Feature Issue Premium

Isaac Chamberlain: ‘I’m not the same person who entered this game. It’s turned me darker, made me a monster’

Isaac Chamberlain
Isaac Chamberlain has not fought in 22 months and the inactivity has felt like a prison sentence, writes Don McRae

THE sweat of Isaac Chamberlain can be seen on the wooden floor of a boxing gym in Clapham Junction. It dots the surface in little droplets which resemble rain, or tears, alongside blue-and-white stickers which remind the fighter that we are still living in strange and distressing times.

A large arrow points forward while the phrase “One Way System” is printed three times around the circumference of that circular sticker. Other signs of social distancing during a global pandemic are pasted around the gym. It could feel suffocating but in the case of Chamberlain, the Brixton cruiserweight, who finally returns to the ring this Saturday night for the first time in almost two years, the hard work amid the relentless isolation feels eerily familiar.

I’ve often said that Chamberlain is the most interesting boxer in Britain. Three hours in his company on one of the hottest days of this surreal summer illustrate why the intelligent 26-year-old is such a revelation. There is also novelty in the fact that we should meet in a gym and so close to his comeback fight. Chamberlain’s absence from the ring, his difficult time training in Miami and the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown mean that we have communicated away from the traditional workplace of a professional fighter.

Since I first interviewed Chamberlain nine months ago we have met in an office and a flat and spoken many times over the phone, on WhatsApp and via email, or through Twitter and Instagram. I have followed his heartache and hope in written and spoken form rather than between the ropes. It’s been an illuminating insight into the mind of a fighter who has been tested in a variety of ways since his world tilted on the night he lost his unbeaten record against Lawrence Okolie in a headline bout at the O2 Arena in February 2018.

He won his next fight, beating Luke Watkins in October 2018, but all Chamberlain’s subsequent attempts to resume his career have been blocked by a chain of uncontrollable events from his American promoter being jailed to a new trainer letting him down to the Covid-19 crisis. Four of his fights have been cancelled and he has been left to work alone.

Chamberlain has written to me often in the intervening months and his words have been heavy and powerful. “Hell is a perception,” Chamberlain wrote last November. “Or perhaps it’s a nightmare. For some people fighting is hell to them. For me, inactivity has caused me more depression and made me drown in my own perception of hell… the hell in your mind. I can’t stand the quiet whistling sound that I hear, when it’s silent in my room and it’s pitch black, as I’m writing this at 5:18am.”

On December 11 he sent me a photo of a stark room. “We go again,” Chamberlain wrote. “I’m in Miami now. 5,000 miles from home. Away from friends, family and loved ones. Alone. Rottweilers are barking outside. The dawn quickly turns to darkness. And reality sets in…”

On New Year’s Eve, he messaged me just before midnight Miami time: “I’ve been through hell in 2019. I’ve suffered countless setbacks and failures that would make anyone quit… Even when everything around me was crumbling I wiped my tears and had faith. Now I’m at the end of this dreadful year, with 17 minutes to go into a new year, a new decade, a new life. This year will be mine, this decade will be mine. I will take a deep breath and welcome this New Year with open arms, knowing that the struggle of the past had made me the man I am now.”

Isaac Chamberlain

Chamberlain was on his way home. He was thrilled to have signed a five-year promotional deal with Mick Hennessy. And then, out of nowhere, the coronavirus struck. People began to fall ill and even die. Amid escalating tragedy Chamberlain understood that we needed to go into lockdown and that his comeback fight on March 28 had to be cancelled. A second bout, on April 25, was also off. Chamberlain was back in isolation, inactive and introspective.

The boxer had once been an 11-year-old coerced into carrying drugs in south London while boys just a little older than him were stabbed and killed. He always told me that boxing had saved him. But it seemed over the past two years as if boxing was draining so much of the light in Chamberlain’s life.

He kept writing and talking to me and I was often moved by the lonely defiance of Chamberlain, despite his crushing disappointment, as he resolved to keep believing in himself as a future world champion. He had sparred often enough with Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Oleksandr Usyk to know he could operate at elite level once he was able to concentrate on boxing again rather than the mishaps which threatened to derail his career.  

