“As soon as it gets into your head you have to block it,” Isaac Chamberlain says as he brushes aside a dark and brooding thought of what defeat might mean for either himself or Chris Billam-Smith when they meet in a Commonwealth and European cruiserweight title fight in Bournemouth on Saturday night. It is one of the most intriguing British bouts of the year as Chamberlain steps into the champion’s home town for a contest fraught with risk and danger.
We sit on Chamberlain’s bed in the house he has rented for his small team in Birmingham. It feels a long way from Brixton, where he grew up amid poverty and strife, drug-running and knife crime, but Birmingham has been the site of Chamberlain’s fight camp for six weeks. He is 28, a doting father to a little boy and perhaps the most thoughtful and generous boxer I know. Chamberlain also writes, voicing his doubts and fears with vivid eloquence , as he reflects deeply on life.
Since becoming a father, and feeling so much happier and more settled, there has been no need to articulate his pain as he had done previously in passionate bursts of writing. Now, approaching his 16th bout, Chamberlain knows that victory over Billam-Smith could deliver the world title shot he has dreamed of for years.
They have each lost only one fight and, while Billam-Smith has been the more active boxer in recent years, this is the biggest opportunity of Chamberlain’s career since he and Lawrence Okolie headlined a bill at London’s O2 Arena in 2018. A points defeat that night derailed Chamberlain for a long time but he now has another chance to reach world championship level.
His training has been gruelling and Chamberlain is pining for his eight-month-old son, Zion, whom he won’t see until after this weekend’s fight when he returns to south London. “I know what I’ve sacrificed,” he says as he props himself against the wall. “I’m not doing all of this to think: ‘Oh, maybe I might lose.’ I’m not doing all this hard work not to bring hell with me.”
I’ve known Chamberlain a long time and his powerful story gathers resonance the more he unpeels the layers of all he has endured. We have had time to go even further today and Chamberlain sounds suddenly fierce. “It will be a cold day in hell before I let him beat me,” he says of Billam-Smith, who is just as amiable and respectful as Chamberlain usually is outside the ring. “He will also have sacrificed a lot – but I sacrificed more. People are finally going to see the real me and they’re going to say: ‘This guy is definitely a diamond in the rough.’”
Chamberlain was born in the rough in Brixton. “My real dad left us when I was four and I remember vaguely how he and my mum would tell me to go to my room where I had a little PlayStation. I’d put the volume up because in the next room I’m hearing: ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ They were hitting each other and my mum was mostly winning. She had fast hands, so I probably get my boxing and aggression from her.”
Was he scared? Chamberlain shakes his head. “When you’re growing up everything is a cartoon. In that environment you think it’s normal. Sometimes there was no food so you think: ‘OK, it’s sleep for dinner.’ Your stomach wakes you up because it’s growling so much but you get used to it.”
That deprivation was part of the reason why, aged 12, Chamberlain became a drug mule who would deliver cocaine, crack and heroin on his bicycle in Brixton. “I always heard my mum on the phone saying: ‘I’ve got no money.’ When you’re young it stresses you out. So I reached out to one of the older [dealers] and said: ‘Yo, put me on the shit.’ He said: ‘You sure? OK, cool.’ That’s how it started.”
Did the dealers seem glamorous? “Yeah. They all had cars, clothes, money and the girls loved them. So you’re thinking: ‘I want to be like that. I want to be the man having money and the chicks.’ You know them from the area but they’d be chilling on the street like they owned it.”
Was he nervous before his first job? Chamberlain laughs. “Shit, no. I had some run-down trainers with the tongue hanging out. I couldn’t wait to get some nice Air Max or white Air Force trainers. But I didn’t understand they were robbing me, not giving me my fair share, because to those guys I was just a kid. Some of them were getting £500 but I was getting so little. But it was better than stealing from the pick & mix at Woolworths.
