The biggest thing you can give a kid who has nothing – is hope. It means more than gadgets, money or labels. Hope gives a kid (or in some cases, an adult) an avenue to escape their current surroundings and excel, in a way that those close to them doubted was possible.
As an aimless youth coming from a working class background, I could relate to the struggles of a young man, aiming to answer his as-yet-undetermined ‘calling’. I never found direction, until aged twenty-two. It wasn’t obvious and in all honesty, wasn’t difficult. I guess that’s where Isaac Chamberlain’s story and mine deviate.
Brixton, South West London is an ever-changing suburban piece of London’s historically diverse jigsaw. A large black community, poverty and gun or drug crime had given it a reputation only enhanced by the Brixton Riots in 1981 and most recently 1995. You don’t grow up easy in Brixton. You grow up fast and normally having seen more than you should.
“I got into boxing because my Mum brought me to the gym. Obviously, my cousin died from gang violence and it was a sad time for the family and she wanted me to be at the gym. As soon as I got into the gym, the trainers were always saying, ‘You could be a World champion’. I never had those words of encouragement from my Mum or my teachers, or any of them. I was like, ‘Wow! This really feels good, they believe in me!'”
Notice the word obviously.
“I didn’t have a pot to piss in. I had no one-pound coins, it was just crazy. I remember, I was so broke, I had cereal sandwiches. You know when you get cereal and you spread it out? I was broke, it was crazy. Go to the shop and get my shoes from Lidl, I used to get laughed at so, I would always be fighting. I’d always get laughed at, so I was like ‘Fuck you man!’. I just didn’t want anyone to talk shit about me!”
Under the tutelage of his Uncle Ted Bami, himself a distinguished professional, Isaac progressed. He told me of his strops throughout those difficult teenage years. He smashed mirrors and stormed out of the gym, fed-up with the routine and going the distance with adolescence. But he never considered turning his back on the sport. It was a maturing for Isaac, realising his potential and considering what would be waiting for him if he ever chose to step away from Miguel’s Gym.
“I probably would have been following that other life that is going on around my area, drug-dealing, going to prison and fighting over post codes, you know? Even though you’re not part of any gang, you get into certain situations because of where you come from. You’re in trouble if they wanna stab you or rob you, it’s just (like that) in that situation you can become a target. I did wanna be a Fireman though, when I was younger! Just cos I watched Fireman Sam!”
Like many young men growing up in SW9, Isaac was presented with a choice. He opted for the sweaty, honest setting of Miguel’s, dedicating his life and his teenage years to a sport he owes a great deal.
The transformation physically, as well as mentally, has been evident. In his outing on the Frank Buglioni v Ricky Summers undercard, he dismantled Ryan Crawford. Crawford was felled by vicious work to the body and couldn’t continue. He weighed in 11lbs heavier than Isaac. Crawford was a big heavyweight on the scales, yet the natural ability of Chamberlain had been paired with rigorous Strength & Conditioning work which shone through that night at London’s O2 Arena.
Most recently, the durable Ossie Jervier met the same fate.
Fans and pundits alike have been calling for Chamberlain to be given the recognition he deserves. Signed with Matchroom Boxing, fronted by Eddie Hearn, his career has stalled seemingly. The signing of Olympian Lawrence Okolie has caused a conflict of interest in Hearn’s stable, with the two men slated to face one another early next year. I had pondered Isaac’s opinion on Matchroom’s handling of his career, asking how he felt about their ‘promotion’?
He told me candidly, “After the Camacho fight, I was thinking, ‘What more do I need to do for the recognition?’ But, after a while I just stopped feeling sorry for myself and I thought, this is just the way it’s gonna be. This is what it is. When I get to the top, I know I’ve been there and I’ve got it in the bank.”
Okolie had become something of a curse word around Brixton recently, not only for Isaac but for his stablemate Richard Riakporhe.
I’d heard murmurs that Okolie v Riakporhe was close to cemented for December 13th at the prestigious York Hall. It seemed unusual that Okolie would look to face Riakporhe, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if he lost, it would have destroyed the high-profile and currently simmering clash with Isaac. Secondly, Richard is very good and would have posed a very live threat. Within a couple of days though, the fight had melted, the blame firmly thrown in the direction of Peckham’s prospect.
