined by three of his siblings – Caroline (19), Prince (16) and Solomon (8) – as world champions. Caroline, who is unbeaten after 40 fights, expects to win Olympic gold next year before turning pro. Two years ago, when she was only 17, Mike Costello, the BBC’s venerable boxing commentator, said: “I’m tempted to call Caroline Dubois the best female boxer I’ve ever seen.”
These are some of the reasons why, in the new Peacock gym near Epping, the focus of this feature shifted. Plans to follow Dubois and Joyce in the last weeks before their fight were ripped up as the scale of this unusual family story became apparent. Watching Daniel spar diligently under the tuition of his trainer Martin Bowers I suddenly noticed a huge figure observing quietly from the back of the gym. “That’s Daniel’s dad,” I was told. “You should talk to him.”
Bowers told me that Dubois Sr answers to two names. “You can call him Stan or Dave.”
“I don’t mind either,” Dubois said. “My birth name is Stan but when I was a street trader everyone called me Dave. Most people still do.”
We stick to the popular version and, with his booming laugh, Dave Dubois is easy company. I like the fact that he is different from the usual father of a boxing prodigy. Many fathers insist on training their sons or taunting their opponents as if the dad himself might step into the ring. “They want it all themselves,” Dubois smiles. “But I’ve done amazing things all over the world. I don’t need any spotlight. All the attention should be on the kids.”
While Daniel toils in the Peacock, I convince his father to share his story. “In the early 1980s I met a chap who sold posters in Camden Market,” he remembers. “It seemed quite lucrative so I put some images together and found a printer. We did 2,000 runs for 5p each and sold them for £2 a poster. I started to produce African and Caribbean posters and decided to go to New York. My dad was living there and working as a caretaker in a block of flats so I went to visit him. I took posters with me and asked my dad: ‘Where do black people hang out?’ He told me to go to 125th Street in Harlem. So I went to Harlem, stuck up my posters and couldn’t believe it. I made $4,000 that first day.
“In a week I made nearly $20,000. So every other week I’d get a plane and go to Harlem. There was none of this terrorist stuff back then so, instead of clothes in my suitcase, I’d pack it with posters. I once took seven guys from south London to New York. I’d shipped 100,000 posters to Brooklyn and we stayed there until we sold them. It took three months but we made a million dollars.”
Why did he stop trading? “It was time to raise my children and I wanted to do it properly on my own. I first became a father when I was 16 but by the time Daniel came along I knew what I was doing. I was very good at everything because I really focus. I don’t drift off.”
Dubois nods when asked if his four boxing children have the same mother? “Oh yeah, and they still see her.”
He smiles when I suggest it is an unconventional way of living. “But it’s worked and I always want to do things properly on my own. They said I was the best street trader in the world and I did most of it alone. Both mothers [of all 11 children] accepted the situation.”
Boxing was key to his vision. “I’ve always liked boxing because it shapes your character and so with Daniel I thought, even before he was born: ‘He’s going to be a world champion.’ We’re now immersed in boxing. Caroline is No 1 in the world. I always kept them focused and disciplined and when Daniel was young we used to do off-the-wall training. Aged 10 he could do push-ups for hours at a time.”
I first interviewed Daniel last year and he showed me the scars on his knuckles because he would bunch his hands into fists and do press-ups for three hours without stopping.
“He could go even longer,” his dad insists. “No water, no food, just up and down on his fists. Imagine how strong that makes you mentally?”
Dave slips away when Daniel joins us. “You understand what I mean now?” Daniel says of his father. “He’s a legendary man and I’m grateful he’s been in my life from day one.”
But didn’t he miss his mother? “No, because he was there for me in every emotional and physical way I needed. He made me the man I am today. I’ve missed out on nothing.”
How is his dad now that the fight against Joyce is so close? “He’s in charge of most things but with boxing he wants me to be the boss because I’m the one taking the licks. This fight is more intense than normal and it’s definitely the biggest of my career so far. But I love the buildup. It gets my blood boiling and I’m definitely in that killer mode.”
Dubois is at his most animated when talking about his family. After crooning over his sister’s technical brilliance, he says: “Caroline’s my most supportive fan. When I fight she is so verbal and it’s good to see that passion. Prince is quieter but he and Caroline will be with my dad at the fight.”
Solomon is still too young to attend a late night show but Dubois says his youngest brother “is definitely the most gifted of us all. He’s only eight but he’s doing things I still struggle to do. Where we have failed, I know Solomon will be able to improve and be better than all of us.”
Ten days later, I meet the family at home on a mild November afternoon. One of her older sisters cleans the pool while the 19-year-old Caroline explains: “My dad has always been a fighting man and impressed by people who do things that shock the world. He wasn’t expecting me to box but I watched everything Daniel did and my dad noticed. I was so enthusiastic and as soon as he saw my talent he was so supportive.
“He took me to the Repton Amateur Boxing Club – but back in the day it was Repton Boys’ Club and they didn’t allow girls. But my dad likes challenges and he’s a rebel. So he said I should call myself Carl and pretend to be a boy. But as soon as the coaches asked my name I said: ‘Colin.’”
