“We’re in the bubble, bro,” Isaac Chamberlain exclaimed as, rather than bumping elbows, he gave me a bear-like hug in a Covid testing room at a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Redditch, near Birmingham, last Thursday morning. It was easy to understand the 26-year-old boxer’s readiness to demolish social distancing measures because he was just 60 hours away from making his return to the ring. We also knew that, as soon as we had been tested, we would be confined to a strict quarantine. It was one last embrace before another lockdown.
The Brixton cruiserweight was desperate to resume his career which had been put on hold the previous 22 months. A chain of small catastrophes – including the jailing of his American promoter, broken promises and the onset of a global pandemic – meant that his past four scheduled fights had been cancelled. But Chamberlain, who is one of boxing’s most intelligent and intriguing fighters, was on the cusp of a comeback in the sport’s first promotion on British terrestrial television since the coronavirus turned the world upside down.
I had become friendly with Chamberlain after first interviewing him nine months ago. As an 11-year-old boy he had delivered drugs for gangs in south London but, since boxing helped him escape that brutal landscape, Chamberlain had been determined to one day become a world champion. That might seem a familiar backstory but Chamberlain examines his life and writes about it with an introspection and eloquence that is different to most fighters.
His mask was blue, and mine was black, but the crinkly folds around his eyes told me Chamberlain was smiling. A Covid test was one of the final barriers before he could fight again. His new promoter, Mick Hennessey, who helped Carl Froch and Tyson Fury become world champions, waited outside with his son, Michael, another fighter on last Saturday night’s bill.
Chamberlain moved to the designated spot, where the nurse waited, and slipped off his mask. He opened his mouth so a swab could be taken. A nasal swab followed and both were sealed in sterilised containers. There was nothing else we could do but wait for the results.
The fighters, Hennessey’s promotional team, British boxing board officials and I disappeared to our respective rooms. Meals came and went, delivered to our doors with a quiet knock. I worked, swapped messages with Chamberlain and looked out of the third floor window. The words “NO EXIT” were painted on the road outside. We were going nowhere.
At 10pm I heard voices outside. When it was my turn I received cheerful confirmation that I had tested negative for coronavirus. A black bracelet, worn on my wrist, carried the message: Testing Passed. Everyone in our bubble was clear. Saturday night’s promotion, and every fight on the bill, was on.
None of us left the hotel for the next 44 hours but, just before lunchtime on Friday, the familiar ritual of the weigh-in unfolded in the same room we had been tested. Paul Booth, the shaven-headed MC, wore a blue suit and a black bow-tie as he called each fighter to the scales.
Chamberlain ambled over in white socks and sliders. He wore his mask, tracksuit bottoms and a black T-shirt which said End Racism on the back. The fighter stood barefoot and bare-chested on the scales, wearing his mask, and Booth confirmed he had made the cruiserweight limit. Chamberlain’s squat opponent, Antony Woolery, who had a modest record of two wins and two losses, looked as if he was trying to hide a little paunch as they did the traditional face-off in masks. The difference between their physiques was stark – and it was obvious which of the contrasting pair had been awarded a five-year contract by Hennessy.
Boxing is still a psychological ordeal. The night before a fight always drags. Hennessy’s son, Michael, a baby-faced 20-year-old middleweight, broke the unsettling monotony. He and his trainer Junior Saba stepped into the corridor on the third floor where most of us were in our isolated rooms. The whappity-whap thud of gloves smacking into pads echoed outside the elevator as Hennessy Jr and Saba killed time that Friday night.
Fight day was another slow trial. But, with a languid Chamberlain setting the mood, the morning was strangely relaxed. I spoke to both Hennessy Sr and Jr as they reflected on their roles as promoter and fighter. “This is the most unusual promotion I’ve ever run, and I’ve been through plenty of strange ones,” Hennessy Sr said wryly. “It’s been difficult because it’s our first bubble, and the first night of boxing on terrestrial television, but everything’s gone well.”
The headline bout was a British light-heavyweight title fight between Shakan Pitters and Chad Sugden. The 6ft 6in Pitters, alongside Chamberlain, represents Hennessy’s new wave of fighters. “They’re very charismatic and hugely promising fighters,” Hennessy said of Pitters and Chamberlain. “You just have to spend time with Isaac to know he’s special. He lights up the room. We can get three million tuning into Channel 5 so I’m excited to build Isaac’s name on terrestrial television.”
Hennessy had reconciled himself to the fact his son was consumed by boxing. The promoter tried to keep him away from the ring but, finally, when Michael was 11, he allowed his boy to join a gym in Kent. After Michael had won his third amateur bout, Hennessy told his son how proud he was as he tucked him up in bed. “I’d just turned off his light,” Hennessy remembered, “and he said: ‘Hey, Dad? 3 and 0, baby!’”
Hennessey sat on his son’s bed and explained the harsh business of boxing. There were two options for Michael. He could keep fighting in his own gym and padding a winning record or he could go on the road and, amid the inevitable dodgy decisions and bruising defeats, he would learn how to fight. “I took the road,” Hennessy Jr told me.
Aged 15, Hennessy Jr was so smitten with boxing he asked his dad if they could move to Mexico so he could turn pro. He was in thrall to stories of great Mexican fighters becoming teenage professionals. His dad laughed and told him to keep working hard at school. Michael got five A*s and five As in his GSCEs.
