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Hell and back: Isaac Chamberlain wants the world

Isaac Chamberlain rose from drug deals in Brixton to headlining the O2 Arena at 23 years old. Then everything went wrong… Max Williams hears how he fought his way back from hell

 

Isaac Chamberlain

Isaac Chamberlain is spinning. His back bent, his head bowed as though at prayer, the 26-year-old cruiserweight rotates his 6ft 2inch frame around the boxing ring like a human spinning top. Round and round he goes, clockwise and then anticlockwise, ten, 20, 30 seconds until I almost feel dizzy watching him.

His trainer enters the ring wielding two blue foam sticks. Chamberlain straightens up and dances away, hands raised to his cheekbones to block the trainer’s blows. He rarely needs them: most shots are evaded through upper body movement or footwork. One moment he’s there, and then he’s not.

This is the second time in as many minutes that Chamberlain has done this exercise. It’s designed to replicate the disorientation of the stunned boxer, those hellish seconds that stretch out for hours, your opponent smothering you with violence, your survival dependent on skill, will and the weeks, months, years of dedication that took you to this crisis point, and perhaps through it. Perhaps not.

“I’m like an obsessed crackhead, bro,” Chamberlain will later tell me. “When it comes to training and bettering myself. Because of everything that’s happened.”

Spinning is the final exercise of the afternoon’s training session. Over the past two hours, I have watched Chamberlain hit the pads, each punch cracking out like a sniper rifle; sprint between cones; bounce around the ring to retrieve the boxing gloves his trainer throws to the canvas; and skip in front of the vast mirror that dominates one wall of the gym.

It’s the skipping that will stay with me. For 20-odd minutes Chamberlain falls into some kind of trance, the rope a blurred semi-circle arcing above his head and down under feet that barely leave the floor. Sometimes he swishes the rope from side to side, forming patterns that are gone before I can decipher them. At one point his left hand seems to bother him and so he transfers the rope solely to his right, still whirling it over and over as he absentmindedly shakes out the ache. He’s not even dancing; he’s floating. Suspended in his own private world.

I’ve shown the minerals. I’m willing to go to hell and back

“That was insane,” I tell him once he’s done.

He smiles, perplexed. “Was it?”

After his session – showered, stretched and changed into a pristine white T-shirt – Chamberlain sits down in the deserted upper room of Clapham Junction’s 12 Rounds Boxing Gym, and relives the journey that took him from drug deals in Brixton to headlining the O2 Arena at 23 years old. He would subsequently be robbed by his own family; endure two years of exile from the sport he loves; spend months sleeping in a rundown Miami gym, alone and unsure whether he would ever find his way back.

“God tests me in different ways,” says Chamberlain near the start of an hour-long interview notable for its subject’s openness and ebullience, even as the story he tells veers into darkness. “Before, he was testing me in the ring. I fought Ross Henshaw, seven wins, no losses, four knockouts. He broke my rib in the first round and then I knocked him down in the first round; had a crazy fight, and I knocked him out in the sixth.

“And then with Wadi Camacho for the Southern area title, it was my fourth fight. Wadi had ten knockouts in 16 fights. Dislocated my shoulder, popped it back in, still beat him... I’ve shown the minerals. I’m willing to go to hell and back .”

We speak in August, barely a fortnight prior to Chamberlain’s long-awaited return to the ring. He’ll win that fight by stoppage, the next one too. He has two more fights scheduled before the end of year. Lost time is being made up. He’s been to hell, and now he’s back.

Isaac Chamberlain

A Boy From Brixton

“There have been many, many fighters,” says Donald McRae, “but I can’t think of anyone who’s got his combination of gentleness and intelligence, but at the same time is so dedicated to boxing. That’s why he is so fascinating. I can’t think of anyone else who’s like him.”

