It was the day before the Commonwealth Games of 2002 began in Manchester and the England boxing team was gathered in the games village at Manchester University after training. It was press day and all the media were there – television, radio and all the papers.
One by one, the boxers were interviewed. All except me. I got angrier and angrier the longer I sat there on my own and they ignored me. Clearly nobody expected anything from me and probably thought I was a bit of an anonymous no-hoper. “Bloody hell,” I thought. “I’m going to show you lot.”
I had been very nervous ahead of the Games and there had been that bit of controversy within the sport about my selection, so I was in a feisty mood anyway. It didn’t help watching everyone such as the weightlifters eat what they wanted at the 24-hour restaurant in the village while I was minding my diet to stay within the 63.5 Kgs limit, which equated to light welterweight.
Now, with my snubbing by the media, it felt like every bit of outside pressure was taken away from me. There was just the pressure that I would always put on myself. I could really go about it now. I settled down, feeling comfortable that I had other Repton boxers around me. My room-mate was welterweight Danny Happe, probably my best mate at the club at that time, and another welterweight, Tony Cesay, was representing Sierra Leone, the country of his parents’ birth.
I certainly felt well prepared, along with the rest of the England team. We had all got to know each other first on a bonding trip to Austria, staying in log cabins out in the sticks. It was a mixture of perspiration and inspiration, along with some good laughs. The perspiration came from some tough physical work – though nowhere near the three intense training camps we would have leading up to the Games at Peterlee in County Durham, Crystal Palace and Manchester. The inspiration came in a brilliant video they showed us of English athletes winning medals at previous Games, to a soundtrack of U2’s It’s A Beautiful Day. It was very emotional and I really wanted some of it for myself.
The laughs came first in a canoe slalom we were all asked to take part in. I was put in a boat – is that the right word? – with Darran Langley, a light-flyweight who had beaten me when I was a kid at Finchley. Maybe we didn’t have enough weight in the canoe, what with him being so small, but we went off course and ended up a mile down stream until we managed to get out. It was a long walk back.
Another night, we watched the film The Blair Witch Project in the community room at the complex. We were in log cabins in the middle of nowhere, remember. We were all pretty tense and intent on the screen and didn’t notice Danny Happe creep into the room. He was wearing a black motorcycle helmet and went over to Matthew Marsh, tapping him on the shoulder. Matthew turned round and nearly jumped out of his skin. It was a good job Danny was wearing the helmet otherwise he might have got chinned.
My first fight at the Wythenshawe Forum, where the preliminary fights for the Games were held, turned out to be my toughest, against Paul McCloskey of Northern Ireland, who would go on to be British and European champion at the weight. It was a close contest for a long time but I pulled away, landing well with my jab, to prevail on points by 20-15. Then came a stoppage against Roy Sheldon of Jamaica on the ‘outclassed’ rule – which applies when one of the fighters is being beaten too easily and is to spare him punishment – to put me in the quarter final.
I was nervous before that, knowing that a win would put me in the semis and guarantee me a medal – and also because my Ghanaian opponent, Lartei Lartey, had knocked out his opponent in reaching the last eight. In the end, though, it was a comfortable enough 24-8 win.
I was absolutely delighted, and even more so when I got some news on my way to the weigh-in ahead of my semi-final, against Davidson Emenogu of Nigeria. “He’s pulled out,” an official told me and I soon found out that the guy had broken his foot playing football in a kick-about in the Games village.
Now I was in the final, guaranteed a silver. I had some sympathy for the Nigerian bloke but playing football was a bit daft so close to such a big fight. I liked my football and as well as supporting Chelsea, I played a bit for East Barnet Old Grammarians the EBOGS – as a midfield player mainly who liked to score the odd goal. I would not have dared in the run-up to this, though. Still, I was happy to take all the luck going.
Finals day was in the huge MEN Arena, which meant I got to fight in the same venue as Mike Tyson when he beat Julius Francis. My final was to be against a Ugandan, Mohammed Kayongo, who was captain of their entire team and had carried the country’s flag in the opening ceremony. Tony Burns took the chance to have a word with me beforehand.
“I’ve just had Harry Lawson on the phone,” he said, referring to an old Repton boxer.
“Yeah?” I said.
“He made it to a Commonwealth Games final once,” said Tony. “He lost. He’s told me to make sure to tell you that it still winds him up that he never won the gold.”
