“I thank God every day for letting me have a go at this game called life and I’m so fortunate for what it has given me so far.”
Those were the words uttered by Darren Barker from his Paddington, London gym, appropriately named “12×3,” as he took some time out to talk with Hannibal Boxing.
However, the route to success didn’t come easy despite being surrounded by a family steeped in boxing. Barker explained, “My dad used to box. My earliest memories were messing about with him in the kitchen sparring. I can’t remember life before boxing in all honesty. He was ABA champion, winning the junior and senior ABAs [Amateur Boxing Association tournament] in the same year  at the age of seventeen, but he never pushed me into it, because he knew how tough a sport it is and wanted me to make my own decisions.
“When I got to about eleven years old, I made the decision to go down to my local amateur boxing club, which was Finchley ABC. I went down there a few times and then it became a regular thing. I used to get the bus down there and my mum used to give me two quid. A pound to cover the subs to get into the club, thirty pence on the bus there, thirty pence to get back and forty pence for a drink. I started going twice a week.
“I picked it up fairly quickly. I guess you could say it was in my blood. It wasn’t long before I had my medical and got my amateur card. I remember going back home and telling my dad that I was carded and he became my number-one fan.”
Barker progressed at an impressive rate. He moved from Finchley ABC to Repton Boys Club in Bethnal Green, winning fifty-five of his sixty-eight amateur contests. He represented England, became a Multi Nations champion, an NABC (National Amateur Boxing Championship) champion, leading to his greatest achievement, light welterweight gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
However, it wasn’t just Dazzling” Darren who was filling up the cabinet with silverware. His younger brother, Gary, not only matched but exceeded his accomplishments. Barker gave us insight into Gary’s pedigree. “He was better at everything, not just boxing. He was one of those annoying kids that was just good at everything! I think the Americans would call him a “Jock.” I’m not just saying that because he’s not with us now, because everyone who knew him would tell you the same. He picked everything up so quickly and boxing was one of those things. He was a great footballer but, like myself, was more of an individual sportsman and very competitive.
“When I joined the Repton he came with me, which was nice because boxing is a very lonely sport. Yes, you’re part of a boxing club in an environment full of people, but you’re pretty much on your own. No one is going to help you when you’re in the ring. When my brother started, it was nice to have someone there just for a bit of moral support, someone I could talk to and also help each other out. We were very close anyway, but we bonded a lot more through boxing.
“When he won the Junior Olympics in 2002, I was so proud of him. He was out in Louisiana I think, and there were some really good kids in the show. Kids who went on to become really good pros. He also won the youth Commonwealth games, national titles, and kind of cleared up. He was on a very good path and everything was going well for him.”
Barker turned professional on September 24, 2004, and in just over two years had accumulated a 14-0 record, including the Southern Area middleweight title. Just when things couldn’t get much better, a catastrophic disaster struck. Barker recalls the events which took place on December 10, 2006. “We’d been out the night before. We’d been invited to a show in Essex which was run by Tony Sims. We all went down, me, my mum, dad, and Gary. We had a good evening. I’d fought a couple of days before and so had Gary, so it was a bit of a celebration as we’d both won.
“All of our friends were up in the West End, so when we left this show, me and Gary decided to go home, get ready and meet the lads up west. It was late by now. We went up and had a good time, but it was a strange sort of night in the sense that we’d been together for all of it and when we got to this club, me and my brother branched off and spent the night hanging out. It was almost as if someone was telling us it was going to be our last time together.
“My brother wanted to drive to Leicester to see his girlfriend because he hadn’t been drinking. I said, “Go in the morning, Gal. It’s been a long old day and night.” My brother said, “Alright. I’ll go in the morning. But he never did. He got in his car, drove and fell asleep at the wheel.”
“I was living with my nan and grandad at the time, because there was five of us in a bedroom at my parents. They lived a couple of doors away, so it made sense to be staying with them. I was there for seven years in fact.
“I remember my grandad waking me up in the morning in a real panic saying, ‘Gary’s had an accident, he’s had an accident. Quick, get up, get up.’ My family are worriers. If I sneeze, they panic. I didn’t think it was anything bad. It wasn’t until we got in the car and started driving up to the hospital and we got to the M1 as far as Luton and realized it was chock-a-block. Everything was at a standstill, with everyone stood outside their cars. Then I really panicked. That’s when I knew something really bad had happened.
“We got to the hospital and we were asked by the nurse who we were. I said, ‘We’re here to see Gary Barker,’ and he said, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Darren Barker, I’m his brother and this is his grandad.’ I then remember walking into a room and my mum and dad were sat there. My dad looked at me and said, ‘He’s gone. He’s not with us anymore.’
“That’s when my life changed forever.”
For the next ten months, Barker didn’t fight. He was a lost soul with an indefinite future. “I didn’t even think about boxing at that point,” Barker recalled. “It was carnage. It was months and months of carnage. Me going out, drinking, drowning my sorrows, going out to bars and clubs, having fights. I had no respect for anyone, including myself. I didn’t care about anything. I was so pissed off that my brother had gone. I was pissed off with life, I was generally in a bad way. I thought, “My brother’s not fighting. I’m not fighting.”
“Tony Sims helped me a lot and was very sensitive about what had happened. After a few months passed I said, “Sod it. What else am I going to do? Get back in the ring and earn a few quid.” But I didn’t have the same mentality towards it that I had previously. I was literally going to fight to earn money.