McRae is one of Britain’s most respected sports writers, the only two-time winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. His 1996 title Dark Trade: Lost In Boxing is a globally recognised classic of the genre. He has interviewed everyone from world champions to journeymen; legends and lost souls alike. And yet, McRae tells me, he has never met a fighter quite like Isaac Chamberlain.

“He has this almost puppylike enthusiasm, which again is quite charming and lovely. So the combination of that, plus all the darkness that he’s dealing with, makes him quite unusual.”

Speaking over the phone, the day before I interview Chamberlain, McRae at times sounds like a teacher discussing a favoured student. He describes Chamberlain as “a special person.” The affection is palpable and mutual: “Donald McRae is a great man,” declares Chamberlain when I mention our phone call. His smile, always broad, somehow grows broader still. “A great, great man.”

McRae has written several pieces about Chamberlain in recent years. One in particular stands out, a 2019 profile for the website hannibalboxing.com. It opens with a WhatsApp message sent by Chamberlain to McRae on November 19 at 5:18am. ‘Hell is a perception. Or perhaps it’s a nightmare. For some people fighting is hell. For me, inactivity has caused me more depression and made me drown in my own perception of hell…’

“There were times when I was genuinely concerned for him,” says McRae. “He was having so many knocks. Especially with the Covid thing which could have finished him off, emotionally.”

Before his recent comeback, Chamberlain’s last fight had been an October 2018 victory over Luke Watkins. Promotional issues and contractual wranglings with his former manager, who is also his uncle, had left Chamberlain unable to fight professionally for more than a year. A new contract with Hennessy Sports and a scheduled March return should have signalled a new beginning – the start of the good times. Then came Covid and the inevitable cancellation. Chamberlain was back in limbo.

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“March 28 being cancelled, that fucking hurt me so much,” admits Chamberlain. He does, however, retain a sense of perspective. “People died, man. I’m not dead. I have my health. So that’s what really made me think, ‘Isaac, stop being a bitch. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.’ Because there’s people who’ve lost families.”

Life has rarely come easy for Chamberlain. He was born in Brixton to a teenage mother and a violent, soon to be estranged father. “I was an accident child!” He laughs. “I was an accident child, and everyone else was with my stepdad. Some of the things we went through, I don’t blame my mum cos she was still a kid herself. A lot of things I went through during my childhood I’m grateful for because it turned me into the person I am today.”

The estates that raised Chamberlain were a far cry from the coffee shops and wine bars of modern Brixton. “You see the top drug dealers. You see them with their chains. You see them getting everything: chains, cars, girls, whatever. And you’re like, ‘Rah! I wanna be like him!’

“When you’re young, you don’t really have no father figure. And cos you don’t have no father figure, you counted the olders as a father figure. So they’re like, ‘don’t worry, I got you, I got you, bro.’ They’d drop you a little twenty, fifty pound note – and at that time, that’s like the fucking world! Do you know how much fucking sweets you could buy with that shit? Oh my goodness!”

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He was recruited as a runner, ferrying drugs around the area. “When you grow up in it, you don’t see nothing wrong. Cos that’s your environment, you know what I mean?”

He was 11 years old, maybe 12. One day he ran into the police doing a stop and search. Isaac had no intention of being searched so he didn’t stop. They chased him through the estate. He escaped, handed off the stash to a friend. In the shower, his legs were stained white from the cocaine that he’d stuffed down his trousers. He stopped answering the dealers’ calls.

“I didn’t give a fuck, I didn’t come back. I was like, fuck this shit. Nah bro, I’m not coming back ever again.” Did the gangs let him walk away? “They were coming to my house sometimes, I just wouldn’t open the door. Luckily we moved to Streatham a few weeks later.”

Before the family left Brixton, Isaac’s mum took him to their local boxing gym. She was worried for her son. His 15-year-old cousin Alex had recently been stabbed to death.

