• Steve Bunce

Barker's no Rocky - he's much more than that

Steve Bunce August 20, 2013
Steve Bunce believes there is no nicer man in boxing than Darren Barker © Getty Images
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Hand on heart, I never thought Darren Barker would wake up as a world champion. He just didn't have the luck, the rub of the green refused to go his way, and I was convinced he would never, ever, get the break he deserved. It was not about talent, it was about fate.

That was before Saturday night. Before Barker - back in Atlantic City, the scene of his failed world title shot agai nst Sergio Martinez in 2011 - defied the odds and all rational thought to scrape himself back off the canvas from a punch that should have ended the fight, went the distance with IBF middleweight champion Daniel Geale, and took his belt on a split decision.

The whole Darren Barker story reads like a fantasy, something from one of the grittier Disney scripts. Here's a quality boxer whose hips suddenly gave up on him a few years ago - as the 31-year-old admits, he's got the hips of a 60-year-old.

Then he ends up in hospital after being knocked unconscious by a couple of sucker punches while being the good Samaritan one night. And all this after the tragic death of his younger brother Gary - who was more than a brother, the pair were soul-mates and great friends.

I've been covering Barker since he was about 15 years of age, through the juniors and on through his senior career. I was ringside when he won the Commonwealth Games title in 2002. I was there for various other fantastic nights, and for the heartbreaking fights along the way. I was also there when he thought he had to quit, when he was in tears two or three years ago with his hips.

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Darren Barker finally had some luck © Getty Images
  • On this week's show, Steve Bunce and Barry Jones chat to the new World Middleweight Champion Darren Barker as the reality of his victory begins to sink in
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People keep saying he's the nicest guy in boxing For once it's not a lie, it's not hype, it's a fact. If a fighter ever deserved a break, it was Darren.

But when that break finally came, he seized it - in the most dramatic fashion. In the sixth round, he did something that fighters simply don't do: he got up from the most devastating of body shots. He willed himself back to his feet by the time the referee reached nine, he found the power, he found the strength to stay up and survive the round. Then he won the next round. Then the round after that - by a distance!

I've never seen anybody get up from the type of punch that Barker survived. Yes, boxers get up from body shots all the time. Long straight right hands, little clips around the left-hand side of the body - you get back to your feet.

But when you get a shot like the one Geale threw, the one that sinks deep into the solar plexus or underneath the ribcage on the right-hand side, you don't get up. Great fighters have failed to beat the count from that shot.

Put it this way - had it been 9pm here in the UK when he went down rather than the middle of the night, I would have turned the television off and headed out. There is no way he should have beaten the count - it was that conclusive a shot. But he did. What a fighter.

"Not many people know the journey I've been through," Barker said afterwards, fighting back the tears that fell when the decision was in. "It's been a real Rocky story.

"I dedicate this to my late brother. Everything I've done is for him. Gary, this is for you, mate."

I think the Rocky analogy works for newspapers, radio and television, but that doesn't give full credit to what Darren Barker has achieved. He's no Rocky Balboa. Rocky didn't deserve his shot - in the original movie, Rocky got plucked out of thin air to fight for a world title.

Rocky - let's not mince our words - was a bum. Darren Barker is no bum. Rocky caught a lucky break and proved himself. Darren is a quality fighter who couldn't stop getting bad breaks. Barker beat all that bad fortune to win a world title - that's all the fairytale you need.

So where now for Britain's newest world champion? The middleweight division is good worldwide, but it's stunning in Britain. However, I don't see him fighting a Martin Murray or a Matt Macklin or an Andy Lee. Any of them would give us a brilliant British showdown, but they'd be hard fights. I would like to see Barker have a homecoming first.

Barker now has a mandatory challenger in Felix Sturm, the former champion who controversially lost his title to Geale in the first place. That fight will happen. I'd like to see Eddie Hearn get a deal done with the Germans and Sturm to get the fight here in the UK. It would be a bit unfair if Barker had to travel to America to win the belt against the odds, and then had to go to Germany to defend it. Give him a chance - he hasn't had many breaks in his life!

From one man's triumph over adversity to another boxer facing up to the first major setback of his career. Nathan Cleverly's defeat by Sergey Kovalev may have been the result that the American audience expected, but it was still a shock to me.

I was looking for Nathan to put on a masterclass and survive a little longer, and I expected him to win the fight as the Russian tired. But Kovalev might be even better than we thought he was - we knew he could bang, that he had good movement and sharp focus, but he may have even more than that. We'll find out in the next 12 to 18 months as he defends his new WBO light-heavyweight title.

That defeat for Nathan doesn't need to spell the end of his career - but he is talking about taking six weeks off to think about the next step. "I'll see what my heart tells me," Cleverly said when asked whether or not he will fight again. He could very well walk away, but he's not ruled out a return to the ring. He's also not ruled out moving to America to train.

Nathan's 26, but in boxing years he's even younger - you can be 20 years old and be the veteran of 20 tough fights, but Nathan Cleverly is the veteran of 20-odd far easier fights. Fights that's he's dominated.

If you ask me, walking away would be the wrong move. It's just one defeat - the first of his professional career. All fighters lose. He got it wrong on the night and the other guy got it right. It's that simple.

Barker had obstacles all of the time and now Cleverly will have to start again - it will not be as easy but he will be a better fighter for the next part of his boxing journey. Just ask Darren Barker and he will tell you that it is never easy.

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Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.