TWENTY-TWO male finalists fought for ABA titles inside the Wembley Conference Centre on December 2, 2005. Some, like Tony Jeffries, James DeGale, Anthony Crolla and Tony Bellew, would go on to win Olympic medals and/or major professional belts. Only one remains active today. “They’re all pussies,” Derek Chisora says when asked why he’s still fighting when the rest do not. “They found a way out. All these fighters will tell you they’re retired, thank you very much. But they were looking for a way out from day one. Their loved ones will tell them to retire and they think, ‘You know what? You’re right, I should retire.’ But that’s what they wanted from the start. I would say the same to their faces: They’re all f**king pussies. I will retire when I want to f**king retire.”
That notion of retirement, or at least being advised to, irks the soon-to-be 38-year-old contender. “If you start thinking of retirement while you’re still in this game, you’re going to get injured. You lose focus. You’re not hungry anymore because you’re looking for a way out when you’re still in it. Retirement has never entered my mind.”
There are fighters and then there’s the rest of us. Fighters, by virtue of what they do and what they put themselves through to do it, are different. They’re stronger, braver, barmier. They simply have to be to exist in such a savage and unforgiving world. Yet even when judged against those high standards, Chisora stands alone as one of a kind.
He’s in a plush private members’ club in the heart of London where he often comes to relax. These surroundings – elegant furnishings, high ceilings and staff who are eager to please – are a product of his long and lucrative career. The first time Chisora and I had a conversation like this was 11 years ago. The public didn’t know him then. People stared, but only because he had a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Wladimir Klitschko stuffed under his arm.
Today, the Londoner is instantly recognisable and a proven box office attraction. His days of carrying cardboard cut-outs to get attention have long gone. This is his career and he has fought long and hard to be the master of it. Del Boy has regularly butted heads with promoters, opponents and authorities, sometimes creating more enemies than friends. He’s slapped, bitten, spat in faces and thrown tables at press conferences. He’s been fined thousands of pounds for bad behaviour by the British Boxing Board of Control. He’s lost eight times on points, but only Vitali Klitschko and Tyson Fury won without debate. He’s been knocked out twice, and stopped on his stool once. His skull has been thudded this way and that, yet here he is in 2021, as famous and successful – at least financially – as almost anyone in the sport.
Looking at him now, more content than he’s ever been, it’s natural to wonder what keeps this old warhorse going. The answer is that he lives for today without a care about tomorrow. A loss is a loss, never a full stop or cause for concern. What matters to Derek Chisora are not the wins and defeats on his record or the amount of blood and mucus he’s spilled along the way. What makes him tick, for now like clockwork, are two things: The status that fighting at a high-level brings and, secondly, the fighting itself.
“Let me tell you something about boxing,” he purrs. “It is the crème de la crème of all sports. Forget football and the Premier League. You have some players that are kings of kings but in boxing, the moment you lace up gloves, and you are a boxer, then you make a name for yourself. You are a king in your own right. In the Premier League, you are one of many. I love boxing so much, it opens doors for me in a way that Premier League players can’t open doors.
“I get things I want. I enjoy using my status. All the restaurants love me, they love my family. Anywhere you go they have the respect for the boxers, more than any other sport.”
Chisora will tell you he doesn’t fear anything. Except for anonymity: “I remember pitching ideas to myself in my head when I was just starting out,” he admits. “I realised I wanted to be recognised. I always wanted that more than anything.”
This lucid, more genial Chisora has been several years in the making. The once notorious temper is in check and he hasn’t been fined since 2016. “Now, I talk,” Chisora explains. “I do it through words. If I’m upset I say that I’m upset. People now realise that I’ve always been saying the truth. I don’t sugar-coat things, I feel no obligation to please the promoters. I say it how it is. I have to do that to be happy. From day one I used to be so frustrated. I thought people could only hear me if I was being an arsehole or being violent. But now people listen to me when I just say it how it is and be honest.”
Does he regret those years of bad behaviour?
“No. A lion don’t apologise for eating a gazelle.”
That lion took his first steps at the turn of the century when he walked into a boxing gym for the first time.
“That was over 20 years ago, man,” he says when asked to describe the teenage Chisora. “You’re trying to find yourself at the age of 16, thinking you know everything. You think life is simple to understand but you don’t realise there’s happiness, there’s sadness and there’s mistakes to be made. At 16, you don’t know what life is about. All you know about life is from your friends, by getting on the bus, by running up the road, by acting tough but, really and truly, that’s not life.”
Chisora sometimes acts like a fool. But he’s far from it. By chasing big fights as opposed to titles, Derek has amassed a fortune. This weekend, on DAZN, Chisora will pick up another handsome payday when he fights fellow heavyweight contender Joseph Parker for the second time. In May, behind closed doors, the New Zealander edged the British veteran over 12 competitive rounds. For the sequel, Chisora has reunited with coach Dave Coldwell and spent his entire camp in Rotherham, away from family, away from London. He had ample time to reflect.
“There was a school right next to Dave’s gym and every day I would drive past these school kids,” Chisora explains. “My car is tinted and I would pull over and just look at them. They’ve got so much brightness in their lives, so much hope but it’s all going to be shattered soon. Whatever they’re learning in that school is not going to progress them to where they need to get to. The schools teach the A-B-Cs and stuff like that but it won’t teach them the realities of life, of how hard it really is.
“If your parents were middle class and rich you’re almost guaranteed to have a good childhood but if your parents are just trying to earn enough money to get by, it’s different. It’s hard for most kids.”
So it was hard for him?