“He was involved in gangs and he got stabbed in the heart,” says Chamberlain. “Just after he passed his GCSEs. My mum didn’t want that to happen to me, because obviously I was going down that road. You kinda become a product of your environment. Without even realising it.”

So his mum showed him a new environment: Miguel’s Boxing Gym in Loughborough Junction. Over the phone, Steve Miguel recalls a talented if occasionally wayward kid whose dedication was absolute. “He’d train three, four times a day. He’d always take advice from everybody. He wants to learn everything from everybody. He lived and breathed, ate, dreamt boxing 24 hours a day. That’s Isaac for you.

“The staff, the members, everybody just took to him. He is just a lovable guy. Pain in the arse, but lovable! He’s given me so much hassle. I chucked him out about three times because of breaking things.”

“I kept coming back,” says Chamberlain. “I don’t know why I kept coming back. I think it’s because the coaches always said, ‘you know what Isaac, you can be a champion.’ And I’d never heard those words of encouragement. From anyone.

“I just fell in love with it, man. I just kept coming back just so I could hear those words of encouragement again. That’s why it’s so important for kids to receive praise when they do something right. Because it makes them feel good.”

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For the first time in his young life, Isaac had a sense of purpose. “I was so naive. I certainly didn’t know that I was going to get to where I am now – even though I still have a long way to go. I didn’t know I was going to get here. I just knew I was going to get somewhere.”

He wore his hand wraps home to show off his new vocation. Even now, Chamberlain’s voice swells with pride when he remembers his first club tracksuit. “I would wear it everywhere! It said Miguel’s Amateur Boxing Club. Oh my gosh, I loved it! Everyone was like, ‘oh my days, he’s a boxer, oh my days!’ Loved it, man.”

There’s a famous quote about needing a village to raise a child. If you don’t have access to a village, a boxing gym might be the best alternative. Isaac swept the floor, cleaned the mirrors, ran errands. Sometimes Delroy the janitor would give him a fiver, and he’d buy an energy drink, brown bread, chickpeas, and if there was money left over, a Snickers bar.

“He had no father figure,” says Miguel. “We are his father figure so we treat him like a son. Not every day is going to be rosy. That’s how we grew him up. He has grown up in Miguel’s and he’s still growing up there now.”

The move to Streatham didn’t stop Isaac from training. He’d walk down to Loughborough Junction (it took an hour) and get a lift back. He can’t remember if he had headphones for the journey. “That was so long!” Cue Chamberlain’s joyous cackle of a laugh. “I don’t know how I even done it. What a life!”

Isaac Chamberlain

British Beef

On the morning of Saturday 3 February 2018, Isaac Chamberlain looked out of his window to be confronted with Isaac Chamberlain. Directly opposite the Continental Hotel, a digital billboard advertising that evening’s fight against domestic rival Lawrence Okolie. “Shit,” thought Chamberlain, gazing on the vast, distorted mirror, “this is crazy.”

In theory, Okolie vs Chamberlain was a fine matchup between two young, charismatic Londoners with undefeated records and more similarities than either man might admit. What it should never have been was an O2 Arena headliner: the pair had fewer than 20 fights combined. But Okolie had name recognition from the Rio Olympics, Hackney vs Brixton offered a potent narrative, and Eddie Hearn did what Eddie Hearn does – you couldn’t turn on Sky Sports that January without seeing an advert for the bout dubbed British Beef. Chamberlain, meanwhile, was struggling.

Spurred on by the biggest fight of their shared careers, his uncle and trainer Ted Bami was pushing the 23-year-old like never before. “I felt overtrained,” admits Chamberlain. “I was like, ‘Uncle, I need a rest, I need a rest.’ He was like, ‘no this is what you’re going through.’ I was ran into the ground, running eight miles a day, sparring 12 rounds. I was doing way too much. But I just kept thinking to myself, I’m going to feel better, I’m going to feel good on fight night. When I’m doing the media workout, the press conference, I’m just dead inside.”

