By Terence Dooley
I was with a bunch of boxing cronies when the news of Darren Barker’s hip problem and subsequent operation broke in 2010. To a man we said: “That’s his career over, then” and wrote him off. That he even made it back at all is remarkable, hip operations are no joke, but the fact that he made it all the way to the IBF middleweight world title following his injuries, not to mention the aftereffects of a gang attack in June 2010, is a minor boxing miracle.
When Barker made a comeback following the operation, many expected to see his injury woes rise to the fore during the heat of battle. Especially when an EBU title win over Domenico Spada in April 2011 was followed by an 11th-round stoppage defeat to consensus kingpin Sergio Martinez in October of the same year, and yet more time out.
However, Barker looked strong when beating Kerry Hope and Simone Rotolo by stoppage — both in and at the end of the fourth round in December 2012 and March 2013 respectively — and even more amazingly, his body held up against the gritty Daniel Geale when winning the title courtesy of a split decision (114-113, 116-111 and 113-114) in Atlantic City in August.
Still, as the Geale fight unfolded, and as Barker put everything on the line, there was a distinct sense that we were watching a fighter giving too much in order to fulfil his dream. It reminded me of Michael Brodie’s draw against In-Jin Chi in 2003 — only with a better result for the British boxer — in that both Brodie and Barker emptied their tanks in pursuit of a world title and did so against fighters who had a physical edge over them.
I was at that first Brodie-Chi fight, you could see the Mancunian physically decline with each successive, gruelling round — it was one of those nights where a fighter offered up bits and pieces of himself in pursuit of his dream. In retrospect, Barker’s tight win over Geale is in the same category. His body shuddered under the force of the blows at times, especially when floored by a left hook to the body in round six, and sheer determination dragged him through the bout.
On Saturday night, we witnessed the extent of the damage done by Barker’s hard career and that memorable title win when Felix Sturm blasted him away in two-rounds at Stuttgart’s Porsche Arena. Sturm, 39-3-2 (18), rolled back the clock and added a sense of urgency to his approach, blasting Barker, 26-2 (16), with huge shots throughout the duration.
Troublingly, though, the punches to the head reverberated through Barker’s entire body. Culminating in the two knockdowns that preceded the finish and, in particular the second one, which worryingly contorted Barker’s lower-body.
Once the dust settled, Barker revealed that he had dislocated his hip early in the fight and that his career was over. Cue accusations that he carried an injury into the contest and had short-changed his fans. These claims are nonsensical.
Sure, he may have carried a niggling injury into the ring, but most fighters do this and you rarely meet a fighter who is completely injury-free by the time the first bell goes. Secondly, Sturm’s recent loss of form made it a winnable fight for Barker, even on the road, provided Sturm didn’t find his sparkle again and Barker’s body could hold up long enough for him to implement the game plan laid out by his trainer Tony Sims.
Going into the fight, Barker will have believed that his body could bear the demands made by his desire, pride and will, but, as we saw in those two rounds, it had been held together by hopes and dreams. The plan went out the window as soon as he got tagged, and presumably it was at this point that the former titlist realised that he wouldn’t be able to box his way through the early rounds then come on strong late.
For the skeptics, the injury excuse is just that, a salve to sooth the reality of the situation — that Sturm was so much better on the night — yet Barker’s well-documented injuries, not to mention a brutal gang attack in June 2010 that left him in a bad way, caught up with him and hammered him as hard as Sturm’s shots.
Throw in the grind of contention, which generally takes in British, Commonwealth and European bouts against fighters who raise their game on the night, especially in British title fights, and it is easy to see why so many British fighters, rather than improving, start to dip once they reach the top of the mountain. Niggling injuries become more and more pronounced over time, chipping away at the fighter’s body until it breaks down, either in the ring or in retirement.
As for Barker’s medical complaints, the hip problem was a major setback. Recent research into hip injuries shows that they can be overcome in some sports, but, in high impact sports, the damage will recur sooner rather than later. Retirement is generally the most logical option once the hip starts to fall apart.
Boxing, though, is anything but rational. Fighters may creak, they may start to break down, yet they drag themselves back together again, hastily put themselves back together again using their will and determination and step into the ring knowing that the wheels can come off, hoping they don’t and feeling helpless when they do. It is that old adage of an athlete knowing what he has to do to win only to discover that his body can no longer carry out the brain’s orders.
Long-term, Barker may have to pay a high price for his run at the world title, and subsequent defence. His injury will need to be treated carefully to avoid future hip and pelvic problems. Lots of hip problems have been successfully treated in the short-term, as was the case with Barker in 2010. In the long-term, though, the recommendation from some in the medical community is that the effectiveness of hip operations for active athletes in certain, high-impact fields needs more study (‘Hip and Pelvic Problems in Athletes’ by Michael K. Shindle et al) and may only be a very temporary fix.
One thing is for certain, “wear and tear” (‘Former Male Elite Athletes Have a Higher Prevalence of Osteoarthritis and Arthroplasty in the Hip and Knee Than Expected’ by Magnus Tveit et al) isn’t just a boxing cliché, it is a recognised problem in sports and prolonged wear and tear during the training and fighting life cycle can set up all types of later-life problems, for example Osteoarthritis.