Hennessy Jr smiled when I mentioned fight reports which described him as being “angel-faced.” He pointed out his old school preference for great fighters in Sugar Ray Leonard , James Toney, Arturo Gatti and Canelo Alvárez. Chamberlain is also a boxing connoisseur and, that morning, we sat in the deserted lounge and watched videos on his phone of his favourite boxer. Joan Guzman, a former world champion super-bantamweight, was a slick stylist from the Dominican Republic. Guzman carried enough power to earn himself the name of “Little Tyson” in the late 1990s but Chamberlain loved his fluid technique. He also showed me how Guzman used to leave his corner after the first bell and leap and twirl in the air before throwing a punch. “I’m gonna do that tonight,” Chamberlain cackled. “Just watch.”
There was less frivolity at 6pm as Chamberlain and I sat on two wooden chairs in a Channel Five studio. A boxing ring was lit up by the surrounding huge screens which all carried the No 5 against a bright red backdrop. It was dark in our corner. Instead of thousands of people drinking and singing Sweet Caroline while the countdown to a night of boxing intensified, the TV studio was hushed and empty. “This is surreal,” Chamberlain said softly. “It’s making me have deep thoughts and powerful emotions. I can’t believe I’m fighting again.”
I watched the Covid cleaning team chatting at ringside. Later, I learned that the four temporary cleaners, who sanitised the ring after every fight, were actually doctors. Sultan Hassan, who worked that night as a medic and a cleaner dressed in full PPE straight out of a sci-fi movie, sent me a tweet: “This would be the most qualified cleaning team comprising a consultant plastic surgeon, anaesthetist and two emergency/GP doctors. Well done Mick Hennessy for a well-organised show.”
By the time Hennessy Jr stepped into the ring, for the second bout of the night, and the fifth of his career, we had almost forgotten the Covid circumstances. Chamberlain’s voice echoed above the fighters’ gasps and grunts and the disconcerting thud of fists smacking into flesh and bone. Boxing seemed very raw as there was no crowd noise to disguise the sound of hurt.
“Good shot, bro,” Chamberlain shouted to Hennessy. “Use your feet. Hunt him down. That’s great … feint to the body. Double jab, right hook, Yeah! Beautiful boxing, bro.”
Between rounds, Chamberlain turned to me: “This is nerve-wracking, man!” Even when Hennessy was pressured by his opponent, Tom Brennan, Chamberlain reassured him by shouting: “He’s got nothing, Mike. Use that jab. Start flowing, bro!”
Hennessy Jr won the fight on points and, with an hour left until he stepped into the ring, it was time for Chamberlain to retreat to the curtained area. His hands were wrapped in silence while we listened to the punches landing amid shouts from the two corners as the next fight began.
In an eerie blue light Chamberlain lay on the floor and began to stretch. It looked as if he was about to begin an elaborate dance routine as he rose to his haunches and extended his legs. Later, he stood patiently while Vaseline was applied to his eyebrows. His gloves were pulled on and then, with 20 minutes left, Chamberlain began to hit the pads held for him by his trainer.
The next call came. “Ten minutes to go …” Everything felt very serious. Chamberlain was concentrated and glistening as, with sighs and cries, he crashed punches into the shuddering mitts.
“Five minutes, gents,” a Channel Five production man said as sweat flew across the tented room. Chamberlain offered his black glove so we could bump fists. It was a little good luck from me to a fighter who had been through so much.
“Ready, lads?” a voice shouted.
Chamberlain wore a shimmering black singlet and, across the back, those persuasive words were stitched in white: End Racism. I walked behind the fighter as he headed for the ring. There was a long pause when, close to the seats where we had watched Hennessy fight, Chamberlain waited. He watched his opponent enter the ring.
Finally, the moment came. The sound of Clearly, a track by A2, an artist from east London, reverberated around the arena. Chamberlain was picked out by the television cameras as he walked across the vacant studio while A2’s desolate words boomed. Without any fans it was like nothing I had seen in boxing. It was a fight for our Covid times.
Chamberlain kept his promise and did a leap and twirl in his corner, in honour of Guzman, after the opening bell.
The gulf in class was obvious even if it took two rounds for Chamberlain to shake off his ring rust against an aggressive Woolery. After a minute of round three, having repeatedly snapped his beautiful jab into Woolery’s face, Chamberlain opened up. He speared heavy hooks into his rival’s sagging frame. A vicious left hook to the body dropped Woolery. The referee stopped counting at seven. Chamberlain had won on a third-round knockout.
His next test will be in the ring a week on Saturday, again on Channel Five and in another bubble – with this fight in an empty television studio in Wakefield.
“It felt like a fight,” Chamberlain said in his dressing room. “I was zoned in and didn’t notice anything outside the ring. As soon as he stepped in I hit him with the jab. Boom. I kept thinking: ‘Wait for him to come in and jab.’ I wanted him to throw because I’m very good with aggressive counters. His jab would come and I’d change the angles. I was trying stuff I’d learned these past 22 months. But I hit him and I hurt him. I then went bap, bap, bap to the head, to bring his hands up, and then, boom, back to the body!”
After Woolery visited Chamberlain’s dressing room to pay his respects and ask for a photo, it felt calm. This is how boxing, and life, has to be for the foreseeable future. “It’s weird,” Chamberlain said, “but it’s almost starting to feel normal. It might be in a bubble but the main thing, bro, is that I’m definitely back.”