Brixton and Miguel’s regular Rob Martin (@elvietyrion3333) had posted an explosive rant on Twitter regarding the bouts dissolution, prompting me to dig a little deeper. I asked Isaac if Lawrence had really changed his mind only a week from the first bell?
“It’s 100% true you know. Yeah, it is a 100% true we’ve got the messages and stuff from Ted’s phone because Ted showed everyone in the gym. They said, apparently they wanted to fight Richard on December 13th, then they did a bit more research on Richard and then they messaged to say, ‘Oh sorry, he’s not the opponent we are looking for.’ So Ted was like, ‘Can you let us know quickly cos he hasn’t been in the gym’ and those tricks there to try and get him in the fight.”
He continued, telling me his thoughts on an alternative dance partner for the Anthony Joshua managed Okokie, “They’ll obviously end up boxing someone shit, so they can knock him out and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my days! Imagine if he lands on Isaac? Oh no!’ But, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna bring Richard to the fight.”
February 3rd is the date being discussed for the long-awaited Chamberlain v Okolie showdown, with nothing signed as yet. It harks back to the rivalry between James DeGale and George Groves, thrown together at British title level after carrying dislike for one another through the later stages of their amateur careers.
For me, Isaac is the marginal favourite in the contest. His experience, years of development and ring-smarts as a professional could prove difficult to overcome for Okolie. However, the newer professional does carry that vicious power we have seen in his fights-to-date. An intriguing clash.
“When the fight gets signed, I’m gonna have a little brick phone to call my Mum, but that’s it. You know why? Cos there’s gonna be so much animosity and hype, people are gonna be giving their views and polls. I’m not gonna be in a position where I can look at them. I’ll have my little brick phone and I won’t even know what’s happening. I don’t care how he is training or what extra shit he is doing, he could post up a picture in tremendous shape and then what? I think, ‘Oh shit, I need to work harder!’. I’m gonna have my brick phone and focus on myself and what I need to do.”
The thought of Isaac walking down Brixton’s Electric Avenue with a Nokia 3210 provoked a smile. From spending time speaking to him, he oozed a razor-sharp focus. He almost seemed militant in his ‘mission’. Without letting the apparent preference of Matchroom for Okolie get to him, he knew that he had to win in order to balance the books and take what was his.
“It’s gym, then home. When I’m home I am thinking about boxing. I’m thinking about how to get better in the gym, my whole life is boxing. Eating, I’m not eating to satisfy myself I’m eating to refuel and get the best out of my body for the next training session. A lot of boxers will say, ‘Oh let me just have this chocolate!’ The way I feel about that is, while you’re doing that, someone else is living the right life. I want to be that guy, extremely dedicated.”
For all the tough-talking, hard upbringing and generally punching for pay, Isaac Chamberlain has an infectious smile. He is a fun, excitable character and it’s been on display in interviews (sometimes not even his own).
The persona of a dedicated athlete is genuine, without risk of the mask slipping. But having been around him at Miguel’s or at shows where his friends have been competing, he is extremely likeable. Isaac has recently been using his spare time to spread positivity amongst the youth in Brixton and neighbouring Streatham, which he told me about.
“I’m glad I’m not part of that (gang lifestyle) and I’m helping kids as well, get away from that. GlovesNotGunz, Streatham Community & Youth as well. I am trying to help as many of these guys as I can. If I help at least one person along the way who can say, ‘Isaac come from nothing and look what he is doing!’ trust me… everyone can see the change.”
Passing the torch in either boxing or in life is integral to the successes of future generations.
When the time comes, Chamberlain v Okolie is sure to be a fascinating fight with everything on the line. The winner will take the spoils, but the loser can rebuild, young and still fresh. Chamberlain, in his own mind, is already the winner.
“I fought Russ Henshaw, several wins and no losses. I remember in that fight, he damaged my ribs and I had difficulty breathing in the corner. It was tight, I was thinking, ‘This shit is hard!’. For a fraction of a second, I was thinking this is fucking difficult. But I was thinking, I can’t go back to my little brothers and tell them their big brother lost. Imagine that drive home.”
I replied, in jest, telling him he should have stuck to the firefighting.
Written by Craig Scott