A hip problem can lead to a weakening of the hip joint, which becomes a ticking timebomb: ‘Hip instability is an increasingly common diagnosis in athletes with hip pathology.’ In general, physical aging in athletes can also be defined as: ‘[S]imply the accumulation of joint loading cycles over a lifetime. When intense biomechanical long-term stress and microinjuries are added to the joint, the redirection of loads may be insufficient. If the process continues, it will lead to joint failure.’ (both from 'Hip Instability in the Athlete' by Marc J. Philippon, MD et al)
Other reports suggest that, as the former athlete eases into a painful retirement, the pressure they put on their bodies during their youth is brought into sharp focus. Many will suffer from levels of ‘[H]ip and knee Osteoarthritis as well as hip and knee replacement surgery, that is about twice as much as would be expected according to age’ (Tveit et al).
In short: the longer you train and fight for, the more likely it is that you will physically fall apart. Some do it in the gym, and are forced to pull out of fights, and, in too many cases, are pilloried by the fans for their withdrawal. Others, such as Barker, fall apart during fights and before a worldwide audience, and he also put a lot of unseen pressure on his hip in the process of preparing for this fight. In these cases they then get pelted by a very vocal minority — insult is added to injury.
One thing to bear in mind, when slating Barker, or any other fighter who finds that their flesh no longer match their will, is that the fights are only the tip of the iceberg. Cumulative damage is picked up in training and they punish themselves daily in order to pursue dreams of titles and, as a by-product of this, provide us with enjoyment and satisfaction.
The fans who followed Barker to Germany will be the hard-core — friends, family and people from his community — so they can balance the disappointment of Saturday night against a career that, in the main, has provided them with a lot of enjoyment over the years, and in the Geale fight he made their dreams come true.
Those watching on site in Germany will have been concerned for his health following the loss; a few of those watching on TV were more vocal about the fact that they felt short-changed. The rest of us are aware that we watch these guys break themselves down, physically and mentally, whenever they step into the ring and during their training regimes, so we should applaud them for being willing to obliterate themselves to achieve their goals, and offer sympathy, not scorn, when things fall apart, because they invariably do.
For those that still believe Barker somehow put in a disgraceful performance, or conned the fans by taking a fight that he knew his body could not carry him through purely for the monetary gain, you only need to look at the final actions of the fight itself. He was throwing a desperate one-two as the towel came in and the ref was drawing a line under his world title career.
Shorn of balance, suffering from a hip injury and clearly out-gunned, this image of his final two punches will stay long in the mind. His body had given up on him, but his desire was still strong and his will to win was undiminished.
Overall, it is easy to see how the Barnet-based boxer managed to put tragedy (his brother Gary, a promising amateur boxer, died in a car crash in December 2006), injury and defeat behind him to get to the WBA world title. On paper, Barker will be listed as a world titlist who held the belt for a relatively short period and lost it in his first defence. If you go beyond that, anyone with eyes to see it will see a world title-holder who had no right to get to the top and that he won the title in the first place is both a minor miracle and a testament to the man, and fighter.
This ensures that “Dazzling”, although not in the pantheon of British boxing greats, will always be fondly remembered by British fans. Let’s hope that the 31-year-old's body heals, things settle down and he isn’t besieged throughout the rest of his life by the many aches and pains that serve as long-term reminders of time spent in the toughest game of all.
Barker and Matthew Macklin are now unlikely to meet, but at one point they were close to settling the domestic middleweight issue only for injury to intervene. When Barker was forced to pull out of their September 2010 showdown due to his hip problem, the two went their separate ways and the highly anticipated clash withered on the vine.
Shortly after Barker’s defeat to Sturm on Saturday night, Macklin, 30-5 (20), registered a 10-round decision win over Lamar Russ to put June’s devastating loss to IBO and WBA titlist Gennady Golovkin behind him. Ironically, Macklin is now trained by former foe Jamie Moore, the light-middleweight contender who went the traditional route — British, Commonwealth and European — only to never fight for a world title.
Moore was well ranked when he lost to Ryan Rhodes by seventh-round TKO in October 2009, and had already undergone operations on his shoulder. The Rhodes loss was hard, but the “Spice Boy” had always been a quality fighter, yet it was his next fight, a shock sixth-round corner retirement defeat to Sergey Khomitsky in April 2010, that prompted Moore to call time on his own career, with his long-standing shoulder niggles a big factor in those difficult final few years in the sport.
Like many, Moore’s body had been through the mill in contention — that final step to world title level never came and he withered on the vine. Now, though, Moore can use his experiences to help Macklin prolong his own career.
Indeed, “Mooresy” stressed the need for patience at the weekend, telling "Mack The Knife" that he can win rounds without too much give-and-take. This is the key to longevity, fighters have to fight, but every fight doesn’t have to be a dog fight. He knows this more than most, if the Salfordian can get Macklin to stick to his boxing and curb his natural attacking instincts it will help prolong his former opponent’s career.
Either way, the Barker fight is gone for good, and the fans who hoped for a 160lb round robin to make up for the early-to-mid-2000s debacle that saw the U.K.’s talented light-middleweights fail to meet in the ring won’t be feeling too optimistic this week. Although the mooted meeting between Macklin and Andy Lee in 2014 would be a good tonic for the domestic division, and with Martin Murray waiting in the wings we may finally get to find out who is the best British 160lber.
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