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Guiding Lights: Isaac Chamberlain is fuelled by the energy of youth and the lessons of legends

Cruiserweight Isaac Chamberlain
While cruiserweight Isaac Chamberlain and his team are very much learning on the job, they are forever being inspired and guided by legends who paved the way, writes Don McRae

The gritty old Eastside Boxing Gym on the Whitworth Industrial Estate in Birmingham might seem like an unlikely dream factory but it is here that Isaac Chamberlain and his small team have spent the past six weeks. The faded boxing posters and yellowing photographs evoke different times and different dreams but the peeling walls glow again in the mid-day heat and humidity as Chamberlain drives himself in pursuit of a new ambition.

“I want to be great,” Chamberlain says quietly as he prepares for the hardest fight of his life so far when he steps into the ring to face Chris Billam-Smith, the European and Commonwealth cruiserweight champion, in Bournemouth on Saturday night. Sweat runs down his concentrated face and aching body as his young trainers, Bobby Mills and Conor Ward, encourage him to grind through the last minutes of another draining session.

The Brixton fighter has James Toney in his head. As he makes a heavy bag sway and sag beneath his punching, Chamberlain tries to replicate the slick movement and sheer craft of one of boxing’s former masters. “I was trying to emulate certain things Toney did when he beat Michael Nunn,” the 28-year-old confirms later. “That was a sensational and very technical fight.  I watched Toney when I was 13-years-old and he is still one of my favourite fighters. He had such great skill but I love his mentality most of all. It shows the way to greatness.”

In 1991, the 22-year-old Toney went into the champion’s backyard in Davenport, Iowa, and he was dismissed by hard-nosed bookmakers who made Nunn a prohibitive 20-1 favourite. Toney was also derided as a trash-talking kid who, after a troubled past which included selling crack in Michigan, had little right facing a supreme stylist. Nunn, with a perfect 36-0 record, had held the IBF world middleweight title for almost three years. His previous four fights had seen him knockout or dazzle Sumbu Kalambay, Iran Barkley, Marlon Starling and Donald Curry. Nunn, with Angelo Dundee in his corner, was one of the great fighters of his era.

He outboxed Toney for long periods of a demanding contest. “You’re losing it son, you’re losing it,” the venerable trainer Bill Miller warned Toney.

Toney remained resolute, telling Miller that Nunn was “breathing like a freight train… he’s not goin’ the distance.”

In the eleventh round Toney showed the truth of those words with cold ferocity. He backed up Nunn, hurting him with a jolting uppercut before landing a brutal left hook which dropped the champion. Nunn somehow dragged himself back to his feet but Toney tore into him. Dundee, mercifully, threw in the towel.

“I told ya so, I told ya so!” Toney screamed at the stunned crowd. He had just become the youngest world middleweight champion in 50 years.

Davenport, on the banks of the Mississippi River, is very different to Bournemouth. But the English seaside town is Billam-Smith’s home and that advantage is one of the many reasons why so many outside Chamberlain’s camp believe the champion will retain his belts in one of the most interesting British fights of the year. Billam-Smith is also trained by the hugely impressive Shane McGuigan while Chamberlain’s cornermen, Bobby Mills and Conor Ward, have just three professional bouts between them. 

The 32-year-old Mills’s third pro fight in the corner came in December with Chamberlain’s first round victory over Dilan Prasovic – when a clinical body shot crumpled the former world title challenger in the first round. Ward, who is 27, helped Chamberlain and Mills in their preparations for that fight but, as he had not yet obtained a British Boxing of Control licence, he watched from ringside. 

Ward had been coaching high-level amateurs for five years while stacking supermarket shelves before he joined Chamberlain’s team. He had also been a spectator for Prasovic’s previous fight. “Funnily enough,” he says, “I was sitting in the top row of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium when Prasovic fought Lawrence Okolie [last September]. I was there as a fan to watch the Usyk-Joshua fight so it’s pretty strange to think that, in a couple of months, I went from the back row at Tottenham Stadium to looking Prasovic dead in the eyes when Isaac faced him. I couldn’t be in the corner that night but I’ve got my license now and I will be there with Bobby and Jon Pegg for Billam-Smith.”

