Isaac Chamberlain’s journey is among the most well documented in British boxing. Essays, films, features, and photos have all attempted to capture the extraordinary life that’s led him to the summit of the hurt business. But in recent years, something in that life has changed. Isaac Chamberlain is now a father.
I met Isaac at Afewee Boxing Club in Brixton Recreation Centre, a local gym frequented by many who grow up in the area. Isaac used to swim at Brixton Rec after school when he was nine; 20 years later and he now trains to fight in its bowels.
When I walked into Afewee, I saw Isaac’s face through a small window carved into the gym doors. As the door swung open, a scene revealed itself behind him. Two kids, one about five and the other barely older than one, were playing on the ground. Before I could manage a double take, the two were at my feet – one with their arms around me, the other with eyes on my smoothie.
I suspect the warm welcome from the little ones stemmed from the rarity of a female presence in this place. It’s testosterone as far as the eye can see. I asked for their names. “Elijah!” the older one exclaimed. He is the son of Andy Knuth, an old friend of Isaac’s who helps him train. The little one just blinked, eyes still trained on my smoothie. I am told that this is Zion, Isaac’s son. As I set my stuff down to watch Isaac train, the interview quickly turned into a family function.
As Isaac got to work, the kids and I slipped into background noise. For me, it was a treat. For the kids, it was routine. The boxing gym became their playground. The medicine balls were mountains to climb; the agility ladder, upside down monkey bars; and the boxing sticks turned into swords – which then required a mandatory battle. Isaiah and I faced off, while Zion snuck sips on my smoothie.
Every few minutes, Zion would make a run for the ring – pulled like gravity back to his father; the two are always in each other's orbit. Should Zion manage to climb between the ropes, he’d stick to one corner, solemnly watching his father work the pads of Andy Knuth. He already knows how to keep the distance. He’s a purebred boxing baby.
By the end of the session, he was asleep in my arms. I asked Isaac if he had a stroller I could lay Zion in. He responded, “No. I carry him with me everywhere I go.” He gently retrieved his son as we walked to a parking garage a few blocks west of the gym. We headed for Café Pronto, his go-to-spot post practice. As we drove through Brixton, Isaac pointed out corners of his past life. Where he grew up on Loughborough Estate, his old stomping grounds, and the Marcus Lipton youth centre: a place that had recently been affected by knife violence.
A lot has changed since Isaac was here. Some of those changes are obvious, some not as much. It’s more than just fatherhood that’s found him these past two years. As Zion has been growing up, Isaac has been doing his own kind of growing.
Last July, Isaac challenged Chris Billam-Smith for the European and Commonwealth cruiserweight titles. He lost a decision in one of the fights of the year, a brutal war that sent Isaac to hospital with a broken orbital bone. On 27 May, Isaac will return to Bournemouth. He was supposed to fight Mikael Lawal but after Lawal's injury withdrawal he will now face a replacement fighter. It will be his first bout since Billam-Smith – who faces Lawrence Okolie for the WBO world title on the same card.
After that loss, Isaac did some reflecting. He had put his life on the line for fighting, and he took some time away to heal. He went travelling alone for the first time in his life. He moved from a gated house in Kent to a studio in Putney. He threw out his designer clothes and started meditating again.
This change is not just another chapter in Isaac’s life, it’s a new book entirely. The context has changed now. He isn’t just fighting for one, he’s fighting for two.
It’s that change that’s walking with him into the ring in Bournemouth. It’s that change that’s going to take home the belt.
Square Mile: Where was your head at after the Chris Billiam-Smith fight?
Isaac Chamberlain: Shit. That’s all I could think, just shit. We went right to the hospital after the fight. I was severely dehydrated, I kept saying to myself, ‘Don’t fuckin’ die. Hey, you better not fuckin die.’ I was having crazy headaches; I was smoked. I vomited litres. They gave me medicine for the pain and I just threw it all up. I was in the hospital for hours.
SM: How long did it go on for?
IC: I don’t actually remember. All of it is a blur. I just remember thinking: I’m not dying on a loss. I’d die on a win, but I’m not dying on no loss. I never really put my feelings into consideration. It’s just ‘whatever, get on with it.’ Life is not about how you feel. Feelings don’t get shit done.
That’s why I wake up every morning at 5:30am. I go training and I go for a run. I’m always trying to find a way to put myself above other people mentally. Mikael Lawal isn’t waking up at 5:30am. I know while I’m workin’ hard, he’s got his dick in his hands, asleep and snoring. That makes me get up. You think you’re up? No, I’m really up. I’m active.
SM: What were your injuries after the fight?
IC: I had a hairline fracture in my hand. My rib was swollen. My eye was all messed up. I broke my orbital bone, it’s the bone right under your eye in your cheek bone. When the bone breaks, the muscle hangs off so they had to put a sheet on it to keep it from falling down. It took about seven months to heal.
