Underdog: The inside story of Briton Barker's tilt for world title glory...
US commentator 1: ‘Larry, take us through the not-so-desperately talented middleweight division.’
US commentator 2: ‘Well, Martinez is recognised in the US as the middleweight champion, but there are so many titles spread around the globe. There’s Sturm, the German… Julio Cesar Chávez, who’s fighting Peter Manfredo next month… Dmitry Pirog, a hard-punching Russian. And Geale is an Australian.’
Commentator 1: ‘All right, let’s take a look at Barker. Nothing that he has done up to this point suggests to ring critics or experts that he’s ready to do anything really damaging against Sergio Martinez.’
Live magazine's Ian Ridley followed Darren Barker to find out… and to investigate a sport fighting its own desperate battle for survival.
The trainer levels a steady look at his charge.
‘You’re world class,’ Tony Sims assures him, with a mixture of pride and admiration.
‘I’ve known it for years. Now’s the time for you to show it. You’re ready. You’ve prepared for this for 14 weeks.’
‘Make that 17 years,’ chips in Darren Barker’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, son of Barry, the veteran boxing and snooker impresario.
Barker responds by putting his game face on. He’s been relaxed in the days and hours leading up to this moment. But now his fists have been bandaged and taped, his ten-ounce gloves laced up, the inspirational blaring pre-bout music silenced.
In the whitewashed dressing room, entirely bland bar a Union Flag taped on one wall, the TV floor manager appears. America’s Home Box Office network is winding up its preamble and it’s just four minutes to fight time. Darren pulls up the cowling of his spangled blue and white gown – designed to match his nickname, ‘Dazzling’, and the colours of Chelsea Football Club – and strides into the backstage darkness of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.
Barker with trainer Tony Sims. The 29-year-old has won a Commonwealth Games gold medal, and British and European titles
It’s a cavernous art deco arena, filled with a blue-collar crowd baying for the bout to begin. When the curtain opens Barker gets a view of the arc-lit 24ft square ring raised four feet off the ground, where he is about to fight one of boxing’s most authentic champions, Sergio Martinez of Argentina, holder of the World Boxing Council’s middleweight title, and rated the third best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.
The U.S. bookmakers have given him virtually no chance: he’s a 20-1 shot. But Barker hasn’t written himself off.
True, in his early days as a teenage amateur he lost three consecutive fights and his father Terry, an amateur champion himself, had suggested he might like to try something else. But he went on to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal, and British and European titles.
There are the other considerations: win or lose, he is being paid £260,000 for this fight. The money will get him and partner Gemma Kao and their nine-month-old daughter Scarlett Rose out of their one-bedroom flat in East Barnet, Hertfordshire, and into a bungalow.
And then there’s the memory of his brother. Gary, by Darren’s own admission the more talented boxer, was killed in a car crash just before Christmas 2006. He was 19.
When Darren Barker told the TV cameras he wanted ‘to show that a movie like Rocky can be true’, he meant every word. The 29-year-old is still desperately hungry for a future in his sport. The only question is: has his sport got any future of its own?
Barker checking his damaged face after the fight
Compere: ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen… DiBella Entertainment is proud to present the main event of the evening… Twelve rounds of boxing for the middleweight championship of the world. For the thousands in attendance, and the millions around the world, ladies and gentlemen, let’s get ready to rumble!’
British boxing had been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years, thanks to world champions like Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton and Amir Khan; that was, until the appalling fiasco of a heavyweight mismatch between David Haye and Audley Harrison.
But it’s still nothing like it was in the Seventies and Hearn Senior’s glory days in the Eighties, when boxers like Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Jim Watt (who is working here for Sky this week) won front-page headlines with their free-to-view bouts. The reinvention of millionaire sports like Premier League football and Formula 1 is in stark contrast to boxing’s current malaise.
And it’s even worse in America, where the sport has been slowly dying from self-inflicted wounds for years. The principal problem is that, unlike the increasingly populist ‘sports’ of cage fighting and wrestling, it has become hopelessly fractured, which in turn means it no longer has any recognisable champions.
