By Terence Dooley
Despite the fact that Zelfa Barrett (18-0, 11 KOs) has faced mostly middling opposition going into his vacant English Super featherweight fight against fellow Mancunian Chris Conwell (9-2, 2 early) at the First Direct Arena in Leeds live on BT Sports on Saturday night there is nothing that boxing can throw at Barrett that could be tougher or harder than the pain he felt when he lost both his older brother and cousin to “the street life” when he was still in his formative years.
A product of inner-city Manchester, where the most robust of wildflowers can be cut down in their prime, trampled underfoot or wither on the vine, the contender swallowed all the pain and grief that has come his way at such a tender age and transferred the pain into the ring. Meting out punishment and defeat on others en route to title contention.
The nephew of former British and European light-welterweight champion, and WBO world welterweight title challenger Pat Barrett, Zelfa took up boxing early. However, he always had one watchful eye on the pro game, believing himself destined to go one better than his uncle and trainer by bringing a world title back to North Manchester.
“I was boxing as a kid and played football, but I took boxing more seriously when I was 16,” he said when speaking to BoxingScene ahead of his first professional title fight. “I had my first amateur fight and fell in love with it.”
Once he decided to focus on boxing it was a case of learning the skills and adopting a style that would fast-track him through to the paid ranks as he sought to establish the Barrett name once again. “Brown Flash” turned over under his uncle’s Black Flash banner before signing a deal with promoter Frank Warren, who believes he has one of the UK’s brightest contenders on his books.
“I didn’t get stuck in the amateurs for too long,” he added. “Since I was a kid, I’d been taught to be a professional. Brian Hughes [Pat’s former trainer] used to tell me to I would be at my best as a professional fighter. Ever since then I’d always do things in the amateurs that I now do in the pro game.
“I was knocking people out in the amateurs just as I’m doing now so I was like a duck to water. I didn’t have to change anything, all that has changed is the distance. If you’re an amateur for too long it takes you longer to adapt, with me that wasn’t an issue.”
Although firmly enmeshed in the streets of Manchester, Barrett avoided the usual pitfalls and temptations throughout his youth. Rather than trying to tempt him down the wrong path, his friends and relatives are proud of what he does and hope that he can represent himself, his name and his area with dignity and pride.
Consequently, his peers and fans keep him in check, making sure he is grounded and providing avid support. “I won’t ever change, this area keeps me grounded and I won’t ever think I’m big time,” he declared. “I’ll buy my mum’s house for her one day. She wants to live here forever. I’ll eventually branch out but am happy where I am here in Harphury.
“Success is my natural goal, something we expect will happen, so we don’t think about it or talk about it all the time—we just roll with my uncle’s plan. Pat knows the ins and outs of boxing. As long as I’m doing what I’m doing know we have nothing to worry about.
“I’m on TV now, people around here are excited to see me so it is good to see the people I sell my tickets to because they can ask how training is going and it is a bit of excitement. I enjoy it.
“My support is growing. I’ve had people from Crewe, Liverpool and Leeds meeting me to buy tickets. I owe it to them to spend 10 minutes speaking about boxing because of the support they are showing me. Eventually, people might buy tickets for my fight online, but I still want to be able to sell them to the people I know.”
Ticket selling is either a joy or a bane, depending on both your personality and how you go about it. Barrett enjoys the interaction with his friends, fans and the people who contact him out of the blue to ask to buy from him directly. He told me that this is an important part of his job, one that could define how popular he becomes and, consequently, how far he goes.
“The best fighters don’t necessarily get opportunities because they don’t sell tickets. Some fighters are arrogant, after the fight they just get off home. You have to thank the people who have spent their time and money to come and watch you. Some people have families and kids, they are saving and spending their money to come and watch you fight. It is only right to thank them.
“It is like Chinese whispers, once one rumour gets spread it goes all over. If one person says you are rude they will tell a friend. Then their friend will tell a friend and it keeps on going. You need to be polite, humble and get on with your career, don’t get involved in daftness or politics. You speak to people how you want to be spoken to. If you do that then people will do that back to you.
“This is my job. If you are a bin man you want to be the best bin man—you want to be the best at anything you do. It is a lifestyle because someone out there is training just as hard or harder than you. I took a leaf out of Scott Quigg’s book: I rely on hard work, dedication and a good lifestyle.”
This work ethic and dedication was fostered by his mum, Sonia, who also instilled the virtue of good manners in her sons, not to mention the ability to look after themselves. Still, the 24-year-old admits that he still lives at home; he enjoys nothing more than curling up on the couch with his mum and wants to make her happy
“My mum loves boxing, she knew what to expect through Pat so she knows I have to be dedicated and disciplined,” he said. “She knows I train hard and dedicate my life to it so she doesn’t have to worry. I’m her youngest, so she might hide her nervousness—if she does she does it well.
“Thanks to my mum, I know right from wrong. I know how to cook and clean, how to address people and have manners. My mum raised me in the old-school way so I’m proud of that, I am proud to win my fights and I get to give anything I can give back to her.”