I was in Chamberlain’s dressing room on the night he stopped Prasovic and I was struck by the calm of the fighter and his new team. It was not quite the same as when I spent the last few hours with Toney before a world title fight, and then walked to the ring with him so he could show me what it felt like to be in his position, but it was still a privilege to be with Chamberlain, Mills, Ward and Pegg in Crystal Palace last December.

Over the past seven months I have often visited Chamberlain as he and his two trainers worked relentlessly at the Afewee Gym in the basement of the Brixton Recreation Centre. When he was a boy of 12, Chamberlain used to deliver drugs on his bicycle, or the bus, in these same streets. The older Brixton dealers promised him money at a time when his family sometimes went hungry to bed. It was not quite the same as Toney selling drugs, while carrying a gun, but Chamberlain soon realised he wanted to escape such a grimy and dangerous world. Boxing offered him a way out – just as it had done for Toney.

James Toney
James Toney dazzles against Iran Barkley (Holly Stein /Allsport)

After many difficult years Chamberlain is now happy and settled – as he has known his partner, Zaila, for eight years and they have a beautiful eight-month-old son, Zion, with whom the fighter is besotted. Toney was just as smitten when I first met him in 1993 and he showed me his baby girl, Jasmine, who helped soften his intimidating persona. But Toney always promised me that his daughter made him more savage between the ropes.

Chamberlain suggests something similar. He is much gentler and more compassionate than Toney, and also a deeply reflective soul who enjoys expressing himself as a writer, but I thought of his American hero when Chamberlain said: “My life is the happiest it’s ever been but it’s also made me think that, in the ring, I’ve got to be more sinister, more vicious and just darker… you have to have a dark side in boxing. You can’t feel sorry for no-one.”   

These darker dreams fill the Eastside gym which is co-owned by Pegg, who offers a much-needed depth of experience to Chamberlain’s corner as his cuts man. He is also Sam Eggington’s trainer and the 48-year-old Pegg tells me he has worked at least “a couple of thousand” professional fights. “Some weekends I’ve done 20 corners. There was even a night I did three corners in Manchester, Stoke and Coventry. When I started I would do 10 a night – just sticking the stool in and getting the experience. But I’ve done hundreds of pro fights from this gym and I’ve become choosy now.” 

Pegg is also a prolific film-maker. One of the most vivid memories before the Prasovic bout was listening to Pegg talk about the eight short films and two full-length features he has written and directed since 2009. They have won 36 awards in different categories at independent film festivals. Pegg works at speed on set and the films are intriguing and entertaining.

He is still best-known for his boxing nous and Pegg stresses that Chamberlain and Billam-Smith are about to step into “a genuine 50-50 contest”. Pegg believes that, if he is at his very best, Chamberlain can win. But, like everyone in the Brixton’s fighter’s camp, Pegg accepts that Billam-Smith is, by some distance, the toughest opponent Chamberlain has faced since he lost a disappointing bout against Lawrence Okolie in 2018.

That was the sole defeat on Chamberlain’s 14-1 resume while Billam-Smith’s record stands at 15-1 after he lost a split decision to Richard Riakporhe in 2019. But Billam-Smith has fought superior opponents and also been much more active than Chamberlain in recent years. Since October 2018, when he beat Luke Watkins, Chamberlain has had just four bouts which lasted a total of six rounds. He stopped Prasovic two rounds quicker than Okolie did but, otherwise, the level of opposition has been mediocre. Billam-Smith represents a massive jump in quality.                                         

“We were preparing to fight Jack Massey,” Chamberlain explains, “but when that couldn’t be made there was the surprise chance to fight Chris. I said ‘Yes’ straightaway because this is a great fight and a really big opportunity. Chris is a great fighter and a great athlete but when Mick Hennessy [his promoter] called I said: ‘Let’s do it. It’s an amazing chance to show what I can do.”