“I went down to the gym, started warming up, then hitting the pads with Tony. I couldn’t contain the tears. Tony said, ‘Look. You can’t do this at the minute mate. You’re not in the right frame of mind.’ He had a friend of his who was seeing this guy, a therapist, a life coach if you like, and Tony advised me to see him and I said, ‘OK,’ but I had no intention of going. Tony knew that, so he got his mate to drive me to the door and his mate walked me in. This guy helped me get back on the path. It took a lot of sessions, clearing out the wound of my brother dying and starting to respect myself a little bit more. Also, it was about looking at boxing with a different thought process. Not to do it for myself, but to do it for my brother. I was now thinking, ‘If I can’t do it with my brother, I’ll do it for him.’ That was another turning point of my life. I became obsessed with achieving my goals now, which were titles.”
Under the strict instruction and guidance of trainer and manager Sims, Barker went down the traditional route, successfully picking up every belt from the ground upwards, a feat often leapfrogged by many fighters today. Barker recalled the journey, “It was very special, and I was very proud of it. I know Tony was also proud because I remember when I sat down with him the first day that I signed with him and he looked at me and said, ‘Darren, this is how I plan to guide you in your career. Southern Area, British, Commonwealth, European, and world title.’
“I remember looking at him thinking, ‘Flippin ’eck.’ Tony then said, ‘I’ve seen you in the gym and you’re doing things I’ve never seen people do before. All geniuses are lunatics and you’re a genius and also a lunatic. You’re mad.’ That was it. From then on I trained with a pure obsession to want to achieve all those titles for my brother.”
By 2011, he’d amassed the entire collection, bar the world title. Then came his opportunity to take on Sergio Martinez on October 1, 2011, at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Barker recalls the bout against the talented Argentinian. “As a competitive fighter, he was definitely my toughest opponent. He wasn’t the hardest puncher, but very clever and the most experienced fighter I encountered. The game plan was to frustrate him and get the crowd against him. By the midway point, as the younger man, it was for me to turn the screw, but that didn’t work. He didn’t allow me to do it. Whether that was down to experience or being a better fighter, he was able to do it and move it up a level. I learnt a lot from it but it also made me realize I could mix it up with an elite level fighter. After that fight, even though I lost [eleventh round stoppage], my stock went up and I knew people would remember my name.”
Barker bounced back from his first defeat with gusto. On December 8, 2012, he stopped Kerry Hope in four rounds and three months later, Simone Rotolo was forced to retire after four rounds, allowing Barker to pick up the IBF Inter-Continental middleweight trinket, moving him one step closer to the world strap.
Then came the news he wanted to hear. He’d be taking on the defending IBF middleweight world champion Daniel Geale of Australia, on August 17, 2013, back in Atlantic City. Barker was quick to dismiss any doubts about returning to the city which provided him with his first blemish on his professional record. “It was more about redemption. Getting an equalizer if you like, against Atlantic City. I had fond memories of AC when we went the first time, but, ultimately, I got beaten by a better man. It’s sport. It happens. I wasn’t too hard on myself. Going back this time around I was comfortable. I had this mad driving force and obsession going into this one. I just couldn’t see anyone beating me. I really was that confident.”
The fight was close and competitive, providing the toe-to-toe action that fight fans love. Then came that punch, the most painful of his career. Barker explains, “In all fairness, we knew Daniel Geale was a top fighter. I knew him from the amateurs. He was in the world championships with me, he won the Commonwealth Games at welterweight when I won at light welter. People gave Daniel a lot of stick, but he was a good fighter. He was awkward, busy, had a good engine, and had beaten some good fighters along the way.
“The fight was going to plan. I was up on the scorecards and knew it was going to be tight. I walked out for the sixth round, moved around, and then about halfway through the round I’ve thrown a right hand and got caught with this shot [a left hook to the body] and was thinking I was absolutely gone. We’ve all been winded before, but I hadn’t been winded for an awful long time and kind of forgot what the feeling was like.
“I dropped onto my knees and kicked my legs on the canvas thinking, ‘Come on. Get up.’ The best way I can describe it is like having that devil and angel on your shoulders. One saying, ‘Stay down, stay down. You’re hurt. Don’t bother. You’re only going to get up and take more punishment’; and then the other side saying, ‘Come on. Do it for your brother.’
“As that was all happening and I’m in excruciating pain, I had images of my daughter who was nearly a year old and then I had glimpses of my brother saying, ‘Get up! You’re almost there, mate. Get up! Get up!’ In that nine and a half seconds it seemed like nine and a half hours. It was incredible. The devil and the angel were battling it out and the angel won. My brother won. I said to myself, ‘Just get up,’ and I did. I was under the cosh for about another thirty seconds, but I was able to fight back.”
Barker went on to win a split decision, achieved his goal, and fulfilled his promise to Gary.
Despite having been riddled with injuries for his last few fights, he put his title on the line against Felix Sturm less than four months after becoming champion. Barker explained why he decided to go ahead with the contest, despite not being fighting fit. “I didn’t want to pull out. I felt bad for everyone who had booked flights and hotels, who were never going to get their money back, so I didn’t want to let them down. It was also a career high payday. I would have had to have four or five defenses to earn that money. I had a young family, so I had to take it. I had terrible hips and elbows by this stage of my career, but I still thought I could beat Sturm easily, even though my hip had gone about a month before. I came out second best that night and that’s just the way it goes.”
Coach Sims threw in the towel in the second round after his charge hit the canvas twice and was struggling to stand. That signified the end of his professional boxing career.
A reflective Barker signed off with a smile, happy with his achievements in the square ring. “I’m more than content! I’ve been retired over five years and you start to reflect on your career a little bit more. One of the first things I was proud of was winning the world title and dedicating that to my brother. That’s still my proudest moment.”