Brixton cruiser Isaac Chamberlain tells Danny Flexen how hard work trumps clever marketing, and why it will be too much for rival Lawrence Okolie
SOME so-called rivalries appear conspicuously contrived. The elaborate tales of yesteryear sparring lack detail and supporting evidence, while the reciprocal glares and insults fail to convey convincing venom or antipathy. Today’s casual fan, so the story goes, laps up these fake feuds, leading to increased ticket sales and skyrocketing buyrates on pay-per-view platforms. The hardcore fraternity, meanwhile, invariably see through the shenanigans and denounce them as the cheap marketing ploys they really are.
So it is somewhat refreshing to note that, despite the pair not yet being slated to meet, Isaac Chamberlain appears to sincerely dislike his fellow undefeated cruiserweight and potential future opponent, Lawrence Okolie. Better still, this enmity derives less from any specific slight but instead the type of boxer 2016 Olympian Okolie represents to Chamberlain. This, from “Chambo’s” perspective, is a clash of personalities and he makes a compelling case to that effect.
“I beat Russ Henshaw who was 6-0, I got a dislocated shoulder against Wadi Camacho and come back strong to win and I still don’t get the recognition I deserve,” he says quietly, with ostensible calm failing to conceal an undertone of resentment. “Lawrence is undefeated now [at 3-0], they’re giving him all this good stuff [publicity] and he doesn’t even deserve it. My time will come very soon. It’s gonna take longer for people like me coz I don’t have an Olympic background, but I feel I’ll be better in the end. I’m selling 400-500 tickets per fight, I’m doing everything that is meant to be done. There are people that know boxing that are like, ‘Wow Isaac, you’re a serious fighter,’ but I feel I have to do more than the average.
“My development has been obsessed with trying to be better. Sometimes I’ll be in the gym after everyone else has gone. I kinda think it’s coz I’m not telling people, ‘F*** your mum, I’m gonna knock you out.’ I promised myself I’m not gonna let this game change me, there’s other stuff I want to do after boxing as well. I’m a humble, grounded, down-to-earth person. When a fighter’s boxing ability don’t stand out they have to talk to make themselves stand out.”
The sense of entitlement Chamberlain ascribes to Olympians is certainly an effective motivational tool. His own background, set against the crime-ridden streets of 2000s Brixton, sounds a world away from any kind of privilege. The oldest of eight children, Isaac was raised by a single mother in a top floor flat on the low-rise Loughborough Estate. Role models were rife on the wrong side of the law but sourcing more honourable inspiration and encouragement was altogether more challenging. The boxing gym, as it often does, offered salvation, but only after a family tragedy, when Isaac was just 12, proved the catalyst.
“There was lots of gang violence, my mum took me to the gym because my cousin, he had just passed his GCSEs, he was involved in a gang,” Chamberlain explains slowly and gravely. The tale will be familiar to anyone who has viewed Straight Outta Brixton, the engrossing Sky Sports documentary on Isaac.
“The same day he got his results, he went out to a nightclub and had an argument with a rival gang. They were like, ‘Yeah, watch, we’re coming back’, and they came back with knives and stuff, there was a scuffle and he got stabbed in his heart, he died.
“It was a really sad time for my family and they didn’t want me going down that route. It was like a fashionable thing to be involved in gangs, you’d see them in mad cars, with all their stuff, and be like, ‘I wanna be like that, how did he get that?’ and they got those things obviously through robberies and drugs, stuff like that. Boxing saved me, that usual clichéd story.”
Miguel’s, where Chamberlain still trains, was the local boxing club in question and their trainers were quick to offer Isaac – and, unbeknownst to him, several other young aspirants – the self-esteem boost he sorely needed.
“I kept at it because when I was young, teachers and stuff never told me anything like, that I could believe in myself,” he recalls, warming to the theme. “Coaches in the gym always say, ‘He can be a world champ,’ even if they’re wack, rubbish. I lapped it up coz I’d never heard it anywhere. Telling me I could be something, I was coming back so I could keep hearing these words; little did I know they tell this to everyone.”
Despite starting relatively young, Chamberlain only had “six or seven” amateur bouts, but virtually lived in Miguel’s. As chaos continued around him, Isaac stuck zealously to his task – although he did come perilously close to taking an alternative route. The dark underbelly of Brixton life was almost unavoidable.
“It was a very good experience [sparring Anthony Joshua], jabbing his body was like jabbing the wall, he’s a very solid fighter. Everyone had been trying to outbox him so I went inside and tried to smother him, coz if you push him back… obviously he’s better now, but then he didn’t really know what to do.”
“I was very close actually, there are times where you wanna be accepted, they give you stuff to sell but you don’t know what you’re doing,” he recalls of the neighbourhood faces. “I was about 14, you don’t know the harm that you’re doing. You look up to these guys, they call you their ‘little bro’ and give you stuff to sell, but they’re just using you. One time the police came stopping and searching and I was nearly arrested; I had to run for my life.”
Just as he eschewed the allure of the road, Chamberlain was equally determined that his lack of competitive amateur experience would not prove an obstacle to progression. He has sparred two of the three current world heavyweight champions and recently returned from Poland, where he swapped blows with, among others, respected native cruiser Mateusz Masternak.
