The Pugilist

Darren Barker: Britain’s very own Rocky Balboa

The Pugilist

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If Rocky Balboa and Cinderella had a fling and conceived a lovechild, it would be Darren Barker.

That is pretty much the only possible way to adequately explain Barker’s first world boxing championship victory, which came on Saturday night in a gripping, physical and dramatic 12-round war with Australia’s outgoing IBF middleweight titlist Daniel Geale.

Just considering the fight and nothing else, one would get the impression the Dazzler was the offspring of two of fiction’s most famous underdogs done good.

In fact, I doubt even a professional screenplay or fairytale author could have constructed the title fight with a better story arc.

Both Geale and Barker came into the bout as respected and hard-working all-rounders, hungry for more of the mainstream recognition that other boxers enjoyed for less input.

For five entertaining rounds, they proved just how well-matched they were: punching, counter-punching, exchanging and moving around the ring at a furious pace in hopes of settling first.

Barker had the edge after five. Then, tragedy almost struck.

Out of nowhere, when it looked like he was putting in another strong effort in the sixth, Barker was caught flush by a fierce left hook to the midsection.

He went down, hard, and did not look like he was getting up.

He got up… at nine. Many referees see a boxer beat the count by one, in the excruciating pain Barker was no doubt in at this stage, and wave it off anyway.

Eddie Cotton, however, allowed Barker the chance to try and weather the setback. He had a minute and change to survive, and was clearly in a bad way.

Not only did Barker survive, he thrived. With attack as his choice for defence, he finished the round on top.

As he gingerly returned to his corner, the Londoner raised his arms, wincing as he did so due to the body shot. Getting out of that pickle was in itself a small victory.

Not satisfied, Barker pushed on and won a few more rounds, putting himself ahead to most by a modest margin heading into round 12.

The pace and physicality of the bout had not dropped, and the two remained fantastically-matched – until round 12.

Perhaps knowing he needed a big finish to keep his title – or at least, another 10-8 round – Geale found openings on the tired Barker and shook his jaw and ribcage more than once.

Barker somehow stayed upright, despite probably "seeing three of 'em out there" as Sly Stallone's character famously slurred in the fourth film. It was an enthralling finish to a fight of the year contender.

Even the judges’ scorecards after 12 added to the drama. A split decision saw Barker declared the new world champion after what seemed like an eternity of waiting.

By that, I merely refer to the time between final bell and Michael Buffer’s announcement which felt like forever.

‘An eternity of waiting’, however, also pretty much sums up Barker’s journey to the promised land of world championship glory in a nutshell. And this is where the Balboa-esque title win gets its Cinderella touch.

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It took seven years for Barker to receive his first world title shot. He certainly had the talent to climb the ladder faster, but personal tragedies put paid to that.

In December 2006, with Barker a promising 14-0 prospect, he received the news that his brother Gary – also a boxer – was killed in a car accident.

Darren understandably took a hiatus from the ring, returning in October 2007 and collecting the Commonwealth, British and European titles. At 22-0, a world title shot beckoned.

Then, in summer 2010, Barker was assaulted with a glass bottle for trying to break up a fight and left for dead.

After another lengthy spell away, Barker returned and won the European belt a second time. His shot at the big time was finally set up, against one of the world’s finest middleweights in Sergio Martinez.

That, too, was in Atlantic City in late 2011. Again, Barker was dropped in the midst of a battling performance. That time, however, he did not get up.

He would have wanted to keep the subsequent regrouping time to a reasonable length, but serious injuries to both his hip and bicep led to a third extended break.

I was in attendance at London’s Olympia last December when he made his return after more than a year. I’ll be honest: though he looked in good shape in comfortably stopping Kerry Hope in four, I wasn’t certain he would ever be able to rediscover that momentum after all he’d been through.

On Saturday night, I had never felt so happy to be proven dead wrong.

Barker admitted post-win that when he hit the deck from Geale’s hook, images of his family – including the deceased Gary – flashed into his mind. Memories of that dream-ending blow from Martinez played on a loop.

Anything less compelling than that likely wouldn’t have picked Barker – or anyone – off the canvas.

It was certainly a fight, a title win, a career that would not look out of place in a feature film or a fairytale, if the brothers Grimm were ever partial to a weekend tear-up.

Like all good films, there’s plenty of scope for lucrative sequels. Few boxers deserve the payday and the time in the spotlight more than Barker.

The likes of Gennady Golovkin and perhaps a Martinez rematch would be huge challenges. Barker would certainly be up for them.

This writer, however, hopes he enjoys his time as champion a little before going for those huge tests. One way of doing so would be to pursue the all-British challenges a promising time for the middleweight division can offer.

Matthew Macklin was soundly beaten by Golovkin, but would also serve as good warm-up for Barker before a champion v champion contest sometime in 2014. The winner of Billy Joe Saunders v John Ryder at the Olympic Copper Box next month would be another good domestic option.

The one I would like to see more than anything would be Barker v Martin Murray.

Murray looked like he had beaten Martinez in April, dropping him twice and having one wrongly ruled a trip. The bout – in Maravilla’s native Argentina – was then called a Martinez win to the shock of nobody and the disgust of many.

Murray deserves a third crack. Barker would be keen to prove he deserves another Martinez fight. And it would be a more tantalising British bout than both Haye-Fury and Froch-Groves.

And of course, there’s a possible rematch with Geale. The Australian was excellent as well in Atlantic City, and was classy in defeat. He rematched the only other man to beat him – Anthony Mundine – and avenged it. Would he do the same to Barker?

If the bout is anything as brilliant as their first, bring it on.

Liam Happe | Follow on Twitter

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