By Thomas Gerbasi
The question may have caught Darren Barker by surprise, but with the deft reflexes of the unbeaten middleweight contender that he is, the affable Brit parried with style when asked if he’s been watching any Randy Turpin tapes lately.
“Funny enough, I haven’t,” said Barker. “But I’m up against the task he was, and it’s gonna be the same result that he managed to pull off against Sugar Ray Robinson.”
A victory by Barker this Saturday night over WBC Diamond middleweight champion Sergio Martinez in Atlantic City may not shake the foundations of the game like Turpin’s 1951 victory over the 128-1-2 Robinson did, or Lloyd Honeyghan’s finish of Donald Curry in 1986, but it could fit in nicely after those two when it comes to major upsets by lads from the UK. And instead of being insulted at being a prohibitive underdog, Barker is embracing his role in the lead-up to the bout.
“It does something for the sport,” he said. “I’m here to liven it up and cause a bit of a stir and a bit of excitement to prove that the underdog can cause upsets, and that’s what I’m looking forward to doing on Saturday.”
Not surprisingly, Barker has the support of his nation behind him, something that’s always encouraging to see, and a typical reaction from British fans that have always embraced the underdog, whether Turpin or Honeyghan, Henry Cooper or Frank Bruno. Barker is the latest in the line of those looking to shock the world.
“It’s nice, and it captures the imagination of the people as the underdog, the sort in the ‘Rocky’ films, and a lot of my friends and the public feel a part of it,” he said. “They want to watch my journey, they’ve seen what I’ve been through in and out of the ring and they want to be part of this journey. The support’s been fantastic and I’m looking forward to making them more proud and doing a job for them.”
Unbeaten in 23 pro fights, with 14 knockouts, Barker’s record and collection of European titles certainly warrants a shot at Martinez, but the question is, does he have the talent to match up with the Argentinean wizard who emerged from relative obscurity to soar to the upper reaches of the pound-for-pound list with his wins over Kelly Pavlik, Paul Williams, and Sergiy Dzinziruk? He’s got good hand and foot speed, is a fairly accurate puncher, and while he hasn’t exactly been fighting King Kong and Godzilla, that “0” at the end of his record does give him a little something extra when the bell rings.
“It does give you that confidence,” he admits. “I’ve always taken each fight as it comes and I never got ahead of myself. I’ve never looked too far into the future and I’ve always concentrated on the fight at hand. And by me doing that and me being undefeated, it has led to this opportunity and it shows that I’ve done something right and all the hard work’s paid off. If anything, it makes me feel proud of how I’ve progressed and it shows that I’ve been doing things right.”
That’s an intangible you can’t quantify with numbers or even break down on a pre-fight checklist because you’ll never be able to point at it and say ‘there it is.’ But when a fight is over and you’ve seen someone dig deep to pull out a win, beat an opponent he had no right beating, or survive a knockdown or a cut to come back and take the victory, you’ll know that you just saw a fighter’s character. Darren Barker has character, and you can hear it in spots over the course of a conversation.
“Being a good son, being a good father, and being a boxer are the things that I’m good at doing,” he said when asked about his confidence level leading up to the biggest fight of his career. “And once I get in the ring, that’s a safe place for me. That’s a place where I’m able to do what I’m good at. I have nothing to worry about when I’m in the ring, and I believe I’ve got the skills and the attributes to be able to beat Martinez. That all evolves into me being so confident.”
It’s not the only time he mentions being a good son to his parents, or being a good father to his daughter Scarlett Rose. Family is where Barker finds his strength, and he’s not shy when it comes to talking about it.
“You’ve got to stay grounded in anything you do in life, but it’s important, especially in boxing, because your mental toughness plays such a part in this sport,” he said. “It’s obviously important to be physically fit, but I think if you can stay mentally fit, that’s very important. Some of the top fighters have always had that good mental ability to adapt to fights and just stay focused and tuned into a fight, and I think that all stems from family life. Well, it does in my case – having good grounding, having good parents, being a good son, being a good father. That’s the most important thing in life – your family. I’ve taken the confidence from being brought up the way I have and I’ve got nothing to worry about, nothing to fear.”
That’s not bravado either, especially considering that he has already faced down and fought past the toughest opponent he will ever meet – the devastation that hit him after his younger brother Gary, just 19, was tragically killed in a car accident. Barker, 14-0 at the time, wouldn’t fight again for nearly a year.
“It was a real tough time, a real dark time, and boxing was nowhere near my thoughts,” he said. “I had no intention of even thinking about boxing, let alone doing it again or not doing it. I was just gonna concentrate on being there for my family and just getting through this tragedy. And as time went on, there was a void in my life, and it ended up being boxing. Every time I step in the ring now, I do it for my brother and it almost feels like there are two of us in there when we take on our opponents now.”
Just watching the 29-year old Barker’s rise, hearing of the tragedy he had to battle through, and knowing that a nation is firmly backing him as he prepares to face one of boxing’s best, it’s almost shaping up to be a Cinderella Man story of epic proportions. And the crazy thing is that Barker believes he can do it, and when you hear him talk about the fight, you believe him too. Why? Because it sounds real. Every fighter says he’s going to win on that Saturday night when the entire world is watching. Most have good intentions, but others say it because it’s expected of them. And having seen more than a healthy share of underdogs travel across the pond to be foils for high-profile foes, you can usually tell when someone is just showing up, hoping that at least he might not be embarrassed.
Darren Barker is not one of those guys. If he loses Saturday night, it will be because Sergio Martinez was the better man in Atlantic City. It won’t be because he was just happy to be there, on the big stage, in front of HBO’s cameras, where he can pick up a nice payday before going back home to England. The difference between Barker and the usual underdog is that he’s here to win. The way he sees it, giving anything less of himself would be an insult.
“I’ve dedicated my life to this sport since I was a 12 year old kid,” he said. “I’ve traveled the country, traveled the world, and I wouldn’t throw all the sacrifice, all the blood, sweat, and tears that I’ve brought to boxing away. I wouldn’t jeopardize all of that just for a payday or just to turn up or just to try my best. I owe it to myself to win this, and I say that with a hundred percent confidence in my ability that I can go out there and do it. That’s exactly what I’m looking forward to proving on the 1st of October.”
He pauses for a moment, maybe to ponder what it would be like to be Randy Turpin or Lloyd Honeyghan, to become a national hero for a night and considered the man who beat the man. That would be something, wouldn’t it? Then he continues.
“When my name’s mentioned at the minute, there’s a question mark next to it, but come Saturday, there will be an exclamation mark.”