Boxing gave Isaac Chamberlain a lifeline. Victory on Saturday could change his life.
Yet the daunting challenge posed by Chris Billam-Smith – roared on by his Bournemouth backers – is nothing compared to the tribulations Isaac Chamberlain faced as a youth in London.
The British cruiserweight saw things that no child should witness on the streets of Brixton before he had even reached his teens. Even so, such was the prevalence of gang culture and knife crime that it became normalised for a child who was lucky to get breakfast before school.
“When you grew up around it you become numb to it. You get that phone call. So-and-so has got stabbed or so-and-so passed away. It’s very sad and sometimes it hits home but after a while you become a bit numb,” he told Sky Sports News.
“I’ve seen some stuff.”
Among those killed in the gruesome and brutal environment was Chamberlain’s teenage cousin. At the age of just 11, Chamberlain was coerced into transporting class A drugs for the gang leaders.
“Growing up in Brixton, you had to do certain things for the elders,” he said, “moving drugs and stuff. You’re thinking, ‘Yeah, they are looking out for you.’ But they’re not really. They are abusing you.
“In your head at that age you are thinking if I do this then you can have what they have – the cars, the chains, the money. You’re there and you can’t even get breakfast sometimes. All you had for dinner was sleep! You didn’t have nothing. I was waiting for free school meals so that I could have a proper meal.“
Chamberlain’s path seemed destined to lead him in one depressing direction. Until boxing transformed his landscape. It was his mother who took him to a gym for the first time – and there was no turning back.
“I probably would have followed my friends that I was growing up with at the time. They went down the wrong road. You become a product of your environment. I’d probably have gone to jail, or got stabbed or something like that but thank God I didn’t,” he said.
“Boxing gave me a lifeline. When I was young I had low self-esteem – I didn’t really believe in myself. Boxing gives a voice to those that don’t have one or don’t want to speak up. It makes you confident to speak through your fighting. It gives you that confidence to speak out and be yourself a lot more. Before boxing I was more in my shell. I am very grateful.”
Whilst his journey inside the boxing ring has been far from smooth – plagued by inactivity, injury and an early defeat to Lawrence Okolie in 2018 – a win over domestic rival Billam-Smith on Saturday opens the door to potential world title opportunities.
It’s impossible to truly erase the memories forged in that hostile environment as a child. Instead, Chamberlain wants to use his experiences to empower youngsters growing up in similar communities to his own. He works as an ambassador for Gloves Up Knives Down – an initiative aimed at providing access to boxing training to young people to help them lead fulfilling lives away from crime.
“I know somebody out there has a story like mine or even worse. I know that if it can help me then it can definitely help the next kid who was thinking like me. That’s only one of the reasons I am heavily behind it because of what it has done to my life,” Chamberlain said.
Gloves Up Knives Down will launch their first ever physical hub in Haringey on Saturday – just hours before Chamberlain steps into the ring at the Bournemouth International Centre. The British cruiserweight is well aware of the transformative effect this fight could have on his own pathway.
“It’s going to be a great spectacle. I can’t wait to show everyone that Isaac is one of the most improved fighters in recent times. This fight could definitely change my life,” he said.
“They are saying the winner of this fight fights for the IBF world title against Jai Opetaia and the Ring Magazine belts which means you’re No. 1 in the world. That’s a massive, massive opportunity for me. That’s definitely something that can change my life and change my family’s life.”
The biggest fight in the history of women’s boxing – Claressa Shields vs Savannah Marshall – is live on Sky Sports on Saturday, September 10. Be part of history and buy tickets for the London showdown here.