All images, credit Ernest Simons (@ErnestSimons).
5:15 a.m., Tuesday November 19, 2019, London
Isaac Chamberlain sits alone in his apartment. After another restless night, with little sleep, the distressing thoughts take hold of him again. In February 2018 he headlined at London’s O2 Arena and suffered his only defeat in eleven fights. He is still haunted by the pain of losing to Lawrence Okolie, his bitter local rival, and the aftermath of money being stolen from him. Chamberlain’s victory over Luke Watkins last October helped a little but his comeback stalled. He has not fought for thirteen months. The usual complications of boxing have dragged him down.
Chamberlain reaches for his phone. Remembering our interview from four days earlier, and everything he told me, the twenty-five-year-old cruiserweight opens up his WhatsApp. He begins to type a long message to me. The first word he writes is Hell.
It used to feel different. Championed by Deontay Wilder, who wanted to sign him, and regularly called into Oleksandr Usyk’s camp to provide the Ukrainian with fast and ferocious sparring, Chamberlain took easily to professional boxing.
Despite the bruising disappointments of the last twenty-one months he is a far better boxer now. Chamberlain is working with new trainers, Jorge Rubio and Angel Fernandez, and he has just agreed to a $1.2 million sponsorship deal that makes him one of the richest young prospects in British boxing. He is about to start his own promotional company and Al Haymon is also interested in him. So much is happening—but hardly anyone knows what has happened to him.
Until he can get back in the ring, this seemingly endless limbo will keep on suffocating him.
His American debut, which was meant to happen this Saturday night, November 23, is off after yet more problems with a promoter. Chamberlain is waiting for confirmation that he will fight in Minnesota in January. It should happen; but the uncertainty is killing.
He writes to me. The words are dark and heavy but they still flow. Isaac has always been able to write—and the words pour out of him.
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. Sitting here trying to do normal everyday human things seems pointless until this fight is locked in. Yet again I find myself back at square one. The strange thing is I wished to get to the position that I’m in now, but little did I know the hell that I would have to endure. I’m not talking about the physical and all you can see. I’m talking about something much more detrimental and lingering. The hell in your mind. I honestly can’t stand the quiet whistling sound that I hear, when it’s silent in my room and it’s pitch black, as I’m writing this at 5:18 a.m. I never think I should quit. I just can’t. But the hell of inactivity has taken its toll and I’m tired of hearing the fake promises from promoters and so-called people that have my back. They might actually mean it but hopefulness has been squeezed out of me by the strong grip of disappointment. I get through my days by living a third person view, as if I’m a guy at the cinema watching myself live my life. As if, subconsciously, someone is always watching me looking up to me. At times like this, I wonder if the demons in my mind have been staring at me this whole time.
In the short time I have known him, I have forged admiration and respect for Isaac. I worry about him, reading his text, and we swap messages. We agree that we should meet again at his home.
A couple of days later, the seemingly tormented man who texted me at 5.18 a.m. has gone. He is now calm and serene. “It’s better to express the feelings you have in those dark moments, rather than bottling them up,” he says. “I feel better when I write everything down.”
I have read Isaac’s writing from the past few months. At his recent training camp in Miami conditions were so barren that, without any Wi-Fi, he simply worked, read, wrote and slept on a tiny bed which eventually collapsed and left him with just a mattress. We discuss whether to share his writing, including the above text, and Isaac is emphatic.
“Tell everyone the whole story, boss,” he urges me. “I want them to understand. I’m ready to bare my soul.”
Six days earlier we meet first at the office of TCA—a slick urban clothing company Chamberlain has always loved and which has been one of his most loyal sponsors. It helps to be backed by an outfit whose clothes he used to buy online long before he approached them. We’re in Islington, at the Design Centre, and the building has been taken over by stalls selling Christmas decorations. Piped festive music echoes around us, promising Christmas cheer. But, in a small room at TCA, Chamberlain is oblivious to the jingle and the jangle outside.
“I’ve got so much to tell you,” he says in his engaging way.
Islington is in North London. Chamberlain comes from South London, from Brixton, a part of the capital that was once a gritty corner of black life. Does he recognize the Brixton of his youth whenever he goes back home now? “No. It’s totally gentrified. Brixton has changed big time. Everyone’s in jail.”