‘It has become a niche sport, which is very sad,’ says Thomas Hauser, a New York sports writer still attracted by the bloody colour of the spectacle and its dark-arts characters.
Barker with partner Gemma Kao in Atlantic City
‘In every other event, the whole point of the season or competition is to find a world champion. Boxing now has 17 weight divisions and four sanctioning bodies, and arguably even more than that. And then there are super champions, platinum champions, silver champions…
‘Sergio Martinez is the real middleweight champion to my mind, but people don’t know that,’ Hauser argues.
‘They don’t even know who the heavyweight champion is. There was a time when the heavyweight championship was the most coveted title in all sport. The other problem is the economic model, which cuts its most attractive events off from most viewers.
'Boxing is only really on the HBO and Showtime channels, which you have to pay for. And then you have to pay your cable company on top of that for the most attractive fights. How popular would tennis be in England if you could watch the small tournaments on terrestrial TV but then had to pay £39.95 to watch Wimbledon?’
In the glory days, the spiritual home of boxing was New York’s Madison Square Garden. But its 20,000 capacity is hard to fill these days. Las Vegas, whose casino owners wanted a diversion for their clients and something else for them to bet on, became the new venue for high-profile fights.
And then, in the Eighties, Donald Trump thought he could do the same for gambling-ravenous Atlantic City, 120 miles down the New Jersey coast from New York, whose Port Authority terminal sends Greyhound buses every half hour, 24 hours a day, to the high-rise casino hotels.
This is where Blackpool meets Vegas. For the first half of the 20th century, one of its major attractions had horses diving 40ft off a pier into water with bathing belles on their backs. It is unwise now to wander after dark through the run-down streets inland from the neon-lit wooden boardwalk promenade with its bars, tattoo parlours and arcades.
Nevertheless, Trump put on the big names here – Evander Holyfield, George Foreman and, in the Boardwalk Hall, Mike Tyson vs Michael Spinks.
But now, according to Hauser, Atlantic City gets the fights Vegas doesn’t fancy. Martinez still wants for a big audience despite his abilities. He will pocket £1 million for the fight, a tidy sum but nowhere near the amounts generated by pay-per-view.
Barker and his entourage
Neither he nor Barker is big enough for that, however, and at the pre-fight press conference in a restaurant near Times Square, the American promoter Lou DiBella had to defend the match to a sceptical domestic boxing press, who saw him knocking out cheap tickets to the military as a sign of an event in trouble.
At the weigh-in – Barker was 11st 5½lb to Martinez’s 11st 4lb – a raucous cadre of Barker’s fans enliven the occasion, encouraging DiBella to snap at a British TV reporter.
‘Does this look like a promotion that’s failing?’
Compere: ‘Introducing first, fighting out of the blue corner, wearing blue trimmed with white, official weight one hundred fifty-nine, one half pounds, his professional record is a perfect one, consisting of 23 fights, 23 victories including 14 knockouts. He’s from London, England, and he’s the European middleweight champion. Here’s the undefeated challenger, dazzling Darren Baker! (sic)’
Jim Watt is more forthright.
‘It’s a massive step up. I wouldn’t want to put my house on him. But I like the way he’s gone about it.’
Barker has prepared assiduously. On top of ten weeks at trainer Sims’s gym on an industrial estate in Hainault, Essex, he spent two weeks with the British Olympic amateur squad in Sheffield and another two acclimatising to the five-hour time difference in Niagara Falls, where he has been running at 7am each morning and sparring late into the night, more than 200 rounds in all.
His – and his team’s – finances are tight. He was advanced £16,000 on signing the contract, but he had to foot the bill for costs such as flying in sparring partners from England. The money soon ran out and he wired DiBella for more. All the expenses come out of his purse, plus ten per cent he agreed to pay the trusted Sims.
