By Terence Dooley
2010 was a turbulent year for popular British middleweight Darren Barker. The 2002 Commonwealth Games gold medalist was the victim of a cowardly street attack last June after he tried to prevent a scuffle. The fighter was left with extensive injuries in the wake of the assault and this, coupled with a longstanding left hip problem, led to fears that we had seen the last of the former Commonwealth and current British titlist.
Throw in the tragic death of his younger brother, Gary, in 2006, which resulted in a eleven month break from boxing for Barker, a tough point’s win over Affif Belghecham last April and a recent split with long time promoter Mick Hennessy and you had a compelling case for writing the Barnet stylist off going into 2011. Darren, though, is ready for his return to action; he is keen to show that the third coming of ‘Dazzling’ will result in his finest moments.
“I feel blinding, mate, it has been so frustrating sitting on the sidelines watching everyone else doing so well,” said Barker as he chatted to me over the phone. “It is good to be back. My body is one hundred percent now.”
Thoughts of retirement must have danced across the undefeated, 22-0 (14), boxer’s mind a few times during this past year. Indeed, there were rumors that his hip injury was a career-ending problem. Reports of his demise proved wide of the mark.
“A few times”, he said when asked if the R word had raised its head, “but it was a matter of staying positive and making sure that I healed up well. I went back into training and got back into good shape so I knew I had to get back in there. It was frustrating. I was never that worried but there were a couple of times when I was suffering with the injuries. You drive yourself mad when you’re out so it is good to be back in the ring.”
Barker fights Rome’s Domenico Spada for the vacant EBU belt at London’s Olympia venue this Saturday night. Spada is 32-3 (16); his defeats have come in title fights – two point’s reverses to Sebastian Zbik when fighting for the interim WBC world title and a split decision loss to Mahir Oral in 2007. ‘Vulcano’ is a tough comeback opponent, although Barker insists that he wanted to be pitched in at the deep end.
He said, “Spada is bang on. A tough opponent, experienced and he knows his way around the ring, he’s a real livewire and the perfect opponent to come back with because I want to take up where I left off. I was European champion before and want to step it up now. I believe I’m a world class fighter and want to prove that.”
The 28-year-old was criticised for his last performance despite pulling through his hip problems and a determined co-challenger to take the vacant belt only to then lose it due to inactivity.
“Nah, not really”, he mused in response to my question of whether the display had been disappointing, “it was frustrating but I became European champion and you can’t be so negative on yourself because I won the belt. I was suffering with injury so to put in the performance needed to get the victory was enough for me.
“I had surgery on my hip. That is all sorted now. It healed up and is better than it’s ever been. I’ve been able to train properly and run, which is important for stamina. I think I can just crack on now and push towards a world title shot.”
Still, the sabbatical set Barker back; he had to withdraw from a September showdown with Matthew Macklin, a setback that led to the decision to have an operation on the niggling hip problem.
“It annoyed me a little bit,” revealed Barker as he looked over his brief EBU reign. “But my health is more important than the European title so I had to go under the knife to make sure my body was back in shape. It was quite annoying not to defend my title but I had to think about my future, my longevity in the sport and got myself sorted.
“It has been frustrating enough as it is watching other guys fight so I didn’t want to then come back and fight an eight round warm-up. I wanted someone like Spada to keep me focused in training as he’s ranked highly with the governing bodies for a reason [Writer’s note: Spada is number 6 in the WBC, one behind Barker]. He is tough but I wanted that type of opponent to show what I’m made of.”
The 160lb contender believes that he has world-class capabilities, that his relaxed boxing style will help him excel on the world stage, Barker feels this confidence is a prerequisite of a world title charge.
“The world title is something I’m striving for. I wouldn’t do this if I thought I couldn’t do it because boxing is the hardest sport in the world – I’d advise people not to do it if they’re not confident. Being a world champion is well within my reach, I look at the world champions and think I’m capable of beating them so I’ll keep pushing until I get there,” he insisted.