We laugh but Chamberlain shakes his head. “It’s true. They chucked everyone in jail and gentrified it. Brixton is different now, even if it looks exactly the same. It’s always been home, though.”
His mother was seventeen when she gave birth to him. Life was not easy but now, Chamberlain says, “I’m always speaking to my mum. No one’s going to love you like your mother.”
What about his dad? “What’s dat?” Chamberlain says with a wry smile. “There’s no dad here. My stepdad is the legal guy.”
Did he ever meet his biological father? “Yeah. I remember my real dad would come home drunk, and obviously there were fucking fistfights. My mum would have the upper hand because she could fucking throw her hands. He left when I was four years old. It’s crazy. I saw him last year at his brother’s funeral. That was my uncle who took me to Alabama [to spar with Wilder]. My real father was there. I don’t know if he wanted me to come up to him and be like, ‘Hey dad’. No, he can’t try to be in my life now. It’s too late. When I needed you, where were you? All the stuff that you were supposed to teach me I’ve learned myself. There’s not really anything you can offer me right now.”
Chamberlain does not sound consumed with bitterness. Instead, he explains the stark details of his early years. Gangs and drugs loomed over him. Chamberlain nods when I ask if he took this dark path as a fearful way to some form of acceptance. “I definitely did. The elders manipulate you. They say, ‘Look at my jewelry. You can get this as well.’”
He pauses, his face clouding. “I ain’t told nobody this. You’re getting something new. So they bring you to this house. And they give you little pebbles of stuff to go sell to this guy.”
“Yeah. Heroin, cocaine, crack. I’m eleven, twelve. They would give you crack and say, ‘Go to this store.’ You act like you’re going to shake their hand. Then you just get out of there. You would make £10 or £20 and get some chicken and chips. They said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to get the big ones.’ You realize you’re pushing a lot more, but you ain’t getting nothing. And it’s like, ‘Hold on. I don’t want to do this.’
Was he scared?
“You’re only scared when you see the police. Fuck, your heart wants to drop on the floor. One time we went to pick up this big bag of coke. I put it down my trousers and we get off the bus on the way home. We see police doing stop-and-search. That was the last time I done it because my heart jumped out my chest. I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to prison.’ I ran for my life. They were chasing me but I didn’t stop running. Then I went round these corners, I went up the estates.”
Did he dump the drugs? “No. If I dump it, [the dealers] are after me. So I put it in my friend’s house. He took care of it. I got home and went to shower. There were drugs down my leg because I’d put it in my trousers. I had to wash it all up, and I thought: ‘I’m not doing this again.’ They [the gangsters] kept trying to call me. I never answered. I had found boxing by then. That helped me get out.”
Chamberlain smiles, with a sweet ache, as he remembers the salvation of boxing. “I started boxing at eleven because my cousin got stabbed in the heart and it was a very sad time for everybody. He was fifteen and he died. He got stabbed at Kennington [another area of South London]. Brixton had a beef with Kennington. My mum brought me to the gym because she could see I was going down that direction. I didn’t want to become a product of my environment. I was sick of hanging out with guys who were up to no good.”
His face lights up with a kind of joy. “When I started boxing I was just obsessed with it. The reason why I kept doing it is because, before boxing, nobody ever told me, ‘Isaac, you can be something.’ Until I went to the boxing gym I got no words of encouragement. No teachers, no parents at home. No one.”
Not even his mother? “No. She was a child herself. Obviously, the stuff that’s happened between me and her I don’t take personally. I couldn’t understand it then but she was growing up herself. But, man, boxing was so different. Even if you were crap the coaches would say, ‘You can be really good.’ I was like, ‘Wow. I really like these words of encouragement.’ That’s why I kept coming back, to keep hearing that encouragement.”
Chamberlain made his pro debut in late January 2015 but he had already shared serious sparring sessions with Wilder in Alabama. Wilder was a seasoned 32-0 heavyweight and, that same month, he would become the WBC world champion when he defeated Bermane Stiverne in Las Vegas. It must have been daunting, as a novice cruiserweight, to face such a powerful heavyweight? “I was ready, bro,” Chamberlain says with a grin. “When I sparred him he was preparing for Stiverne and they wanted me for the speed. I saw him knock out lots of guys in the gym before I stepped in there. The first time I sparred him I did so well they changed their plans. The next day they said to the other sparring partners, ‘OK, guys we’re only using Isaac today.’ Those guys were smiling and saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ They still got paid while I did the work.”