On Saturday night, barring any late drama, Chamberlain will climb into the ring in a sealed Channel 5 television studio in Redditch, near Birmingham, and face Anthony Woolery, a modest opponent with a 2-2 record. His own record is 10-1 and it’s sensible that Hennessy has chosen a relatively unthreatening challenge for Chamberlain’s first fight in nearly 22 months. But emotion will surge through Chamberlain as he waits for the opening bell.

After a 90-minute training routine, and as we sit on the blue apron of the ring in Clapham, he smiles. “I’m going to make sure I don’t fight with too much emotion,” he says before introducing a striking comparison. “If I was a brain surgeon facing a difficult operation next Saturday I could not allow any emotion or doubt to take over. I couldn’t be thinking: ‘Oh, I don’t know if I still have it. Am I going to be able to operate on this guy?’

“The patient will take one look at me and think: ‘What the heck is going on?’ If I act clinically then I am going to operate properly. Elite professionals – whether brain surgeons or fighters – take control. Look at Floyd Mayweather. The way he fought Miguel Cotto [in May 2012] just before he went into jail showed how to control emotion. Imagine fighting knowing you’re going to jail? I’m not defending some craziness in his private life but you had to be impressed how he still managed to keep the emotions away and focus on his job in the ring.”

Mayweather beat an intensely motivated Cotto by a wide margin on all three cards before he was imprisoned on a domestic violence charge. His behaviour outside the ring was deplorable and deserved imprisonment but, between the ropes, Mayweather personified cold-hearted skill.

Chamberlain knows that he has to take all the heat out of his recent traumas and fight with cool precision. “That’s the plan and obviously it’s difficult because I’m from Brixton, man,” he exclaims. “I have a lot of emotion. There’s been such a long, painful build-up with so much frustration. It’s been emotional getting back to the ring but I will control it.”

It would only be natural if, remembering the problems he has suffered over the last two years, Chamberlain worried that something unexpected might scupper his comeback. “I did have some thoughts about it going wrong,” he says. “What if something happens with my medical or there’s a second corona wave? That’s why I’ve not promoted this fight as much as some of the others [that were cancelled]. How many times am I going to say this is The Return of Isaac Chamberlain? I’m learning to enjoy the moment. Enjoy the training. It can be very uncomfortable learning new things but I’m getting used to enjoying that uncomfortableness. I feel calm and positive.”

Of course nothing in boxing is simple. Chamberlain is no longer working with Jorge Rubio and, rather than commuting to Miami, he is far happier with a new team in his corner. He is now trained by another Cuban in Rasel Hechavarria and Bobby Mills, Chamberlain’s old friend from his first gym in Brixton. “Rasel is a former national coach in Cuba and he’s very good,” Chamberlain says of Hechavarria. “He has taught me a lot already. So much is to do with the rhythm, the style, the flair of the Cuban way of boxing. He has helped me relax in the ring. I have been through all this pain and stress and Rasel tells me: ‘Just relax. When you relax, everything flows. The knock out comes when you’re not looking for it’.”

How did he begin working with Hechavarria? “It’s unusual,” he admits. “I saw a highlighted video on Instagram and it featured a Cuban boxing coach in London. I messaged him and we spoke. We just clicked soon after lockdown and I didn’t even realise Bobby and Rasel knew each other.  As soon as I stared working with Rasel I was thinking: ‘This guy’s good. There is such a flow to everything.”

Yet neither Hechavarria nor Mills have a professional British training license. They have applied to the British Boxing Board of Control, and submitted their credentials in amateur boxing, but they have been told that Covid has slowed the processing of such requests. It will be a few months before they are allowed to work in Chamberlain’s corner.

It’s a worrying situation but the fighter is stoical. “Mick [Hennessy] is going to sort out a replacement for Saturday. It could be Peter Fury or someone like that. I’m relaxed. All my trainers have had the same Cuban style. So I have the footwork, the rhythm, the distance, the agility and coordination. I handpicked these guys and I’ve now got a whole new team around me with other very good people looking after my physio and strength-and-conditioning. There is no ego here. Everyone is supporting me beautifully.”