That was Tony. He planted seeds. Made you think. It was great motivation as he knew that more than getting hurt or any other consideration, what I hated most was losing and the fear of it always spurred me on.
It was a tough contest and although I got the upper hand early on and led by six points, Kayongo came back with a couple of right hands in the second round that caught me. In the end, even though I knew I had not boxed as well as I could, I came through by 18 points to 14.
I remember sinking to my knees when it was announced and then seeing my Mum in the audience crying. The whole family was there – Dad, Grandad, Lee, Gary and little Daisy, as well as Uncle Dean of course – but it was Mum I picked out. It was the first time she had been to see me fight as she hated the idea of seeing me and Gary get hit. We had been to New York earlier in the year with Repton for a tournament – it was not long after 9/11 and visiting Ground Zero was a humbling experience with the city still raw – and although Mum came on the trip, she did not come to see me and Gary fight.
It took a lot for her to be there then, and I felt so proud. In fact, it suddenly came home to me just how big a reason making my family proud played in my boxing.
Standing on the podium with the gold medal around my neck was a wonderful moment that I knew I would treasure for ever and I fought back the tears. I was the first Englishman to win gold at the boxing tournament. We had four other finalists but only one other gold medallist, in David Dolan at super heavyweight, with Darran Langley, Paul Smith and Steven Birch taking silver.
I also found out that Tony Burns had vowed to other people at Repton that he would give up smoking if I won the gold. He was as good as his word and never smoked again.
Now the TV, radio and press all wanted to know plenty about me, which put a wry smile on my face, and now I could bask in the glory of gold. I got whisked off to the BBC studios to be interviewed by Sue Barker. I would get better as an interviewee down the years but I was tongue-tied in those days and it was a bit embarrassing. I was still a bit of a gawky 20-year-old, 5ft 11in tall now, and not that confident. In fact, I was a bit in awe of one of the great figures in British broadcasting, having always watched her on A Question of Sport. It is ironic that later in my career I would be on the show myself as a guest.
Now I could give that 24-hour canteen a caning and I ate very well, loving watching all the great athletes come and go around the place, like Jonathan Edwards, Kelly Holmes, Paula Radcliffe and local favourite Darren Campbell. There was also a long walkway from the security gate to the village itself and they put plaques down for all the medallists. It was a real thrill seeing ‘Gold: Darren Barker. Boxing. 63.5Kg.’
The whole experience made me determined to go further and try for the Athens Olympic Games of 2004. I had ideas of turning professional in the future, and had been introduced by Tony Burns to a trainer he trusted by the name of Tony Sims, should I ever want to make the step; what is called in boxing ‘turning over’. He seemed like a genuine guy and we hit it off straight away. I even went to the gym he rented at Woodford Rugby Club in Essex to spar a few times, along with Gary, who was developing well alongside me.
For now, with my style still geared towards scoring points rather than hurting opponents as in the pros, and with my body still developing, I wanted to see how far I could go as an amateur. And I was doing pretty well financially, thanks to lottery money, by being a part of the England set-up. The previous September, in fact, I had received a letter from the ABA saying that I was now being included on their World Class programme and would be funded by Sport England. That had given me quite a boost.
I actually had no need to work now as I was getting £1,281 a month clear. I will always remember the figure. Before the Commonwealth Games, we were all on £750 a month. On the back of the gold, my money had gone up by more than £500. David Haye, who would go on to be World Heavyweight Champion, also joined the team at that time and he was on more than any of us. I suppose his food bills were higher.
Pre-Athens, the governing bodies changed the weights and I moved up from light-welterweight to welter, where the limit was 69Kgs, increased from 67Kgs. It suited me down to the ground and I was picked for the World Championships in Bangkok in 2003. That was another great experience for a young kid, not least being in a bar and seeing an elephant being led past the open window. And being billeted next to a running track where there were so many people jogging that you couldn’t see the track.
I started badly, being decked early on in my first fight against the Japanese Koji Sato. I switched off as I was coasting and got caught and punished for it. I was fine, though, and after taking the count of eight, I went on to win by 31 points to 22 after the four two-minute rounds. After that came a win over a South African, Kwanene Zulu, the ref stopping it in the second when I was well on top.