Did he taste Wilder’s power? Chamberlain winces. “Bro, that power! I sparred Anthony Joshua too and they have different kinds of power. Joshua is like a sledgehammer hitting you. Wilder is more lethal—like a sniper. But I did well and used my speed against Wilder. Going in and out with my footwork, using angles. Before the second session, they’d studied me because they had recorded the first spar. I’m trying to fake down low, and go up. He would go down low to get me and I would catch him. The second time, instead of going down, he’d step back. I went in, because obviously I couldn’t reach him. He’s very long and tall. So I tried to extend it a bit too far. He stepped back and then, bam, nailed me with this uppercut.”
Chamberlain smacks his fist into his open hand and throws back his head at the sound of that ‘Bam!’ His eyes widen. “I thought I was back in London! I don’t know how I stayed up on my feet.”
Who is the better fighter—Wilder or Joshua? “It’s hard to say because I sparred Joshua in 2011. He was still an amateur while Wilder, in 2015, was about to become world champion. But Joshua, even then, was so compact. Jabbing his body was like jabbing the wall. And he has sledgehammer hands. With Wilder, nobody really realizes his speed. He’s very explosive. Bam-bam! If you get hit with a jab, you know the right hand’s coming through straight afterwards.”
He and Wilder became friends and, as Chamberlain says, “Before I turned pro he and his team were going to sign me. They always loved my skill. I got on very well with them and they really took to me in Alabama.”
It sounds as if Chamberlain also enjoyed his two trips to Ukraine to spar with Usyk. “He’s so cool,” he says of 2018’s Fighter of the Year who has now moved up to heavyweight. “He’s always making jokes in the gym. And we got on very well because I was his best sparring partner. I always ask, ‘What do you think I can do better?’ He used to give me advice the first time. Then once I started to get really competitive, I’ll ask him, ‘What do I need to work on?’ He would smile and say, ‘Nothing. You’re good.’”
Chamberlain had already proved his courage. In his only his sixth pro fight, in September 2016, he faced the experienced Wadi Camacho. It was a real test for a twenty-two-year-old and Chamberlain’s task seemed almost impossible when he dislocated his shoulder in the third round. He refused to quit and, instead, fought on and insisted that his trainer, his uncle Ted Bami, should try to work his right arm back into its shoulder socket. Chamberlain’s grit helped him win a brutal fight over ten rounds. It was British boxing’s Fight of the Year.
“I used to watch Wadi when he won Prizefighter and I was about sixteen. I watched so many tapes of him and suddenly boxing Wadi made me think: ‘Oh, wow, this is weird. My idol’s become my rival.’ It was quite cagey to start and then, man, we had that infamous third round. I wobbled him a bit at the start of that round with a straight right. He regained his composure and I’m just tapping the head, tapping the body. Then when I threw that big right hand I did it with such force. The sweat was flying and it slid off his head and my shoulder popped. The pain was disgusting. It was excruciating. He came rushing at me and I couldn’t lift my arm. I’m clinching, moving my head, thinking, ‘Why me? I worked so hard for this big chance.’ And then midway through the fight I think, ‘I ain’t losing. This guy hasn’t knocked me out yet. Use the jab. Fucking win this.’ All the time, in the corner, I’m telling my uncle to work the shoulder back into the socket. I’m telling the officials, ‘Look, I’m OK.’ Everyone was around me screaming, ‘Just pull him out. We’ll get a rematch.’ I said, ‘Bollocks. You ain’t stopping it.’ I don’t know what the hell came over me. I was fucking mad.
“He nailed me with some big shots but you have to accept the consequences. I only forced myself to use it again when they said they would stop it if I kept my right arm down. I just placed my arm, rather than punched with it, and the pain was still excruciating. But I thought, ‘I’m on him. I’m going to break his spirit, I’m going to break his heart.’ He was looking at me like, ‘This guy is fucking insane.’ I was mentally relentless. He had more knockouts than I’d had fights but you can’t measure my heart.”
The fire and resolve Chamberlain showed that night was strangely missing from the most important fight of his career. His battle with Lawrence Okolie was hyped heavily by Eddie Hearn as a grudge match between two unbeaten London rivals. The whole depressing experience for Chamberlain, in just his tenth fight, scarred him.