Life was different under Rubio who had trained Amir Khan and Luke Campbell in the past. But it was not easy for Chamberlain to work with him in Miami. “It made me learn more about how the game is,” Chamberlain says. “It definitely made me grow as a man and as an athlete because I went 5,000 miles away from home – and had no Christmas, no New Year, no birthday. I had to stay on my own in Miami and it was like a jail. It cost $15 a night and I shared a dorm with nine other people. I kept myself to myself. Also, I’m a big guy and I’m black so nobody really wanted to touch me.”

Chamberlain smiles again before shaking his head when I ask what his room-mates were doing staying in such a desolate place? “I didn’t ask. I didn’t care. I was just trying to get by. Wake up early, go do my run. Come back, shower, read my books. It was like prison. You’re just in your cell. Every time I went to the gym I would spend excessive hours there. I would train extra hard. Spar more rounds. Do anything to avoid going back to that prison.”

Did he ever doubt that he would find a way to box at world championship level? “Of course. But there’s always been this dumb-arsed naivety in me thinking, whatever happens, ‘Yeah, it’s all going to be ok.’ I don’t even know if I always believed it, but I just said it out loud in my head. Ever since I was a kid, when I would sweep the floor at Miguel’s Gym in Brixton for a fiver, just so I could pay the subs and get some food, I kept pushing. I never once thought: ‘I’m going to quit now.’ I just thought: ‘I’m going to carry on and get somewhere.”

Isaac Chamberlain
Mark Robinson/Matchroom

Chamberlain has told me riveting stories from his past and his tenacity and determination are admirable. He now has the solid platform he requires in the form of Hennessy’s promotional backing, and exposure on terrestrial television, to bring his evocative story to a mainstream audience. “Mick has a great plan and I’m just so grateful to be supported by him. Most of the time I’ve just had to fight and fight and fight my way in. I headlined a bill at the O2 [on an Eddie Hearn promotion] because I wouldn’t be denied. I kept winning. I wasn’t an Olympian. I wasn’t this knock-out artist. But people love me and I wouldn’t be denied.

“We know that fight went wrong. I got injured and didn’t perform [in a points loss to Okolie] but Mick wants me to knock off the rust and then go for a world title. I speak to him and his team all the time. We’ve become very good friends. If I don’t feel so good I can call up Mick and he would advise me. I’ve never had that before. That’s important because boxing is a lonely business and most of the time you’re battling everything yourself. When Covid happened, and the March 28 fight got cancelled, I was upset. But they helped me a lot.

“The plan is in place. After Saturday I should fight again on September 5, October 10 and November 22. A fight a month and then I will really be back. From there we will go the WBC route. I’d love to fight for the WBC world title against Ilunga Makabu [the champion from Congo]. We’re preparing for that one and I’m keeping an eye on him all the time. I will put my life on the line for that fight. I think Mick could even bring it to the UK. He’s a very good negotiator and a tough operator. Look how he fought for Tyson Fury before they won the world heavyweight title in Germany against Wladimir Klitschko.”

Chamberlain says he would have probably become a chemical or an electrical engineer if he had not fallen for boxing. Instead he has turned to a dark and unforgiving business. He carries a sense of destiny as he returns to the ring. There is renewed hope and purpose in his sweat-streaked work and, as we leave the gym, Chamberlain reveals he has started writing again.

“I’ll send it to you, boss,” he says. A few hours later my phone pings and the words of boxing’s secret writer light up my screen. “It’s finally happening,” he writes of Saturday’s fight before reflecting on his tumultuous journey.  “I’m not the same person I was when I entered this game. It’s turned me darker, it’s turned me into a bit of a monster. I have become more relentless in my pursuit of success. When I’m relentless they crumble because they have not been where I’ve been. They haven’t swam in the deep waters. I was underwater for 18 months, trying to swim to the shore. I thought I drowned a few times … but I was born to win, to be a champion.”

The message is long and intense but, near the end, Chamberlain leaves a big patch of white space. He then types three short sentences I can imagine him saying out loud.

“I never cheated. I never complained. I never quit.”

On Saturday night, in the unglamorous setting of Redditch, in the midst of this dark and terrible pandemic, Isaac Chamberlain will go back to work beneath the hot white lights of a boxing ring. It will feel like, at last, he has reached home again.

Boxing news – Newsletter

Current Issue