By Shaun Brown
“I look at some of the middleweight champions of the past and I’m not in their world. I just had a burning desire to be a world champion.”
And Darren Barker just did that on 17 August 2013 at the Revel Resort in Atlantic City when, simply put, he out fought Daniel Geale to capture the Australian’s IBF world middleweight title.
A lifelong dream accomplished for the Londoner as well as some closure along with it.
“It was closure, it was put to bed,” Barker told BoxingScene. “It was hard work getting the job done in the gym, the injuries I had and with me pulling out of fights. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to fight for a title again after [Sergio] Martinez (who Barker lost to in 2011). Once I did win the Geale fight that chapter was put to bed and I could move on. I’d achieved mine and my brother’s goal. That’s why I’m smiling. I’m happy that I did it. I don’t like unfinished business, it’s horrible. And if I hadn’t achieved that it would’ve eaten away at me for the rest of my life.”
Just over one year on from his memorable and emotional triumph the smile on the face of ‘Dazzling’ Darren Barker is as wide as it ever was. The rigours of training are a thing of the past, the chore of making weight is behind him and in retirement he has walked away from the sport with his brain and body intact and his life a bit more comfortable for it.
But the fighter, his team and his fans wondered if Darren Barker would ever realise the dream of becoming champion of the world. It’s fair to say that life had dealt him the kind of hand that not even David Blaine could turn into a winner. The death of his brother, Gary (a junior Olympic champion), after a car accident in 2006 combined with a list of injuries to bury many a sporting career had Barker and his ambitions right at the very edge of quitting. When one looks back at the Geale fight it’s of no surprise that he decided to do it the hard way.
“After a couple of rounds I decided to grit my teeth and go to war because the boxing wasn’t going to plan,” he recalled.
He and trainer, Tony Sims had watched hours of Geale. The Tasmanian was never underestimated but the challenger for his belt was convinced that in every department there was a better case for the Brit than the Aussie. Quicker, better handspeed, a harder hitter, Barker just didn’t see how he could lose. But there was one thing he found out about the champion straight away.
“I remember getting in there, and after watching DVDs you can’t gauge how awkward someone is and that’s what I found with him straight away. [Gennady] Golovkin (who beat Geale in July this year) obviously didn’t show that but I’m not in the same league as a Golovkin and I won’t ever pretend to be. I had the handspeed but he had a knack of just getting out of range and I’d fall short. It was really frustrating.”
There’s no point in mincing words, Barker got ‘stuck in’ as he told ‘Scene. And he also remembered some of the simplest but what proved to be most effective advice from his father years before.
“I always went back to the mentality when I was a kid. My Dad always said to me: ‘Boxing’s easy if you think about it, if he hits you once you hit him twice!’ That’s the mentality I took from about the second round of that fight. So I thought, right, I’ve got to hit him more than he hits me and if you can do that – I know it sounds simple – you’re gonna win the fight. I think I got a bit carried away and that’s why I got put down. He caught me with a good shot and it just adds to the story of the fight.”
Ah yes, the sixth round. The Rocky moment of a true to life Rocky fight. Bill Conti’s score of struggle and triumph would’ve been quite apt for the very moment that Barker went down from a crunching body shot. What got him up to beat the count, and shatter a dream, was a mixture of determination and the memory of his brother and good old fashioned cojones. From that moment on it would have took a brave and most likely Australian individual to bet against Barker.
A split decision victory. Barker had somehow gotten over the line with scores of 114-113 and 116-111 (an oddity from judge Barbara Perez) and 113-114 in favour of the deflated former champion.
Scenes of pent up emotion and jubilation unleashed from Barker, Sims, promoter Eddie Hearn and everyone who was in the ring that night are etched in many a boxing fan’s mind. I, myself, couldn’t help but have a (very small!) lump in my throat at the end of it all.
The word ‘journey’ should belong with the American rock band and them only but Darren Barker’s finally had the words ‘champion of the world’ along for the ride. One, however, that would be conclusively halted in Germany against Felix Sturm.
As Barker’s memory took ‘Scene back to the dressing room afterwards you could still hear the sigh of relief that he thankfully heard ‘and the new’ instead of ‘and still’.
“I remember getting back to the changing room, it was so emotional, and it sunk in then that I won it and what it meant to everyone around me. It was an amazing journey for everyone. Everyone’s faces were amazing. We went to the press conference and everyone was hugging and crying, it was mental. We went back to the hotel and had a few drinks and I was absolutely shattered. I was in bits.
“The hotel told us where the staff were allowed to eat. You go right to the basement of the hotel and there was a huge buffet, it was like a Vegas buffet. Everything you wanted. I kid you not I’ve never eaten that much food in my life. By the time I got up I’d only got a couple hours sleep. I remember there being no pain, no aches or anything. I couldn’t believe it. It was weird. That day some of us went to New York had some drinks and the next morning I had never experienced pain like it. I was in absolute agony. I was walking about New York in bits carrying the wife’s shopping bags but it was all worth it.”
And did he want to keep on fighting after achieving a fighter’s ultimate dream?
“No. I’d achieved my ultimate goal. There are some people in this world that are born to fight, born to be in the ring and I was never like that. What strove me and kept me going was to win a world title for me and my brother. We’d always spoke about it. And that’s all I ever wanted to do. I didn’t care about being a boxing great, all I ever wanted to do was to achieve my ultimate goal for me and my brother.
“I’d never sit here and make out I was a great. I wanted to achieve my goal and next to that I wanted to earn a few quid and be fairly comfortable and do something after boxing. The Sturm fight came about, don’t get me wrong I really did fancy the fight but if I’m honest, talking to you now, did I want to fight again? Of course I never.”
The loss to Felix Sturm four months later wasn’t how Darren Barker wanted to bow out. A hip injury one month beforehand forced the Brit to either pull out or abandon the box and move gameplan for the ‘get stuck in’ tactics that defeated Geale. It was brave, it wasn’t nice to watch and inside two rounds the German had ended the reign of Darren Barker, IBF world middleweight champion. No regrets just guilt.
“In the end I just couldn’t afford for that fight not to happen. I say this because there was an element of guilt because I felt responsible because of all my fans that came out to support. Even though I wasn’t a 100% fit I still thought I had enough to beat him. And obviously I never.”
Nowadays the retired Barker has his hands full with a young family, his second child only born recently, and projects that take him from London to the Middle East. Business and family is enough for Barker. Elements of being a boxer are missed; the banter down the gym, training with friends but waking up in pain and losing a stone and a half to make weight are not.
“I’ve been a lot happier than I used to be,” he said.
“I’m a fan of boxing now. I’m a British boxing fan. When you’re doing it, you’re that involved in it that it’s hard to enjoy it. I used to get keyed up watching boxing but now I’m out of it I’m a fan again. I’ve been to some shows and been down to the gym. I’ve done a bit of training, not boxing, just down Chelsea Football Club with their gym to keep me fit. I don’t want to get big and fat or you’ll see me coming back as a cruiserweight!”
And with that smile and laugh, Darren Barker went back to a life he enjoys.
Shaun Brown is the UK Editor at Boxing Scene and a contributor to Boxing Monthly. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org with any news, views or stories you may have.