“I had my best sparring session two weeks before,” Chamberlain says. “Twelve rounds and I destroyed all the sparring partners. I felt amazing. I should have tailed off my training then because I was ready but my Uncle Ted kept flogging me. I started to get so tired because I was running eight miles in the morning and sparring after that. I was telling him, ‘Listen, I’m tired.’ He was like, ‘Nah, that’s part of the process.’ I trusted his experience instead of my own body. The weigh-in came and I looked in immense shape. But I was still tired.
“On the day of the fight I’m looking outside the window and seeing big posters of me headlining the O2. I was like, ‘I did this. Shit.’ I hadn’t slept much. I was pissing a lot all night. Now I’ve grown a lot but then I didn’t feel in control. There were so many people around me that I thought, ‘I don’t even know who these people are.’ Everyone’s on Snapchat. ‘Yo, I’m with the champ!’ I didn’t say anything because I wouldn’t want to upset anyone. I should’ve been more selfish. I should’ve gone, ‘Guys, fuck off. I’m the one going in there.’”
After our first interview Chamberlain sends me a selection of photographs. One captures the young boxer sitting alone in his dressing room, hood up, hands tucked in his pockets, the listless isolation framing him.
Chamberlain, again showing his writing ability, added this message:
“I think this picture affects me the most. The changing room as soon as I arrived to the O2 for the Okolie fight. You could see my head was filled with everyone else’s thoughts but mine. A young man that has just turned 23. Not knowing the pressure he was under because he gave all his thoughts to the people around him. And none for himself. To the point there was no room for nervousness, no room for doubts. Such a weird feeling that I’ll never want to experience again. Having no control of my destiny whatsoever.”
Chamberlain shakes his head. “I was there, but I wasn’t there,” he says simply. “There were so many people around me and my uncle was bragging to his friends: ‘Hey, look, my nephew headlining the O2 and I got him here.’ He had his son playing table tennis in the changing room. Bouncing the ball everywhere. How the hell can I focus? When the Sky cameras came in before the fight everyone’s walking behind me so they can get spotted on TV. Then, when I’m warming up, I’m cold. I’m nervous as well. Everyone’s clapping, going, ‘Yeah, this is easy.’ In my head I felt a bit like phew [he exhales deeply]. Then I’m walking out to the ring. It gets hotter and hotter. There is such noise and light. All you see is phone lights. And I’m preparing for war in front of twelve thousand people. I’ve never done this before. Twelve thousand people. There’re fucking celebrities all over the place. It’s rocking. And the crazy thing is it was all rocking for me. It wasn’t for him. And then the fight happened.”
It was a terrible fight. Chamberlain was knocked down but, most of the time, he and the notoriously awkward Okolie clinched and grappled. The letdown after the massive buildup was painful—with Chamberlain’s hurt being magnified by defeat. “Early on I slipped the right hand and he pushed into me. His leg caught my knee and cracked a bone. I couldn’t fight. We were holding and mauling. I didn’t have the strength to push him off because Ted had drained me.
“At the end I felt in shock. Everything I’ve worked my whole life for and did this really happen? All the people in the changing room before the fight had gone. Fighters like Tony Bellew and Johnny Nelson came to see me. My uncle said: ‘That was all on you. I gave you all that training blah-blah-blah.’ Bellew said: ‘What the fuck is wrong with this guy? Why the hell would you say anything like that?’ He could see I was so hurt. I was fighting back tears.
“The next day I booked a flight to New York. I just wanted to go where I didn’t have to see nobody. Ted said he would make sure the money went into his account and he would pay everyone. He would give my money to my mother. I said, ‘OK.’ I just wanted to get out of there. But once I’m in New York I’m hearing there’re arguments at home. I say, ‘Mum, what’s going on?’ She says Ted came back and said this is what we made from the fight. It was much less than I was due and so my mum said to Ted. ‘Where’s the receipt?’ He goes. ‘Oh no, there was no receipt.’ She says, ‘OK, let’s see the online banking.’ He goes, ‘No, you should learn to trust me as his uncle.’ We knew something was up.’”