Barker prepares to enter the ring. He is being paid £260,000 for this fight
While the challenger’s fee represents just a quarter of what Martinez will earn, it is more than six times Barker’s previous best pay day – £40,000 for defeating Italian Domenico Spada to win the European title last April.
Indeed, that sum barely covered debts he accumulated after long inactivity due to a hip injury that required an operation costing him £8,000. There was also the expensive dental work he ran up after a street fight. He spotted a gang of youngsters in Watford High Street threatening another youth and intervened, getting beaten up for his trouble. In the subsequent court case, Barker was commended by the judge for his citizenship.
Barker became depressed in the aftermath of the fight and considered quitting boxing, just as he did after his brother’s death. He worked for his partner Gemma’s father, shifting furniture for a few hundred pounds a week and delivering mattresses to the Hilton in Park Lane.
But then, being a Christian, he sought comfort in prayer and believed he was being told to fulfil his destiny as a boxer. He also had to consider the needs of Scarlett, born on December 17 2010, just a week after the fourth anniversary of Gary’s death.
The Spada fight was Barker’s first under the promotion of Eddie Hearn, to whom Tony Sims turned in an attempt to secure more lucrative televised matches for his man and elevate him to world level.
Barker's tattoo in tribute to his brother Gary, who was killed in a car crash just before Christmas 2006. He was 19 and a boxer as well
Hearn liked Barker, and particularly the ambition he showed in insisting that he wanted to fight Martinez, the best of the five holders of world middleweight titles. Barker also had a good record against southpaws – left-handed fighters who lead with their right – like Martinez.
And Hearn was looking for a top fighter, and a top fight, as he positioned his father’s Matchroom organisation back in the sport. Barry Hearn – they always said the H was silent – was the man who created the snooker boom of the Eighties, with Steve Davis as his golden nugget, before branching out into boxing. It didn’t last.
‘My old man fell out of boxing because he was dealing with too many a***holes,’ says Eddie, 32, who went to his first fight at the age of nine, his father’s promotion of Frank Bruno v Joe Bugner at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane football ground.
Hearn junior, who boxed as a teenager at Billericay Boys Club in Essex, loves it though and was drawn back. Even his ill-fated promotion of Audley Harrison failed to discourage him.
Barker's father Danny hugs Gemma Kao
‘We’re all in it for the same reason – a little bit of ego, a little bit of money, but mainly the glory,’ he says.
‘It’s a fundamentally flawed business and anyone whose business is just boxing can’t survive. I know boxers who have been waiting for money for four months after a fight from some promoters. They’re having to borrow it.’
Hearn insists that Barker will be paid ‘on Monday’. And his own fee?
‘We don’t take a cut of Darren’s purse. Our money will come from the TV deal we do with Sky to show it back home.’ (He won’t confirm how much, but it’s around £60,000.)
‘At Matchroom, we have other interests in snooker and darts, so it’s not all about the money. We might make a few quid on this to get back the £35,000 we lost on the Spada fight. But it’s more about moments like this. When I was saying goodbye to my old man to come to Atlantic City, he said, “Enjoy it. This is what we work for.”’
Hearn has certainly worked cleverly to get Barker this match, and at this purse, along with the standard contractual perks, such as return flights to America for five people, hotel rooms for six nights and £100 a day to the boxer, and £30 to the others, for food.
Not that Barker could spend it all until the weigh-in, after which he immediately called to his brother Lee for chocolate and a milkshake ahead of a slap-up meal later. For Barker, too, it is more about the glory.
‘I’d have taken this fight for $40,000. It’s what I dreamed of as an amateur. I just wanted a shot at the best. The best have to fight the best.’
In the ring, the announcer is introducing the fighters. 4,376 fans have paid between £30 and £200 ringside for their tickets. They hear the favourite’s name, but he gets the underdog’s name wrong.