“Not really, you know,” Chisora sighs. “I thank the Lord almighty Jesus Christ for everything but was it hard for me? Not really. My mum worked and she always made me work for what I wanted. I remember when these new Nike Shox came out. ‘I need these trainers, mum.’ They cost £130, we called them 130s. She says, ‘Okay, I’ll buy you the trainers.’ Then she opened the back door to the garden. ‘You need to clear that.’ We’re not talking about a little bush. It was bigger than that Christmas tree.”
He is pointing to the immaculate 10ft tree that sits in the corner of the room we’re in today. We laugh. Albeit briefly.
“You think I’m joking? I remember that day. I cleaned, I worked so hard. I needed those 130s, everybody had those trainers. If you didn’t have them, you were not flexin’. You would wear the 130s with a tracksuit, a three-liner by Adidas, or Nike.
“I remember working from the Thursday in the back garden. By the Saturday, we were done. Done. My mum counted out the money, gave me the 130. We got on the bus, the 102 to Brent Cross and went in for my trainers. [But] I would only ask for things I felt I really needed, not PlayStations or things like that. I would go to the £1 shop in Golders Green. I’d get £1 socks, £1 boxer shorts, things like that, I didn’t really care. But people are born differently.”
Back then it was clearing gardens. Today it’s punches he exchanges for cash. He works exceptionally hard for every penny he earns. He sits back in the chair, pushes the phone he will intermittently check to one side and pulls the hood from his face. The head that has taken almost as much punishment as his long arms have dished out is freshly shaved. He glows with health. He’s ready to fight again.
The contest he credits with changing it all, to turning him into a can’t-miss attraction, was a hellacious slugfest with Carlos Takam in 2018.
“[Promoter] Eddie [Hearn] wanted me to lose that fight,” Chisora says. “But that was when the penny dropped for me and for him. They wanted me to take that fight. I said I wasn’t ready. They asked me later and I walked away again. I didn’t need that fight. Then one morning I woke up and I wanted the fight. I called Eddie and told him to make the fight, but on my terms. I got the fight. I trained like a mad man, harder than I’d ever trained.
“I remember travelling to the O2 on the train, getting there and I had a sick feeling. I looked down and I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be a crazy one, today.’ And it was crazy. The fight was crazy. I think that’s when Eddie realised what he had in me. That was when everyone realised that I could fight. Jesus Christ, did I fight.”
Chisora won a truly violent slugfest via KO in round eight. It was beyond brutal.
“It was not brutal,” Derek counters.
How was that not brutal?
“You’re sitting there, watching. But I was riding those punches. I was rolling. It looked brutal from the outside because I was moving so much. Then I sat on the ropes. ‘F**k it, this is how I beat this guy.’ I was on the ropes for three or four rounds. He kept on coming, kept on coming, kept on coming. It was good, I enjoyed it.” Was he not aware of the pain? “No.” Has he ever been? “No. Because I’m so charged up. But after the fight, when it’s all calmed down, you’re like, ‘F**k. Jesus Christ. My ribs. My jaw.’ But it doesn’t last long. I come out all swollen and stuff like that. Then I have a shower, lie on the bed and everything just goes down. I have bruises the next day but not swelling. There’s a mark where the swelling was, but the swelling has gone… If I was to get a big black swollen eye right now, tomorrow morning it would be gone.”
One of a kind. Different in so many ways. For example, you will never hear Chisora – at least not now – talking about winning belts. They don’t matter to him.
“You want to win the world title at the start but then people put blocks on you. You have dreams but you realise they’re not going to happen. Look at what happened in Helsinki [when Robert Helenius was gifted the decision against a young and ambitious Derek in 2011]. A black guy goes and boxes in a blue eye city where everyone is white, you and your coach are the only black guys. Even if I’d have knocked him out they’d have raised his hand.
“It’s the world we live in. I always say to myself if I go to another country and fight another person, I have to disrupt that harmony,” he continues, proving that the old troublemaker could be coerced back at any moment. “To stop me, put me in a body bag and send me back to my mother. But other than that, I will mess them up the whole day.”
If the Takam fight turned him into a pay-per-view star, it was that Helenius fight that taught him all he needed to know about the boxing business. “It becomes all about money. Is the belt worth money in this guy’s hands or that guy’s hands? That’s why I don’t talk about world titles now. If I can sell an arena out and get paid, I’m happy. I don’t care about the world titles. I want to sell out arenas, I want all the fighters on the bill to get paid. That’s the name of the game.
“I’m in this for the money now, I’m not going to lie to you.
“I have made myself available and I made myself relevant. That was down to me. It’s like running a marathon. You don’t want to be number one, leading the way, yet. Stay with the guy who is leading, stay on his shoulder. When there’s about 30 yards of the race left, start coming through. But for now, stay on the shoulder.”
Chisora does not understand why other boxers are reluctant to share his approach. “The boxers have so much power,” he explains. “If the fighters really want it to happen the fight will happen. You’ve got two fighters, you’ve got the managers and you’ve got the TV rights. One fighter is signed to those TV rights, the other has different TV rights. If you lose, you lose the TV deal. If you lose the TV deal, you lose all the sponsorship. But, if you have balls big enough, knowing you’re going to beat that guy, you say, ‘I don’t need your deal anymore, I don’t need your sponsorship, I’m going to go and fight this guy, I’m going to beat him and when I come back, I want triple pay.’ Most guys don’t have those balls, you understand? Fighters blame bad management but that’s not true. Don’t worry about signing for a rematch. Just believe you’re going to win.”
Fearless, uncomplicated, loveable and, consequently, one we worry about as the punches rain down. Don’t, he says. We might fear for his future but it’s misplaced if he doesn’t feel the same way.
“The worst thing that can happen is you die,” he says with a smile.
“That’s the worst thing. Or, you carry on, you keep going. You live life. I enjoy walking around with my big balls doing what I want.”