DARREN BARKER sits in the sun outside the newly opened Paddington gym that is his future and contemplates a remarkable past that culminated in a memorable world title fight five years ago today. So remarkable is his tale of heartbreak and courage it has now caught the attention of movie makers.
“Weird, weird, weird,” says the former IBF middleweight champion on the possibility of his story – and that of his hugely talented boxing brother Gary, who was killed in a car crash – appearing on the big screen. A script of the Darren Barker story has been optioned by a film company.
“I guess it is a good story but it’s very, very sad for me. I’d do anything to have my brother back, but, it’s an uplifting story. I guess it’s a story of not giving up, chasing your dreams. It’s crazy.”
Those dreams became reality on August 17, 2013 when Barker came back from the brink of defeat, being brought to his knees in the sixth round by a brutal punch to the abdomen from his Australian opponent Daniel Geale for a count of ‘nine’.
After somehow rising to his feet, the Barnet boxer’s phenomenal spirit propelled him to outwork an exhausted Geale and claim a well-deserved split points victory. When he fell to his knees again, it was in relief and ecstasy after being declared champion of the world.
Five years on from that triumphant night in Atlantic City, Barker is still in awe of the enormity of the achievement and the event.
“The way in which I won the title, and the great fight it was, was something I’d dreamt of,” the humble 36-year-old reflects to Boxing News. “I wanted to win it in an epic battle away from home, the winner’s scorecard tight – where no-one really knows who’s gonna win – and have Michael Buffer announce the winner. It was the perfect scenario, and I still honestly can’t believe it.”
Barker’s path has been strewn with adversity as he faced traumatic battles both in and out of the ring. In 2006, after his youngest brother Gary died aged only 19, Barker became relentless in pursuing world title glory.
“When he passed away it wasn’t just for me, it was for him. All my achievements were for him and it became an obsession to win that world title,” says Barker.
“If I lost I was never fighting again and that would be my dream gone. Me and my brother’s dream was to win a world title, it was huge pressure.”
Barker had the weight of the world on his shoulders after Gary’s death. He also had to recover from potential career-ending injuries after splitting up a fight in Watford High St in 2010.
A year on from recovery, promoter Eddie Hearn – who had made Barker his first signing as he expertly rebuilt the Matchroom boxing stable – negotiated Barker his first world title against the legendary Argentine Sergio Martinez in 2011. Barker’s efforts against the middleweight leader were admirable but ultimately came without reward as he was knocked out in the 11th.
The emotional weight of earlier physical injuries, notably to his hips, took its toll during training camp for the Geale fight, and Barker’s commendable spirit was in danger of collapsing.
“On the day of the fight, I completely lost it,” he recalls. “I was convinced I wasn’t going to win, this weight of negativity, this weight was just floating over me. I was seeing a guy at the time, I was doing yoga with him, and assisted meditation. I had my eyes shut I was relaxing, I was just focusing on him, and what he was saying. He got me back on track, saying ‘you’ve worked so hard, you’re gonna win this fight, there’s no stopping you, you’ve trained so hard’ and he just got that belief back in me.”
Barker contemplated retirement after the Martinez fight but credits Hearn and Matchroom for persuading him to keep going, resulting in that Geale fight. With a roster that now boasts Anthony Joshua, Amir Khan and Katie Taylor to name a few, Matchroom’s status in worldwide boxing is undisputed. Barker’s eyes light up as this patriotic London lad discusses the organisation’s role in British boxing’s future.
“America used to be the mecca of boxing, but now we’ve got that guy in England [Joshua], who doesn’t need to leave the country because he’s selling out Wembley stadium,” he enthuses. “They’re talking about in April there being 100,000 people at Wembley stadium. It’s great. The sport of boxing is brilliant.”
Before retiring in 2014 Barker fought one more time against the German, Felix Sturm. The IBF title defence proved to be one fight too far, however, and a struggle to recover from an injury-ravaged body ultimately failed him from the first bell. Clearly struggling, his Stuttgart misadventure was curtailed inside two rounds. He immediately hung up his gloves without regret, leaving with a record of 26-2 (16) and a haul of British, Commonwealth, European and IBF titles.
Since then, in stark contrast to so many who walk the boxing afterlife, Barker has thrived in retirement as he continues to make his mark on the sport he loves. He can’t hide the relief on his face as he talks about enjoying being free of strict diets and arduous training camps but there is one thing he misses.
“Winning,” he says. “My arm being raised. You can’t replace that feeling.”
Barker and his business partner, Ryan Pickard, have launched 12×3, boxing gyms which aim to bring elite level training to the masses. Inspired by the pair’s beloved Repton Boxing Club, 12×3 first opened its doors in Aldgate, late last year before adding the Paddington branch in May.
“There are a lot of boxing gyms out there and we just thought we could have something a little bit different where we’re going to get a high tempo, high intensity, interval session with top quality coaching,” Barker explains as he gestures around 12×3’s latest premises.
“It transfers into something else that we try and instil into our fighters, that mind-set, that winning attitude – just do something different, don’t be afraid.”
Barker’s passion for his business is infectious. He is wearing a T-shirt with the word ‘COACH’ across the front and it’s clear to see his immersive, hands-on approach to management. From teaching one-on-one sessions, the knowing nods to his boxing past, and even choosing the correct coffee beans for The Meal Ticket café on the premises, the blood, sweat and tears Barker has poured into 12×3 is unquestionable.
It is no wonder that film script is in development. Barker’s eventful past shows what a good story it is; a hard-fought, uplifting tale of not giving up, of chasing dreams. And if a biopic is to be made? For “Dazzling” Darren Barker, it’s part of a much bigger picture.