The fact that Barrett enjoys both training and fighting has been a big boost. There is no sign of shirking or wastefulness. In fact his uncle has had to drum home the fact that rest days are a good thing. Burnout can be just as dangerous as lethargy.
“After I fight, Pat always tells me to have a week off. I hate it. I get bored as I can’t stop thinking about boxing. If you want to be the best you don’t switch off, you look at other fighters thinking: ‘Aw man, I want to be like him’. Terence Crawford is my favourite fighter, I want to be like him so I watch his fights. Pat tells me to let my body and mind relax, but I’m always itching to do the odd run so tell my mum not to tell him. It burns inside me when I don’t train.”
His dedication was inspired by two local fights. Scott Quigg and Anthony Crolla have been big influences in Barrett’s career: he admires Quigg’s dedication and is in awe of the strength the character that Crolla showed to fight his way back from injuries sustained when he was attacked while foiling a burglary in 2014.
“They are both normal lads, they both work hard and are humble—it has not gone to their heads. I want to be like that. We are different fighters, different styles, but I want to be like them as a person. Crolla is a different guy in sparring to the one you see outside the ring. He is spiteful as he is fighting for his family, his dad and his son. God has a plan and a path for everyone, Crolla walked down it and it made him a world champion.”
This exuberance in the gym follows Barrett into the ring. Some fighters don’t like to fight, others love it and everything that comes with it. “I embrace every single second of it,” admitted Barrett. “When I get into the ring I turn from a goldfish into a shark.
“Some fighters get nervous, I get excited because I’ve prepared my mind for the fight for six-weeks. I even visualise knocking my opponent out when I’m running. I love it, I love the feeling of winning because I’m a competitive person—I even like to beat kids in a race if we’re having one. I try to eat faster than my niece when we’re eating our food. I don’t even think about going out after the fight, just the fight itself. Whatever comes after it comes after. I love this game.”
Still, there has been criticism over his level of opposition. This shower of disapproval became something of a downpour when he withdrew from a British title eliminator against Sam Bowen (12-0, 8 KOs) earlier this year. The decision was made by Pat, but it was Zelfa who was hit with the ire of those who believe he was being protected.
“It is bigger down the line,” he opined. “I wanted it, Pat told me why he wanted to make that decision and I trust him. Sam needs me more than I need him. I can understand the frustration, but it is all the people from his area saying this, that and the other. They are just trying to build it up. I’m not rushing, we have a plan and I am not changing it because someone else needs me.
“I am the biggest name in the Super featherweight division right now apart from Liam Walsh and Stephen Smith. When people think of Super featherweight my name comes up, then other names come up after mine. Those two are ahead me. I’m not on their level yet, but, apart from them, I believe I am the biggest name.
“I’ve ticked every box, I’ve carried power from round one to 10 against Eusebio Osejo [W10 in May]. I showed I am fit in that fight. He’s been in with world champions who didn’t handle him as well. Put him in with other Super featherweights and they won’t handle him the way I handled him.
“I’ve shown I can punch, I can think and have ticked every box. I’m trying to avoid having a blueprint in place to beat me. People can see that I’m good when they watch me. They can appreciate that I’m a good fighter. They’d be lying if they didn’t say that.”
“Look what I did to Jordan Ellison [W KO 1 in July], who did well against George Jupp. I was relaxed, composed, and it was all about speed and power. These are world-class knockouts, the type you don’t see anymore. You saw them back in Pat’s day, but only world-class fighters like Canelo are doing it these days. I’m not saying I am on their level, far from it, yet look at their knockouts and my knockouts. That’s the way I’ve been taught and processed to be. The only thing I have to do now is wait for my time.”
“It is hard because they were in survival mode so I was trying to crack the shell,” he added, referring to a run of four consecutive decision wins earlier in his career, a streak that was ended with a second-round stoppage over Ismail Anwar in October 2015 in and led to a further nine KOs in 11 outings. It is a run that he will hope to continue in Leeds on Saturday night.
Despite an easy-going demeanour, Barrett has suffered his share of tragedy after losing his older brother and then his cousin in heartrending circumstances. Indeed, the murder of his cousin, John Lee Barrett, on Christmas Eve 2013 made headlines in the local press. A gang stormed into a party in Rochdale that Lee had organised and he was stabbed during the subsequent melee.
A dozen people were charged and convicted, six were done for GBH and the rest for various other offences—the murderer was never found. Rather than fall into a spiral of reprisals and grief, the Barretts collectively poured their pain and feelings of loss into boxing: Pat focussed on training and promoting, Zelfa inked images of his brother and the cousin who was like a brother to him on his forearm. He kisses both tattoos before entering the ring.
“Nothing that happens in the ring can be that bad,” was Zelfa’s emotional response when asked about what the family went through. “All I need to do is look at my arm and think: ‘Nothing can be harder than that pain I felt’.
“It is a constant reminder of what I went through when they died and what I need to do now. That is where the knockouts come from. I have to do this for them. I want to be the saviour, to being the positives back to the family.”
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