Although both fighters were promoted by Matchroom, Chamberlain has little doubt that Okolie was the favoured son. He was the Olympian, polished by Team GB, managed by Anthony Joshua. “I was just there, making up the numbers, even though all my fans were the ones that filled up the O2.” A rueful chuckle. “You’re kind of thinking to yourself, ‘are you just a pawn in this game or what?’”

In the hours before the fight, Chamberlain’s changing room was as crowded as his mind. “There were so many people. So many people wanted to talk to me. Everyone was like, ‘Do this, you got this champ, you got this!’ That gives you a false reality, like it’s already done. And the job is not done. Everyone’s like, ‘Isaac, you got too much skill, don’t worry!’ What do you mean, don’t worry? This is the biggest fight of my career.”

Suddenly, it was time to go. “You imagine it a lot. You visualise it. But then it comes at you fast. When you’re walking out, you see all these phone lights and shit. It’s just like, ‘wow. This is it!’ And I still felt like I wasn’t in control that time.”

The fight was a stinker. Unable to impose himself on the notoriously awkward Okolie, Chamberlain was dropped twice – more flash knockdowns than heavy falls – deducted a point for holding and lost a wide decision.

“It was devastating. I was in shock a little bit as well. Rah, did that really just happen? And all those people in the changing room, nearly all of them weren’t there after. I didn’t really know what to think. I didn’t want to switch the TV on because it was just me, on the fucking TV.”

Thus the lot of the athlete, as Chamberlain notes: “Everybody fails in life. Everybody goes through setbacks in life. But we just happen to fail in front of thousands of people.”

Isaac Chamberlain vs Lawrence Okolie

He’d picked up a knee injury in the first round. It carried on hurting for days. “I thought it was just a swelling and I still couldn’t walk. I went to the doctor. Doctor said, ‘Your knee is broken. It’s been broken. I’m glad you came here in time.’ I was in shock. ‘What do you mean it’s broken? Is it broken broken?’ He was like, ‘it’s broken!’” He cackles at the memory.

After his first loss, he needed to escape and so he jumped on a flight to New York. Then his mum phoned: money appeared to be missing from the fight purse. Chamberlain had always left the finances to his uncle. He calls himself “naive” but quite reasonably observes: “You think you’re supposed to trust somebody like that.”

Bami denied taking the money – and still does today – but Chamberlain has claimed that receipts from Matchroom showed a deficit of more than £10,000. Chamberlain split from the uncle who had guided his entire career. “That’s somebody you’re going to be in your corner with. You’re going to trust them to give you the right advice. How can I trust you and look at you in the eyes when you’ve robbed me?”

Why did Bami steal the money? “I don’t fucking know, bro. He’s greedy, innit? It’s greed. We made a whole lot of money that night. Jeez, we made so much money! I didn’t even realise. It was crazy. Obviously I’m very, very blessed. But that’s when the other problems started coming. Everyone was like, ‘invest into this!’ Especially with the family. And it’s just like, ‘how can you advise me on what to do with my money when you’ve never made it yourself?’” 

The incident made him grow up. “It made me realise I had to take control of my career. Because whatever happens, you’re going to be the only person that has to deal with it. You can’t say, ‘it’s because of my coach, this and that.’ Because you’re the one getting in the ring. You’re the one that’s taking the punches.”

Is he still in contact with his uncle? “No, I don’t really speak to him. I ain’t speaking to him in a while, actually. It is what it is, man. Business and family don’t mix.”

American Nightmare

The British Boxing Board had refused to terminate his contract with Bami (it expired at the start of this year), and Chamberlain refused to make money for a man he believed had stolen his. So he decided to fight in America, where he was a free agent. The money would come: he still remembered his excitement as a novice cruiserweight when Deontay Wilder enlisted him for sparring.

“Wilder would give me two grand a week and some shit. I was like, ‘oh crap! And I ain’t having to sell no drugs!’” 