It is also a risk because, as Chamberlain agrees, “Chris has got a high work-rate and he’s very tough and experienced. He’s also going to be so up for this one, fighting in his home town, but they picked the wrong guy in me. We’ve been very respectful to each other but the closer we get to the fight you see how mentally I change. There’s a switch in me. I’ve got that Toney mentality, which you need for these big fights, because this is not a game. People think: ‘Oh, Isaac’s a nice, smiling guy.’ They ought to know there’re a lot of layers to me.

“Even speaking to you about the fight I’m getting pissed off with how much work I’ve had to do. I’m thinking: ‘How dare he try come at me? I’ve been suffering all these years and he wants to take it away from me?’ No. It’s not happening.”

Isaac Chamberlain is focused on his targets (Pic: Lawrence Lustig)

Chamberlain had two terrible years in the wake of the Okolie loss. He fell out with his uncle Ted Bami, who used to train him, and was then let down by a variety of trainers and promoters in America. The boxer used to send me short essays of grief and desolation, which he wrote, alongside photographs of the stark, prison-like conditions where he lived and trained in Miami.

It was only in 2020, when he returned to Britain and forged a positive promotional alliance with Mick Hennessy, that he turned his career around. The pandemic clouded his progress for another year but it gave Chamberlain time to find a new team. “I’ve built my team from the bottom up.  I wanted to create my own set-up that is tailored to me and so I invested in myself and my team.  I pay them well so they know I appreciate the fact they are working so hard for me.

“I hand-picked the right people. I had been let down so badly by so many that I needed people who really cared about me.  They have to look out for me because you can die in that ring or come out with life-changing injuries. That danger is always there so you need people in your corner who will ride with you to the end. They’re not just going to walk away if there’s a loss or something bad happens. I know how that feels because it happened to me when I fought Okolie.  But Bobby, Conor, Jon and Mick are with me whatever happens. That makes me even more confident.”

Despite Mills and Ward being relatively unknown in professional boxing, I have been impressed by their studious and diligent approach. They work well together and the camp seems tight-knit and harmonious. But what does Mills bring to Chamberlain as a trainer? “He teaches me because he’s a very technical coach. He allows me to be myself as well. Most coaches say: ‘No, it’s my way or the highway.’ But the boxer is the one going in the ring, and you have to let his attributes flow. So he’s a very adaptable coach. He’s also giving up everything to help me chase my dream.  How many people are willing to do that?

“That’s why I have so much respect and admiration for him and Conor and Andy Knuth [the giant friendly bear of a man who dons the body bag and allows Chamberlain to pummel him every day during fight camp]. They all left their lives to help me reach my dream. We had such a tough session last Friday that I rewarded everyone with a bonus of £500 each. I said: ‘Guys, check your account because there’s a little thank you for everything you’ve done.’ They deserved that bonus because they push me so hard with such attention to detail.”     

Mills first met Chamberlain in 2016 when he had just become the Southern Area champion. Despite dislocating his shoulder in the third round, Chamberlain found the resolve to beat Wadi Camacho in that fight. “I remember Isaac coming to my gym after he won that title. He gave a great speech to the kids and he was so encouraging. We began working together when he came back from America [in 2020] and it made a lot of sense. I was local and he wanted to be home in Brixton and around his family and friends again. My gym is round the corner from the gym, Miguel’s, where he started boxing. I had been an amateur coach for eight years and built a club up from scratch with Afewee. I had a whole amateur team and kids boxing for national titles. So Isaac saw something in me and I decided to get my pro licence.” 

As Mills explains this was not a rash decision. “I remember having thoughts of being a coach at 15 and planning to have my own gym. I was always more interested in coaching.” 