“[Anthony] Joshua was training for [his one-round victory over Matt Legg on the Carl] Froch-[George] Groves II show,” the 23-year-old explains. Chamberlain was still eight months away from his own pro debut. “It was a very good experience, jabbing his body was like jabbing the wall, he’s a very solid fighter. Everyone had been trying to outbox him so I went inside and tried to smother him, coz if you push him back… obviously he’s better now, but then he didn’t really know what to do.”
The Wilder recollection leads to a more detailed anecdote, which began with the American’s team hoping to guide Isaac’s fledgling professional career, before his uncle and former European super-lightweight champion Ted Bami offered his counsel.
“I was gonna turn pro in America,” he reveals in ‘no, really’ fashion. “My mum told Ted [her brother] and he asked, ‘How much are they paying you?’ They were gonna give me $400 for my debut and he lost the plot – ‘Don’t sign that contract!’ He said, ‘If you wanna turn pro’ – coz once in a while he would give me a few words of advice – ‘come with me, we’ll try and sort out something.’
“Wilder’s team still wanted to use me for sparring. I was s***ting bricks. Everyone I’m gonna spar, I look at them on YouTube, and with Wilder it was just knockout highlights; at that time he was knocking out everyone.
“The first time I sparred with him I was surprised I was catching him so much. I thought, ‘Let me hold back the power in case he tries to lamp me with a right hand.’ I saw a lot of people get knocked out then it was, ‘Isaac, your turn.’ I was like, ‘S***’. But I did well and the next day they only wanted to use me and all the other sparring partners were like, ‘Thank you Isaac.’ I threw a jab, he stepped back and threw an uppercut that made me re-evaluate if I still wanted to pursue a career in the sport! I thought I was back in London. But I got a bonus as well.”
“Okolie put his head down when they mentioned my name. He calls me out because he sees me as his biggest threat. I’ve known him since I was 16, we sparred then and just had a tear-up. I was super-middle, he was heavyweight, we just went for it. He said, ‘No excuses but I was unfit,’ all of that.”
All of this seasoning has enabled Chamberlain to take on tough opponents within his seven-contest story-so-far, including the aforementioned Camacho who Isaac outscored to win the Southern Area belt – despite the dislocated shoulder he popped back in himself after suffering the injury in the third of their 10 rounds. The Brixton man has since relinquished that strap but has far loftier aims, most notably to become Britain’s best ever cruiserweight which, given Sheffield’s Johnny Nelson shares the division’s all-time world title defence record, is quite an ambition. Before that, however, big domestic matches come into view, most notably against Okolie, currently 3-0. Both men feature on Matchroom’s O2 Arena show next weekend (Saturday, July 1), allowing Chamberlain to return to his favourite and least favourite subject.
“I thought it was a promoter’s job to promote but I kinda think you have to promote yourself a lot more, in terms of ticket sales,” he begins, engine revving gently. “With Matchroom you literally have to do everything yourself unless you’re Joshua, Kell Brook or whoever, you have to create that fanbase. For Olympic guys it’s easier coz they have some sort of platform, and they can promote the s*** out of it. Coz I’m coming from nothing I have to sell tickets and fight hard. They’re either testing me or trying to throw me away. Like Ben Hall [losing in November] against Carson Jones, I felt like they threw him away. There are a few they’re trying to throw away coz they’ve got too many boxers. I was on that list but I kept winning.
“Not too long ago Lawrence came to my gym, he didn’t even make eye contact. I was doing some sort of yoga, him and all his boys came, I was by myself, he did five or 10 minutes near the end. After he was done, he took his top off and was like, ‘Let’s take a picture; but I see the hype is not real, he was trying to sell s***, but I’m not buying it.
“He’s 6ft 6ins, a big cruiser. They’re trying to build a project like Joshua, a knockout machine, but he’s been fighting garbage and there’s only so much muscle he can put on before that starts to be an issue for him in terms of conditioning in the later rounds – which is when I come on strong. He’s chinny as well, they deleted that clip of him and [Okolie’s Olympic conqueror Erislandy] Savon where he knocked him out cold [in a previous meeting]. He’s all saying he’s gonna knock me out in one round or whatever, but when the real fight happens and it goes past the six rounds – when you’ve got used to the opponent’s power which is not as sharp as in the first round, and his rhythm, their movement patterns, they’re not as strong in the clinches – all of that will play into my favour.
“I watched the IFL interview with Lawrence and Eddie. Eddie was talking about big fights for Lawrence then switched it to Okolie vs Wadi. Okolie put his head down when they mentioned my name. He calls me out because he sees me as his biggest threat. I’ve known him since I was 16, we sparred then and just had a tear-up. I was super-middle, he was heavyweight, we just went for it. He said, ‘No excuses but I was unfit,’ all of that. We would sometimes talk on Facebook, but it full-stopped in the year before I turned pro.”
Chamberlain is confident Matchroom will not place he and Okolie in the same changing room at the O2. But their paths may well be destined to cross in the not-too-distant future, when the irresistible force of Olympic pedigree meets the immovable object from the school of hard knocks. Isaac is sure well-earned substance will overcome what he perceives as superficial style. Whatever the result, as least we know theirs will be a genuine grudge match.