In America, he wouldn’t have to do anything. He just needed to wait for the right opportunity. And so he waited.

And waited.

Nothing went right. Nothing went anywhere. Promoters offered long contracts for little money. Dates were arranged and then cancelled. Deals were proposed, only to fall through. He finally signed with an American promoter but the promised card fell through, and the promoter was later jailed. Chamberlain spent the last months of 2019 in a Miami gym, training for fights that refused to materialise. No friends. No family. Just him and his fears that the future might never come.

“I was training my arse off,” he says. “I was pushing trucks, I was working tirelessly. I was working so hard. I was sleeping in the fucking gym, bro. I was sleeping in the fucking gym. You see a gym like this? This is fucking luxury compared to the gym I was sleeping in. It was ridiculous. I was getting mosquito bites, I was thinking to myself, ‘what the fuck am I doing?’”

How did he pass the hours? “I’d listen to music. I’d try and call my friends. Do situps. Do you know what the crazy thing is? I would train extra hours just because I didn’t want to go back to where I was staying. Where the gym is, there’s like a café-slash-club at night, and I’d go around the back because I didn’t want nobody see me go in. Sometimes I’d leave the light on, and then I’d hear people go ‘boom! boom! boom!’ [He mimes knocking]. Thinking someone was in. Then I’d have to switch the light off.”

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For the only time in our conversation, Chamberlain’s tone becomes bleak. “I spent Christmas doing fucking nothing!” He checks himself. “Nah, I was in the gym actually. I spent New Year’s doing nothing cos the gyms were closed. On Christmas Day, I’d open Snapchat and see everyone opening presents with their family, and I’m just here eating chicken and avocado and some fucking brown rice. I didn’t spend Christmas with anyone.”

There were times he thought about quitting the sport, or at least promised himself he would think about quitting the sport. But boxing was the only life he knew, and he wasn’t prepared to give up on it. “I don’t want to be that guy who’s like, ‘I could have…’ I don’t want to live with no regrets ever in my life. The fights fell through and I still went to the gym. I was like, ‘am I insane or something? Is there something wrong with me?””

The new year brought a new start (sometimes clichés can be true). His contract with Bami expired, allowing Chamberlain to fight in the UK. He signed a five-year contract with promoter Mick Hennessy, the man who helped Carl Froch and Tyson Fury rise to world champions. As part of the deal, his fights will be broadcast on Channel 5 to a potential audience of millions.

Covid further delayed his return but this time Chamberlain had supporters in his corner. “Mick spoke to me. He was like, ‘you have a plan, you’ll come back.’ Mick is a very, very special person.”

Listening to Chamberlain, it’s clear he’s desperate for the past two years to be part of some greater purpose – but as he’s yet to fully emerge from them, he can only promise himself that this purpose will indeed be proven. “My time will come,” he says softly. “Because I’m working very hard. I’m working really, really hard to make something of myself.”

Later, he is more forthright. He talks of his relentlessness, the implacability fuelled by all those lost and lonely months, a hunger that can only be fed by victory after victory, title upon title . “I need to make everybody fucking choke on their words.” He speaks with stark intent. “Everybody. Everybody.”

Isaac Chamberlain

The Comeback Kid

Two months and two wins later, I catch up with Chamberlain at a tiny private boxing gym in the bowels of Brixton Recreation Centre. He’s asked me to come down – one tends not to ambush professional boxers, especially 6’2 cruiserweights– but there’s a moment of surprise as I emerge through the door, before his face breaks into a grin of recognition.

“I was like, ‘who the fuck’s here?” he cries gleefully to his fitness trainer. “My man just rolled through!”

Once he’s finished off his session – he’s doing mobility work on a sprained ankle, so no skipping, spinning or sparring, but numerous stretches – we sit down and discuss his nascent comeback. It only felt real, he tells me, at 12.01am on Saturday morning. That’s when the notification came up on his phone: Fight Day. “I had to pause for a second. Yo. It’s fucking happening.”