Mills is a thoughtful and intelligent trainer who is also a strategist, a psychologist and even the camp chef. “Ninety percent of fight camp is about physical work, strategic planning and finding the balance between making weight and the best nutrition. With someone as analytical and motivated as Isaac, only 10% of fight camp is taken up by psychological preparation. But in the week of the fight I would say 90% is psychological. That’s one of Isaac’s strengths because, after all he has been through, he’s very resilient and strong mentally.”

Mills offers a low-key and engaging energy and says: “Talking to your fighter is an important part of coaching – and a powerful way of teaching and preparing them mentally. At the same time we have a nutritionist and, as the chef, I make sure Isaac follows that plan and eats the right foods at the right time. He’s eating regularly, about six times a day, and the weight’s been coming off so easily that, 15 days from the fight, we increased his food intake. We’re right on schedule.”

Chris Billam-Smith stands in their way and Mills is under no illusions about the size of their task. “I really rate CBS. He’s definitely one of the most improved cruiserweights in the country over the last 18 months. He is strong, has good energy, a solid jab, fights well on the inside and he’s very tough to beat.  I don’t want to talk about any weaknesses we have seen in Chris but Isaac is quick, explosive and dynamic. We’ve got to use those attributes.”

Does he appreciate that he and Ward will be dismissed by many as amateurs in a harsh professional business? “Definitely. We embrace that because we love having the challenge to prove our worth. We understand that, in life, when people haven’t heard of someone or something, they tend to dismiss it. But this is a results business so when we get the win, and hopefully a good win, it puts us out there.”

The amiable and hard-working Ward is just as aware that he and Mills will be doubted in comparison to Billam-Smith’s experienced corner. “100%.  But I only really care if two people appreciate what I do – Bobby and Isaac. We have been to Shane McGuigan’s gym in Leyton with our best female amateur fighter, Viv Parsons, to spar Ellie Scotney, and his set-up is fantastic. He’s earned that because he’s one of the best trainers in the UK. He has a stable with current and future world champions. Young coaches like me and Bobby can take a lot from Shane and we’ll be at his level sooner rather than later.”

Less than a year from being in the corner for a European title fight, Ward was shelf-stacking at Sainsbury’s while absorbed in boxing. “I was always a serious boxing student,” he says, “and I worked for five years as a coach to very good amateurs. But I also had to earn a living and so I sold car insurance over the phone. I also worked in a shop measuring kids for school uniforms. My last job before joining Isaac and Bobby was stacking shelves at night for two years at Sainsbury’s. I always promised myself, as soon as a door opens, I’ll make sure I put my foot in and never let that door close again. So any time I get tired in fight camp I think: ‘You used to sit there stacking tins of beans at four in the morning thinking there had to be more to life.’ I jump out of bed then to work with Isaac and Bobby.”

Ward, like Mills and Chamberlain, has been preparing for this night for many years. And so he smiles: “We’re three underdogs. We were never meant to be anything. Winning on Saturday will show the world what we can do. With the tools that Isaac’s got, and which we’ve sharpened in camp, we’re confident we can get the job done.”

After lunch at the team’s rented house in Smethwick, a 30-minute drive from the Eastside gym, Chamberlain sits on his bed. The fight that could change his life is almost here and he says: “I’ve had so much hard sparring. Four tough fighters, doing two rounds each with me at a time, and Bobby whispering that he will pay a grand to anyone who drops me. They’re coming at me and I’m thinking: ‘Yo, you’re welcome. C’mon, I’ve got more for you.’ That’s the mentality you need. It’s the James Toney mentality he took with him when he shocked everyone and beat Michael Nunn.”

The fighters and eras are very different, and he has two young trainers rather than the masterful old Bill Miller in his corner, but Chamberlain looks ready. “My hardest fights have been out of the ring,” he says. “I remember what it was like to not have a fight and be alone in America without a team – being let down again and again. I now have a special team around me so, even if it’s a hard fight, I will relish that even more. I’ve been waiting for this a very long time and I want to make myself proud. I want to make my son proud. I want to make the whole team – Bobby, Conor, Andy, Jon and Mick Hennessy – proud of me. I’m not going to let them down.”

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