When he returned home he confronted his uncle. After Ted denied any wrongdoing, Chamberlain and his mother obtained the receipts from Eddie Hearn’s office. “It showed that my uncle robbed over £10,000 from me,” Chamberlain says. “He never gave it back but he admitted to us he had to pay his mortgage. He’s so, so sorry, blah blah blah. Crocodile tears. But he told the British Boxing Board he never done it. He made up all these excessive expenses.”
Ted Bami declared his innocence but Chamberlain says that the Board asked his uncle to terminate their contract. Bami refused and Chamberlain shrugs. “It runs out next year. But that’s one of the reasons why I won’t fight at home until the contract ends.”
Chamberlain has become more vigilant and he and his one trusted adviser, Matt Hamilton, have refused numerous contracts with American promoters because the deals were slanted against him. “Don King would rob you straight,” Chamberlain says with a bleak laugh. “He might get five million but at least he will make you a millionaire. I’m tired of the way these promoters use you as their pawn. At the end of the day you end up with no money and brain damage.”
He has been able to take a harder line, even though it means he has been inactive for thirteen months, because of better news. Haymon has approached him and Chamberlain says, “At the moment it’s an advisory role to get me to championship level. Haymon won’t take any cut from my fights now because his basis is making sure the fighter gets the money. He’s a very honest guy. Then, once we get to a certain level, he’ll really start working with me.”
Chamberlain is about to start his own promotional company—which has been made possible by the million-dollar endorsement deal given to him by Avanti Communcations, a South African media giant. “Matt is also a South African and he’s exceptionally smart. Everything has changed because, six weeks ago, I got this massive three-year deal from Avanti. They only sponsor me and Akani Simbine [South Africa’s Commonwealth Games 100-meter champion]. He came fourth in the Olympics. So it’s an honor they’ve chosen me. They just loved my story of coming from nowhere and I was asked to speak in front of all their colleagues in their London office.
“I’ve now been able to start up my own promotional company and we’re partnering with Greg Cohen promotions. So I have a fight on January 17 in Minnesota. And another one on February 11, in Minnesota as well, to build up my name. Greg seems a good guy and they’ve said they will build up to a really big name as an opponent in 2020. I can then come back and fight in the UK as my deal with my uncle will have run out. So, bro, there is so much to look forward to. It’s just hard waiting for it to happen.”
Chamberlain will return to Miami for another long training camp next week. He seems hopeful that, this time, all the hard work will result in his return to the ring. It has been a long battle as his writing reveals. He writes movingly, and with raw eloquence, about the pain of the last twenty-one months. There is a real sensitivity and introspection to Chamberlain. It means he feels hurt acutely but, also, that he is thoughtful and determined.
He shows me six more pieces of writing—the last of which was written on November 15, in his training camp in Miami, when hopes for a fight this month had drained away. It’s striking that the last two sentences are short and certain: “I will land on my feet. No slip ups.”
In his apartment, at the end of our second interview, the mood is cheerful. Chamberlain tells me about his close friend, Jacqueline, a politics student, and he persuades me to answer a question she asked about writing. I leave a voicemail for her on his phone, which she then answers. The boxer sits on top of the work surface in his gleaming kitchen and beams.
Chamberlain does not look like a man who has been to hell and back. He looks like a young fighter who is ready to start all over again, in a new country and a new decade.
On the train back into central London, leaving the quiet of suburban Sutton, where he now lives, I scroll through the photos he has sent me. I pause at the image of Isaac as an eleven-year-old boy and then read the words he wrote beneath the photo.
“Me as a young kid from Brixton. I had no confidence but I was a big dreamer. It’s a weird one trying to put the two together. I wanted to be someone. But I didn’t think I was going to do it. The trials and tribulations, and constant failures, built my character. They made me think I can do this and I can do anything—because I’ve been through the worst.”
As the train gathers speed, clattering down the track on a dark and freezing November night, my concern about Isaac Chamberlain gives way to real hope. The boy in the photo had been dragged down into dealing drugs. Boxing helped him find a way out. Now, all these years later, boxing wounded him. But he has survived these dark times. I remembered what he had said an hour earlier as we flicked through his photos and memories.
“I’m still that kid but there is a difference. The nightmare’s over. I battled doubt and depression. But I faced it down, bro, I faced it down. I looked into my soul and I’ve come out stronger. The new dreams are real. I’ve not just got confidence now. I’ve got belief. I cannot wait to show that belief in the ring in January, in America. It’s a new start. It’s a new me.”