“I only really understood the dangers when I had to pick up a bag of coke. I was on the bus and I shoved the bag down my pants. But when I got off the police were stopping and searching everyone. I froze. The guy I was with said: ‘Just walk this way.’ But that’s when I heard the policeman coming. He shouted: ‘Stop right there!’”
Chamberlain’s face scrunches up in the terror he felt 14 years ago. “Oh my gosh! I was faster than Usain Bolt as I ran down a long road between Brixton and Kennington. Even if they gave up chasing me I didn’t stop running until I dropped the bag off at my friend’s house and said: ‘I’m not doing this no more.’ He was like: ‘C’mon, man, we’ll do it together.’ I refused and went home and had a shower straight away. There was so much coke down my leg and I knew I had to get out of that life.
“If I had been caught I would have 100% gone to jail. I was only a kid but these were class A drugs. So when those guys kept calling me I took the sim card out of my phone and broke it. They couldn’t get hold of me then. If I hadn’t done that it would have got worse, in and out of jail and that’s where you find more connections to do bad things or you make enemies. It’s a vicious cycle.”
His cousin was stabbed to death in a Brixton and Kennington “beef” between rival gangs and young Isaac carried a knife for protection. “You never know who might be after you, bro. But my stepdad saw the knife and threw it in the bin. He said: ‘Don’t ever bring it into the house again.’”
The murder of his cousin prompted Chamberlain’s mum, who had given birth to him at 17, to take him to Miguel’s boxing gym in Brixton. Boxing offered him a safe place away from drugs and gangs. “I fell in love with boxing,” Chamberlain says. “I saw two 50-year-old guys sparring and thought: ‘These guys are laying into each other and not getting in trouble. This is crazy!’ I picked up the gloves and they stank. The gym walls were sweaty, the mirror was humid and the first time I got punched I saw a white flash – pow! I didn’t stop punching the guy after that, out of fear. I was like: ‘Flipping heck, this is crazy. And people want to do this?’”
Chamberlain rocks with laughter. “Now look at me.”
The first day he stepped into the gym he also met the man who helped change his life. “I have to give Delroy Lewis, the janitor at Miguel’s, so much credit because he saw something in me that no one else did. Whenever I’d finish school, he’d come and get me, bring me to the gym, because I never really had a childhood. People were telling him: ‘Oh, Isaac won’t be anything, why bother with him?’ But Delroy saw me as his little project and he would take me running at 5am in Camberwell.
“He also gave me jobs to do in the gym. I would sweep the ring, wipe the windows and mirrors and he’d give me £5. I would get pilchards, brown bread, some chickpeas, a Lucozade and, if I had any money left, a KitKat Chunky. That kept me going the next morning as I’d have something to eat before my free school dinner. Delroy helped so much.
“He told me: ‘Isaac, you have a hard road ahead but you can be one of the best. You can be very special.’ Nobody had ever said that to me before. Nobody had ever praised me. But when I try and give him some money now as a thank you he’s like: ‘Oh no.’ He’s a proper Jamaican man and used to be in the army so he doesn’t like to show any emotion. But I see it coming when I say: ‘You’re my real dad.’”
Chamberlain still picks up Delroy in Brixton so that he can take the old janitor for a drive or introduce him to his son. The boxer likes to contrast the life he’d had as a boy with the much warmer and happier world in which he will bring up Zion. It’s moving to hear Chamberlain remember that he had never been taken to the zoo or on holiday as a kid – and how he will ensure his son enjoys everything of which he had been deprived.
Boxing gives him this opportunity. “It’s changed everything – from my life to my son’s life.”
Chamberlain shows me a video of his little boy reaching out to touch the screen as the boxer talks on the phone to his partner, Zaila, whom he started dating eight years ago. He coos over the delight on Zion’s face and then, as the reality of Saturday’s fight settles over us again, he says: “My life is the happiest it’s ever been but it’s also made me think that, in the ring, I’ve got to be more sinister, more vicious and just darker. That might sound crazy but when you’re facing such a hard and important fight, that can transform your family for ever, you have to think that way.”