SM: What does the healing process entail?
IC: Just a lot of massage, rest and ice baths. With my eye, there’s not much you can do. I got the surgery and got on with it.
SM: Then you went travelling, didn’t you?
IC: I went to Thailand for three weeks. I like to be able to train everywhere I go. I found this fight camp: Sumalee Training Camp. It’s a Muay Thai camp but at a certain point I had to tell the coach, ‘Ay, listen bro, I ain’t doin’ no more kicks!’ I had to tell him, ‘Ay, stop it!’ It started changing my boxing.
SM: What was your schedule out there?
IC: I’d wake up and train at 7am with the crew. I’d go and see something. I’d meditate. Then go to the sanctuary to feed the elephants. We’d train again in the afternoon. I’d walk around. There were monkeys just on the streets. I went and experienced stuff alone for the first time in my life.
SM: Best memory from the trip?
IC: I flew a plane.
SM: You know how to fly?
IC: So, this is what happened. I went to this guy and he didn’t have great English. He was like, ‘You can fly?’ and I thought he meant ‘Do you want to fly?’ But what he actually meant was ‘Do you know how to fly?’ I responded, ‘Yeah, yeah.’
I got in the plane and they gave me a headset with someone in my ear telling me what to do. As soon as I realised what was actually happening I was like, what the fuck am I doing? Wait, hold up, what is going on?
SM: How long did you fly for?
IC: Twenty minutes.
SM: You landed the plane?
IC: Yes. But I should tell you I had a few lessons in Surrey a while back.
SM: Why did you choose Thailand?
IC: There’s a lot of things they do without thinking. It’s the free spirit. Everything was so nice there. It made me think differently about what matters. Everyone is so happy, they don’t need much. When you’re in London, you get caught up. You want the nice car, the nice house, the nice everything. None of it really matters. When I was away, it made me really think about what does. Which is looking after my son, and making sure that everything is good.
When I got back, I started reflecting a lot and decided to make a change. I left my house in Kent and started renting a small studio in Putney. Even the person who sold it to me told me I wasn’t going to like it. I said, ‘No, this is what I want.’ I call it my prison cell. It’s just four corners and a twin bed. I put pictures up around me of the things that matter. Pictures of my son and family, me boxing.
SM: That’s such a huge shift.
IC: I know, but I needed to do something different. I used to go to Selfridges and spend money and get all this shit and I thought it would make me happy, but it didn’t. What is all of that, really? I don’t want to be known as that guy. I just wanted to be calm. I threw away all my designer clothes and watches. I don’t even know where it is, it’s gone.
None of that matters if you’re not happy inside. It’s all for show, for other people. Why would I care what other people think? I needed to spend time alone to allow that growth. I started enjoying my own company a whole lot. I started educating myself, listening to podcasts and watching boxing videos. I’ve just been growing.
SM: Throughout all of this, Zion is growing up. Can you tell me some of your favourite memories of his first year of life?
IC: Every moment I spend with him. We go to lots of places. I started wrestling with him when he was 25 minutes old. I’ve always been rough with him. That’s why he’s not fazed by anything. I try to put him through things that I never had growing up. Going places, seeing people. Things I wish my father did for me.
He won’t understand it now, but he will one day. That’s why I try to give him a lot of freedom. I leave him to be an individual even though he’s so young. For example, on my birthday. I had a candle on a cupcake and he saw the fire and he wanted to touch it. And I said, ‘Don’t touch it. Don’t do it. You’re gonna burn yourself.’ And he touched it and hurt himself. And then I lit it again. He wanted to touch it but he stopped himself.
That’s how you learn. I want to teach him: don’t be afraid of life. Take risks.
SM: You speak a lot about your father’s absence in your life: were you ever afraid to bring a son into the world?
IC: Nah, I was excited. He’s part of me. I get to do the things with him that my father never did with me. I’m proud of him. He ain’t even done anything yet.
I want to be there like a shadow for him. Kids don’t follow what you say, they follow what you do. I have to act a certain way. I have to treat myself with respect so he will learn to respect himself too.
SM: What are the biggest changes that have taken place in your life since he was born?
IC: Discipline. I spend a lot less money. No more buying clothes, cars, going on holidays. I’d waste a lot. Now I save for Zion. I want him to go to private schools. This is all for him.
SM: Do you feel like you train harder now that he’s born?
IC: Yeah, definitely. But this is the thing, I’ve built such tough skin. I just drive through even more.
SM: Were you always like that? Even when you were growing up?
IC: I don’t think I had a choice to be anything else. I know what it’s like to have nothing. I didn’t have a pot to piss in. I walked to the gym from the house every day for 40 minutes. I’m the oldest of six. I know what it’s like to have to give them the small food we had instead of feeding myself. They had the bed and I had the floor. I just had to keep going, keep pushing. That was my mentality.