Now I was in the last eight, just one win away from a medal, but I was up against a real pedigree fighter in the American Andre Berto, who would go on to be a highly impressive world champion at the weight as a professional. I boxed really well, giving one of the best performances of my amateur career, and was seven points up going into the last round. I did well then, I thought, to keep at bay the inevitable rally he put together in the last round and waited for the referee to raise my arm when it was time for the verdict.
I could not believe it then when the judges announced that I had lost 24-22. Berto may well have won the last round but never in a million years by nine points. I was devastated and disgusted. You know as a boxer when you have won or lost and I knew I had won. Just that win would have guaranteed me at least a bronze medal. In the World Championships. Imagine – a world bronze. To show the standard of competition, by the way, the middle-weight division was won by Gennady Golovkin of Kazakhstan who would go on to become the most feared boxer in the professional middleweight division, taking over from the legendary Sergio Martinez, who would play a big part in my career. On the way in that tournament, Golovkin would beat the Romanian Lucian Bute, who would become a professional world champion himself at super middleweight and have such a battle with Carl Froch.
The defeat took the wind out of my sails as an amateur and to be honest, I lost a bit of stomach for the sport. I was competing and still wanting to make my family proud but just didn’t have the same motivation. I reckoned I had already achieved a lot. I was getting older and settling into my relationship with Gemma and enjoying playing football for EBOGS, even though I was a rubbish penalty taker and couldn’t score one to save my life, shown when we once lost a cup final.
I was also getting too big for the 69Kgs division but was too small really for the next weight up in the new divisions, 75Kgs, which was middleweight. But that was the weight I was allocated to try and qualify for the Olympics.
I was sent to the European Championships in Croatia in February 2004 and beat an Italian, Andrea Di Luisa, by 32 points to 20, in the first round. Now I had just two more wins to record to reach the semi-finals and guarantee a place in the British team for Athens. The problem was, the other guys were bigger than me. For the only time in my career, I was not having trouble making the weight.
In the last 16, I came up against Ireland’s Andy Lee, who would go on to be a world middleweight champion himself. I was always forcing the fight after falling a few points behind early on and Andy was a good counter- puncher. In the end, he won 18-8 and would go on to win a highly commendable bronze medal.
It meant I had to try again at one of the other Olympic qualifying tournaments that Spring and I was sent to Gothenburg, Sweden in the April. My first fight, though, proved to be my last as an amateur. It was a bad draw, against the highly rated Hungarian Karoly Balzsay, and I was stopped on the outclassed rule in the third round. It was the only time in my amateur career that it happened to me. At least I managed to stay on my feet. Balzsay would go on to reach the last 16 in Athens and then turn pro and become WBA Super Middleweight Champion.
I can remember crying afterwards in the dressing room. I knew my Olympic dreams were over and to be honest, I knew then my amateur career was over. I was 22 years old and couldn’t face going through all this again only to have my hopes dashed after four more years of struggle, hoping I might qualify for the next Games in Beijing. In the end, nobody was selected for Athens to represent Great Britain at middleweight and in fact just one boxer was selected at any weight – Amir Khan.
I hoped that Beijing would be Gary’s time. As my amateur career was ending, his was really going up a level and I was delighted for him. The previous July, he had gone to Louisiana in the United States to represent Great Britain at the Junior Olympic Games – with Grandad Rodney and cousin Richard as company and only gone and come back with a gold medal, beating the Puerto Rican Luis Orlando Del Valle in the 54Kgs final. Del Valle later became an American citizen and became their number one ranked amateur before having a good professional career.
What also showed Gary’s quality was that in the same tournament, Amir Khan also won gold by outclassing the American Victor Ortiz, who would go on to be a world champion at welterweight as a professional at welterweight. The best part of Gary’s amateur career still lay ahead of him but mine had come and gone and I came to terms with that as I watched Amir Khan win a silver medal at lightweight in Athens. I was delighted for him but had mixed emotions. I was sad that it was over but relieved at the same time. I was done.
My domestic record showed only 13 defeats from 68 fights and there were many more international fights that took my number of bouts to over a century. It had been a good career and I had enjoyed myself, getting to travel to some amazing places wearing an England vest.
It was just a shame I didn’t get that world bronze but I knew the time was right to move on. But what to do now? I could work for my Dad in his painting and decorating business. Or I could take up Tony Sims’s offer to turn pro with him and see if I was any good. In the event, I would end up doing both…