He arrived early to get a feel for the venue and watch his friends on the undercard. “And then I got there and I saw my face on the flipping massive screen – I was like, wow. All of the setbacks, all of the hard work, all of the madness… It was just a lot. I had to sit down.”

For a few moments he fought back tears, overwhelmed. “The endorsements, the money, all of that is whatever. But the fact that I was able to properly get back in the ring and do what I love? There’s no feeling like it, man. There’s no feeling like it. I t felt so good. It felt like a breath of fresh air. It was like a big sigh. At last.

“Warming up, getting ready, I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as I can. I wanted to take my time warming up. I was taking my time warming up, I was wrapping. I just wanted it to keep going for longer so I could embrace the feeling again. Embrace the feeling of getting ready and planning what you’re going to do in your head.”

The fight itself was a wild affair that Chamberlain won by third round TKO. How did it feel when the referee stopped it? “When you’re in the ring, it’s kinda like you’re in the zone so you don’t really feel normal emotion. You don’t really feel any highs and lows. You’re just like, the job has to be done. The job has to be done.”

He’s sitting on the floor but he can’t help shadowboxing as he talks me through the fight. “It’s like a Maths equation. How’s he coming out? How does he block the jab? I’m hitting him with a fast jab, I’m feinting, how’s he reacting?

“I hit him to the body one time and I heard him go, ‘urgh’ – obviously you can hear it really loud with no crowd. In my head I was like, yeah I’ve got him. Set him up, set him up, boom, boom, boom, boom – knocked him out.”

He hired a nutritionist for the next fight. Felt better than ever. Finished it in the first minute.

“He wasn’t really strong on the inside, I knew I could handle myself… I put my hand in front of him to blind his vision, so when he was throwing the left hook to the body I caught it here. [He pats his forearm.] Catch and shoot, right on his chin. That’s when he wobbled… OK, he’s opened up the middle. So I set it up with the jab: boom, uppercut! Boom, boom, boom, boom! … That’s when it really hit him, his head was spinning back… I wanted to go to the body but the ref just jumped in. Crazy!”

 

The night was bittersweet owing to defeats for stablemates Alex Dilmaghani and Michael Hennessy Jnr. “I was speaking to Mick Jnr a whole lot. I know what it’s like to take a loss and how it feels… It’s about how to look into your own character, and come back. That takes a lot of a man. I had to flip and go America!”

The coming months will be exciting ones for Chamberlain, both inside and outside the ring. Media coverage has been extensive – everyone loves a comeback – and there’s no doubt Chamberlain has the personality to become a bonafide star of the sport. He’s due to fight for an WBC International Belt at the end of the year. Win that and a world title shot is a very real possibility.

That story yet to be written: for now, he’s just happy to be back. It would be wrong to describe Chamberlain as a changed man from our first meeting but the bitterness that occasionally surfaced has gone completely. I mention his stated desire to make critics choke on their words. Not anymore, he says. His only focus is on himself and those who matter to him. There’s no space for negative energy.

“Everyone’s going to talk. People say cos you’re knocking guys out that you can’t go the distance. If you go the distance, people say you can’t punch. You could walk on water and people say it’s cos you can’t swim.

“Everyone will always have an opinion, everyone will always say stuff. But as long as you stay true to yourself and the people that care about you, there’s only one way and that’s to the top.”

I wonder, will Chamberlain one day see his long exile as a positive? “Definitely,” he says. “Definitely. That was the making of me. It definitely showed how bad I wanted it. It was definitely the making of me. If I can get through that, I can get through anything.

“I want it bad, man. I have to be a champion. With all of this stuff that I’ve gone through, how can I not? How can I not?”

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Chamberlain will fight on Saturday 14 November live on Channel 5. He talks about his diet, training and mental health on the Numan Talks series. 

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