SM: Was there ever a time that you were sucked down by life?
IC: Of course. We all have times like that. But you’re only allowed five minutes of feeling sorry for yourself. Then you need to get on with it. The sun rises every day, and you’ve got to make sure you rise with it. No reason to feel sorry, life goes on.
So many boxers have so many regrets. They say, ‘Oh this happened, oh that happened.’ I hear that. But there are people that have it much worse that still make shit happen.
Don’t feel sorry for yourself. It’s too easy to feel sorry for yourself these days. It’s easy to cry on social media or whatever. But to the point where it’s sad, because if you speak out against it, you’re labelled a villain. This life is not easy, this life is vicious.
SM: What lessons from the fight with Chris are you taking into this ring against Lawal?
IC: Don’t get sucked into the crowd. I had a game plan. But when I walked out, there were people yelling the N-word, monkey, black this and that. I heard it and it spun my head.
I said, ‘OK, cool, I’m gonna knock your boy’s head off, first round.’ That’s why when the bell rang – it went, boom, boom, BOOM! Game plan went out the window.
SM: Has that ever happened to you before?
IC: Not like that. Before Chris, I had five or six fights that were first-round knockouts. I thought it’d be the same. I was planning on boxing, I’m a better boxer than him. It won’t happen again. I’ve learned from it. Chris is a good guy. It wasn’t about him.
SM: Where is your head at now?
IC: My head’s in a better place. I’m focused. It’s just focus. That’s all it is. I do things my way. Life is much harder than boxing. I re-introduced meditation. It helps a whole lot. I started ages ago but I love to do it. It makes you look inside yourself but also above.
SM: Do you have any pre-fight rituals?
IC: I pray. I meditate. Cold shower.
SM: What are your prayers like?
IC: It’s this and only this: ‘Lord, let your deed be done. Even if it’s not what I want.’ It takes a lot to even say it. You want to say, ‘Please give me the win, please give me the win.’ But I feel like I learned a lot more from this last fight, much more than what I would have learned if I won. There’s a lesson in winning. There’s a lesson in losing. That’s life.
SM: How do you feel about fighting on the undercard of Chris’s title fight?
IC: Neutral. At the end of the day it’s just business. Everyone on that card is fighting to feed their family. I don’t take things personally. Mikael Lawal takes shit personally.
SM: What did he say at the press conference?
IC: He was saying all this shit: ‘Oh you think you’re bad with your tattoos.’ I said ‘Bruv, are you really about that life? No, for real, because you know I’m about that life.’ I know myself. Has he really been tested the way I have? I don’t think so. Let’s see how strong he is. I know what I can do. I’m the kind of person that looks in the mirror and says, ‘What the hell do I need to work on?’ I’m blunt with myself. I’ve lived in reality my whole life.
SM: Can you share something with me that you’ve written recently?
IC: Sure thing… ‘Where do I start…? I’m lying here, three years on since I last wrote anything. My mind has been like a volcano waiting to erupt and explode into all these words I’m about to write.
From a basement in America to a small prison-like studio in Putney. How did I get back here? With enough time on my hands to speak through words again. Well, a big change has happened to me. I have a 15 month old son named Zion. Who funnily enough doesn’t remind me of me. He reminds me of someone I always wanted to be. A young kid with confidence that knows whatever happens, his father will be by his side. Ready to die for him at any moment. Helping him navigate his life in a way that he can learn from his mistakes. With his father’s advice telling him that you will have to work for the life that you want. That’s what he sees when he watches me in the gym.
I nearly died for him in the last fight. That’s what kept me going: him. The odds were stacked against me. I’m no longer afraid to go to that dark place: broken eye socket, cut everywhere, eye swollen shut, cracked rib, broken left hand. We are modern day gladiators. I can’t live a normal life.
I wasn’t suicidal but I started writing a will for my son. I started accepting that death is OK. I think that’s why I pushed so hard in the last fight. To see how close to death I could go? When you’re that close, you don’t care anymore. You wanna live in that presence. To become comfortable with the tightrope you have to walk between insanity and competitiveness. That’s why I’m alone. I don’t speak to many people much. I want to live my life like a constant training camp close to the insanity.
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I was never meant to be normal and have a nine-to-five job. I feel like I was drawn into the matrix way of thinking as everyone else is living right now.
You work 8 hours to live 4.
You work 8 hours to eat in 15 minutes.
You work 8 hours to sleep 5.
You work 6 days to enjoy 1.
You work all year just to take a week away.
You work all your life to retire in old age.
And contemplate only your last breaths.
Eventually, you realise that life is nothing but a parody of practising your own oblivion They have become so accustomed to material and social slavery that they no longer see the chains.
Life is a short journey.
And we must learn to love it…
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Isaac Chamberlain fights live on Sky Sports, 27 May.