As Caroline laughs I call her dad over and ask him what he remembers of that day. “Bobby Beck, the head coach, was totally against girls boxing. So I was a bit worried when Bobby took me aside after that first day and said: ‘Your son Colin has something special.’ Bobby’s reared so many champions but I kept quiet. We just kept on going and she bashed up all the boys in sparring.
“One day she made a boy called Oscar cry. I told the dad that she was a girl and he said: ‘Girls shouldn’t be in here.’ He was upset she beat his little boy. Bobby Beck still didn’t know. He was excited and he said to me: ‘I’ve got a fight for Colin next week.’ I said to Caroline: ‘Oh my God. What are we going to do? We’ll have to leave.’”
News filtered out and, as Caroline says: “They didn’t let me back into the gym for a very long time. They were upset and wanted to keep it traditional and a boys-only club. But I found it annoying since I was beating all the boys. Early on, one coach told me: ‘Colin, you’re going to be a world champion.’ But once he heard I was a girl he was against me coming back.
“So my dad took me to Dale Boxing Club and the guy there was the same at first. But my dad said: ‘Just give her a shot, see how good she actually is.’ So I sparred and after that the coach was like: ‘All right! She’s really good.’ From there it all started. Every time we went to the nationals I was in the finals. I went to the Europeans four times, went to the worlds, went to the Youth Olympics. Won them all.”
The postponement of this year’s Tokyo Olympics until next summer initially deflated her. “At first I was very upset because I’d trained really hard and just won my first senior Olympic qualifier. But it seems like a godsend now. Next year I’ll be 20 so I’ll be better. I definitely plan on winning Olympic gold and then turning pro.”
Her father agrees the delayed Olympics “has given Caroline more time to mature. So much in life is about timing. The Joyce fight has also come at the right time for Daniel. The [Covid-induced] delays gave him time to get a bit stronger, a bit more mature.”
He is just as certain about future success for Prince – who is named after Prince Naseem Hamed. When I talk to Prince I am struck by his interest in intelligent ring technicians like Andre Ward and Terence Crawford. He describes “going down to the nursery class at Repton with Caroline. I was about six and I would just watch her train and that got me into the sport. Boxing came easily because at home everyone would always be practising. Now, at Repton, there’s no one my age to spar so I box the senior men. The plan is to follow Caroline – go to the Olympics one day and turn pro.”
How does Prince feel about his brother’s bout with Joyce? “It’s always nerve-racking to watch him fight. Caroline feels it more than any of us. She reacts to every shot but I try to stay calm.”
Caroline describes her turbulent emotions when watching her brothers fight. “I do get nervous and frightened for them. The key thing is that they know what they’re doing but I will be really nervous for Daniel’s fight against Joyce. I really hate boxing then. I hate watching him get hit. You feel helpless and I just don’t want to see him get hurt. But at the same time I have 100% belief he’s a force and no one can stop him.”
Little Solomon is even more sure. “He starts off with skills then he just knocks them out,” he says of Daniel. Solomon smiles while everyone laughs when I say I’ve heard he is the most skilful fighter in the family. His dad also told me that the Repton coaches have said Solomon is the most promising junior they have ever seen.
“They phoned me up,” Dubois Sr says. “They were so desperate to give Solomon a fight. I said: ‘But he’s a bit young.’ They said; ‘No, he’s not, we’ve got a gym show for him.’ But then Solomon caught a cold and couldn’t do it.”
“It wasn’t a cold,” Solomon protests. “It was a stomach-ache from Caroline.”
“Oh yeah,” his dad remembers. “She came back from America with a stomach bug, didn’t she? She gave it to everyone and that ruined your chances of fame.”
Dubois Sr booms with laughter again before explaining why he gave both Daniel and Solomon biblical names. “I knew I’d throw Daniel in the lion’s den and so I prayed that the Lord shine on him. Solomon was the wisest man that ever lived. Our Solomon is pretty wise too. He plays the sax, he boxes. He’s a master of many things. He will become the first world champion who plays the saxophone while making his ring-walk”
I ask Solomon to describe himself as a boxer. “Entertaining,” the little boy says in a flash.
Solomon breaks out into an impromptu display of dazzling shadow-boxing before agreeing to play his saxophone. “Should I play the Herbie Hancock one?” he asks. The garden fills with the sound of his sax and after his accomplished solo I ask which he likes most – playing the saxophone or boxing? “Tough question. I like them both.”
There seems a lot of happiness in the family, but I ask Caroline about her mother. “We see her once in a while and she’s obviously an important part of our life.” She then lights up when I mention Sylvia Dubois. “It’s an incredible story. She was a slave during the 1800s and she was mistreated. Instead of backing down she beat the living daylights out of [her abuser]. Normally that would have gotten her killed but they must have been impressed by her bravery.”
Her father nods. “She was a bare-knuckle fighter. She got abused by the slave master and one day she beat him up and instead of lynching her they gave her freedom. That fighting spirit is in the DNA.”
Will that same fighting spirit produce four world champions in Daniel, Caroline, Prince and Solomon Dubois? “Without a doubt,” their dad exclaims. “They all have the magic. It’s passed from generation to generation. It’s almost spiritual. The magic comes from the unseen world.”
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