Harry Pratt

Barker is all fighter beneath civil demeanor

 

Darren Barker has been waiting for this moment all of his life. The chance to make an indelible mark upon the elite of world boxing. That’s why Saturday’s showdown against RING middleweight champion Sergio Martinez in Atlantic City, N.J., is such an irresistible challenge for the undefeated Brit.

At 29, any title shot would have done Barker, from Barnet, North London. However, going toe-to-toe with the living legend that is Argentine ace Martinez, No. 3 in THE RING’s pound-for-pound ratings, is quite simply the ultimate.

You get no trash-talking with Barker. He is not into bad-mouthing or belittling opponents with futile cheap attacks. And most certainly not when it is somebody of the 36-year-old southpaw’s standing and reputation. But, then, after so much hard graft inside the ring — and a number of savage encounters outside it — Barker is a respectful and considered individual. One of the sport’s genuine nice guys.

Do not be fooled, though. Underneath the calm, affable exterior, a brave heart beats loud amid a burning desire to ensure 2011 is the year when he finally cracks it at the top.

“You can easily get carried away and that’s something I can’t afford to do against the likes of Martinez. That would be absolute suicide,” Barker said on conference call from the States. “But then this is a dream that I’ve always had. I’ve always felt it was my destiny to become a world champion. I am also mentally strong and I don’t get fazed. That has helped put me into this position and it means I’m in the right frame of mind for this fight. I’m fully focused on Saturday, October 1 — because this is ‘s__t or bust’ for me.

“I know there’s a rematch clause in the contract — for when I beat him. But that’s the next one. I’m not looking beyond anything. It would be very stupid and naive of me to look past this date. It’s a step up in class but I know I’m ready, that’s the most important thing.”

Barker very nearly never reached this standout point in his career. He had serious hip problems three years ago, during which time he was still grieving the death of younger brother, Gary, in a car crash at the age of 19. If that tragedy was not severe enough, just when seemingly close to returning from a 12-month spell out injured, a genuine act of goodwill by Barker backfired disastrously. Intervening as a peacemaker in a high-street fracas in Watford, Hertfordshire, resulted in him taking a fearful battering from a gang of men. While recovering from the vicious assault, Barker could have been forgiven for thinking that fate was conspiring against him.

Indeed, few would have blamed him had he decided there and then to pack it all in. He did consider it. Yet, instead of moping and bemoaning his misfortune, and the fact he had lost so much potential primetime in the ring, the former British and Commonwealth holder picked himself up — mentally and physically — and under the watchful eye of Matchroom supremo, Eddie Hearn, bounced back.

“I feel quite proud of myself that I actually made it back into the gym after what happened and look where I have ended up. I am now fighting the best in the world for a world title,” said Barker, whose previous outing in April saw him reclaim the vacant European title with a unanimous decision over Italian bruiser Domenico Spada.

“Through my success, my brother Gary’s name lives on. That will definitely go through my mind before this weekend’s fight when I’m in the changing room thinking of Gary in those final few moments. He is always with me. When I’m making a cup of tea. When I’m in the ring. I think about him before every session and even more before a fight.”

Not that Barker is seriously counting on anyone other than himself as he bids to dethrone the number one middleweight on the planet. Nor is he listening to the experts who suggest he simply does not possess enough class or experience at the highest level to become only the third person to beat Martinez (47-2-2, 26 knockouts).

Barker is unconcerned by the gloomy tipsters, especially when he is feeling fitter than ever. For once, his lean, angular 6-foot frame is in perfect working order. That’s why he is so confident of pulling off a true shock — and gate-crashing the pound-for-pound charts in the process.

“Cliché or not, this is definitely the best I have ever felt. I am doing more training, and I’m now doing things much quicker. It’s so good to be injury free for a change,” said Barker (23-0, 14 KOs). “I can’t even remember the last time I was injury free. Even when I won the European title two or three years ago, I had all my hip problems. This makes such a big difference to me as a fighter.

“People at home know me well because of the British, Commonwealth and European titles I’ve won but over in America they don‘t know me at all. It means nothing to them. That will change after this weekend.

“It is no secret that Martinez likes to box on the back foot against a bigger and taller opponent. Against Paul Williams he was moving around on his back foot and looking to counter. At some stage, I expect him to come forward with a volume of punches. But I am prepared for any sort of Martinez. I have game plans depending on which Martinez shows up.

“I really enjoy the role of the underdog. It is appealing that I can cause an upset. There is a real buzz about the camp. Everything’s been perfect for me in New York. And while he may have had some good wins, Martinez is not invincible because I know how to beat southpaws. You could say I have this knack of beating them, which goes back to my early days. That‘s why I wanted and targeted this fight with Martinez all along.”

There is even an autobiography in the pipeline, detailing Barker’s remarkable ride through thick and thin. It’s a tale he reckons converts easily to the big screen.

“I’ve been working on a book for a couple of years now and we’re waiting to see where the journey ends,” he said. “But I am still creating the final chapter, with the job at hand against Martinez. It’s been quite a roller-coaster, my journey. I’m looking forward to winding it up with victory.”

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