Mick Hennessy no longer guides Barker’s journey. Darren gave an interview earlier this year in which he praised Mick and suggested that the two would be together for a while only to sign terms with Matchroom a few weeks later. Unfortunate timing for the boxer who insists that his comments had been misunderstood. Stating, “I was a little bit misquoted there.”
He added, “I said I was grateful to Mick for everything he’d done for me up to then, and I still am, because he’d done a lot for me and I think we were a good partnership. But in this sport you need the TV to generate big fights and I think I personally needed something a bit new so signing with Matchroom was refreshing for me. It gave me a new lease of life and a new enthusiasm.
“You want to be showcased on Sky TV along with the other fighters. It is unfortunate. It was a tough decision but one that had to made. I think Matchroom are keen to put on competitive fights and shows, ones that people want to watch, and they are a very professional unit, they’ve shown me a lot already since I moved to them. It gives me that little boost that I needed. They’re going to be major players in the next few years.”
“It is hard enough watching everyone else fight on TV without training hard for fights knowing that no one will get to watch you on the telly,” he said as talk turned to Sky showcases.
“It is annoying if you miss out on TV. You’re one of the best boxers in your country and in Europe – you want people to see that. Getting on Sky is a big boost for you when you’re in the gym because you know you’re going to show people what you can do.”
Barker will be under the spotlight come first bell on Saturday as his second enforced layoff comes to an end. Could this result in one or two butterflies?
“Yeah, it will be mixed emotions, really – excitement, nerves but that is what it is all about. You need excitement in your life otherwise it would get a bit boring so I’m at the point where I want to get in there, feel those emotions and get on with it. I’m not worried about being rusty or anything like that. It is easier for me being in there.”
Becoming a father has given the Londoner another perspective. The added responsibility is offset by the realisation that he has a support system behind him, added incentive to perform should things get tough on a given fight night.
“My daughter was down the gym the other day. It makes it all worthwhile. I am happy with things right now, it is brilliant,” he enthused.
“It has been difficult for me but I mentioned my daughter there and that shows you what you’re doing all this for. You can’t be down in the dumps for too long when things are bad. I got myself back into the gym and started to feel good, I began to get that focus and determination back and am working for that world title shot.”
World title tilts are difficult to obtain. Certainly, there will have to be a few defenses of the EBU crown should he win the strap for a second time. Darren, though, believes that his unfinished business with Matthew Macklin could be settled should the Birmingham boxer overcome WBA boss Felix Sturm on June 25th.
“It would be nice to defend the European. Get some big names in Europe and prove I’m the best out there before talking about bigger things like world titles or the Macklin fight. What matters most is that I win and perform,” he declared before clearing up the cancellation of last September’s encounter.
“I was injured so didn’t dodge Macklin. I’ve got nothing bad to say about him because he’s now got a world title shot. I hope he pulls it off, too. Definitely, for British boxing alone it would be massive if we fought for a world title. I’ll have one eye on that because a fight between us will always be a cracking night.”
Barker’s been through the mill recently yet he has somehow managed to retain his desire, optimism and belief, he places a lot of credit at the feet of long-time trainer Tony Sims.
“Boxing is hard and lonely enough as it is so having someone to talk to, and not just about boxing, is a big thing. We have a laugh in the gym, talk about life in general and I trust Tony. Going into the ring you need someone you trust one hundred percent because boxing is tough,” he opined.
“Tony knows everything there is to know about the game. Going back to the corner, you know you will get the right advice, he’s a blinding man to have around.”
Ironically, Barker has had more trouble outside the ring than inside the squared circle, no matter what has happened in his life, the outlet of fighting has always been there for him, he will come back to what he knows, and is good at, this Saturday. He insists that he will be a man reborn when the chant of “Barker, Barker” cascades through the Olympia.
He concluded, “It will be good to get back in front of the fans. The hard work has been done in the gym. Now it is about showing the world what I can do. It will be a buzz to hear the crowd chanting my name again, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Sky Sports 1 and HD1 televise from 8pm on Saturday.
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