After the hoop-la, the hype, the endless verbal sparring and jabbing, Barker is in the ring, saluting his fans, before the seconds climb out. On the bell, he begins conservatively to avoid the light-footed Martinez’s powerful left. Barker starts to accumulate points with a series of slick jabs…
Commentator 2: ‘Neither fighter’s really risked anything yet. And it’s easy to see that Barker’s height and long arms could create problems for the smaller Martinez.’
Commentator 1: ‘I’m surprised that at this stage he’s almost meeting Martinez tit-for-tat for punches. You know, he doesn’t look that flashy. But every time that Martinez comes in he kinda counters back with a short punch…’
Barker tries to stand up after being knocked to the floor by Sergio Martinez
After six intense rounds, Barker has cut Martinez’s forehead (and, it would emerge later, broken the handsome Argentine’s nose) and Jim Watt has him ahead on points. Martinez’s countrymen in the crowd, who have been waving their sunny flag and mingling happily with the Brits, have gone quiet.
But finally Martinez’s class begins to show. Barker is landing the greater percentage of punches but Martinez is throwing more of them (691 to 408). Barker’s left eardrum is perforated in the tenth, throwing him off balance. By the end of the round, the champion is two rounds ahead on Hauser’s unofficial scorecard.
Tony Sims knows it is slipping away.
‘Do it for your brother, Daz,’ he tells his man in the one-minute break. Barker comes out with fists blazing, going for the instant win, by now his only option. But he’s risking opening himself up to a big punch.
The end comes when Martinez catches him with a potent right hand, followed by another behind his injured left ear. When Barker falls, his legs betraying him as he tries to rise, the referee declares the contest over.
Later, some American boxing writers say Barker went down too readily. They suggest he even took a dive. But Hauser recognises a fighter when he sees one.
‘The challenger was fighting as well as he could. The prevailing view was that it would be just another night’s work for Martinez. Then things got complicated.’
‘I thought we’d see a performance from Barker that would enhance his reputation and we did,’ says Watt. ‘He was doing so well and one punch took it away from him.’
The knockout is the first loss of Barker’s 24-fight professional career.
An ice-pack covers Barker's battered face while his hands are unbound by trainer Tony Sims
Compere: ‘Ladies and gentlemen… referee Eddie Cotton reaches the count of ten and one minute twenty nine seconds of round number eleven. The winner by knockout victory and still recognised universally as the true Middleweight Champion of the World, Sergio… “Maravilla”… MARTINEZ.’
I don’t want Scarlett to see me like this,’ says Barker, slumping in a chair in his dressing room, to his dad Terry who has dashed to his side.
‘I saw you like it and it proper frightened me.’
In the inconsolable aftermath of the dressing room, the damage is more visceral. The weals on his body have reddened, his torso looks like a side of meat, and his eyes have all but disappeared into swollen skin.
The New Jersey State Athletic Control Board doctor walks in and informs him: ‘Since you were knocked out, you have to serve a suspension for 60 days.’
‘Is that all?’ Barker replies.
More impressed Americans acclaim the performance. He won a standing ovation on his way out of the arena and at 1am, as we hunted for a beer for him, a New York woman called out: ‘You fought with your heart, Darren Barker.’
Later, some American boxing writers say Barker went down too readily. They suggest he even took a dive. But Thomas Hauser, a New York sports writer, recognises a fighter when he sees one
Back in London a week later, the puffed eyes black and the body just beginning to ache less, Barker told me that, yes, he was again considering quitting, but he would take a week’s holiday in Dubai with his wife and daughter before thinking about his next move.
Eddie Hearn is standing ready to negotiate a less exacting world title shot, perhaps against the International Boxing Federation’s middleweight champion, Australian Daniel Geale, at the Royal Albert Hall next spring.
‘I dunno,’ said Darren, dejection and pride battling within him.
‘Regardless of the result, I got to the top. I proved I’m world class. People tell me I did the country proud. I made my dad proud, which means a lot to me.’
After the death of his brother, the demise of a career would seem a minor loss. He will again turn to his church for guidance. Whether boxing’s prayers will be answered is altogether less certain.