Seven years have passed since the moment that defined Darren Barker’s career, but he can still remember the emotions like it is yesterday.
When Barker woke up on the morning of August 17, 2013, he knew that he had just one shot to fulfil his dream.
Not just his dream, but the dream he shared with brother Gary, also a talented boxer tipped for the top when he passed away in a car accident seven years earlier, aged just 19.
When Barker was put down by a vicious body shot from opponent Daniel Geale in the sixth round, he saw visions of Gary and his daughter and somehow summoned the strength to beat the count.
When Michael Buffer read the scorecards to crown Barker IBF middleweight champion by the narrowest of margins, his initial feeling of elation was met by heartache just a few seconds later as he again crumbled to his knees.
“There was kind of sadness if I’m honest. It was instant, ‘yes, I’ve won’ to realising I’m letting go of my brother,” Barker said as he recalled the moment he became world champion.
“I’d achieved our life work I guess, or at least my life work, completing the last piece of the jigsaw to win a world title.
“I’d done it for us and it was like letting go of my brother. I haven’t, I speak to him all the time and visualise him all the time, but it was a sad moment. But the celebrations after were great.
“It’s so sad and it goes without saying I’d swap the world title to have my brother back, but it’s as happy an ending as could be.”
Barker almost quit the sport when his brother passed away but continue to chase his dream.
By the time he got his second world title shot, two years after being stopped by Sergio Martinez in the 11th round, he was well aware it was his last shot.
“I guess the first thing that sprung to mind when I woke up that morning was pressure,” he recalls. “Because I knew it was going to be my last chance to become a world champion.
“If I lost, I never would have fought again. It had been such a hard journey from the moment that my brother passed away to getting back into the gym, getting back into the ring.
“That, coupled with injuries, it was a long, hard slog. I gave it everything and waking up the morning of the fight I felt a bit of pressure.
“I just thought, ‘wow, if I don’t do it then I’ll never be fully content in my life’. It was a lot of pressure.
“As far as my preparations were concerned, even though I was struggling with my elbows, my hips, my back – a lot of injuries – it was the best possible camp.
“I knew that I was 15 rounds fit if needs be, so I took a lot of confidence in my preparation.
“By the time I was doing my ring walk a lot of the feeling of pressure had left me. It was more excitement at that stage.
“My time to shine, my time to fulfil my dream and my brothers’ dream. It just felt like it was my destiny, it was my time.
“I used to like ring walks full stop. You watch them as a kid now you’re taking part in these big contests with your song blaring out. By that stage I was ready for war.”
Barker got off to a strong start but the emotion of the occasion saw him deviate from his game plan.
He was leading the fight when he was caught flush by Geale in the mid section and experienced the most powerful moment of his life.
“The fight was going to plan in the sense that I was winning, although I wasn’t boxing how I should’ve boxed,” he says.
“It was just that real eagerness to win, it made me box out of character. I was really biting down on my gumshield because I was just so desperate to win.
“But I was winning, then all of a sudden I got caught with an absolute peach of a body shot. I’d been hurt with body shots before but never gone down.
“Usually there’s a couple of second delay before the pain kicks in and you can’t breath but that was instant. I just instantly couldn’t breathe.
“I went down and it was quite quickly that I was visualising images of my brother saying ‘get up, you’re that close’.
“I promise you that’s not me trying to glamorise a bad moment, it’s just the whole reason why I was doing it became apparent when I was on that floor.
“I was seeing my brother, seeing my daughter as well, I had just one child then, and I didn’t want to let her down and let my brother down.
“That nine and a half seconds seemed like nine and a half years and there were a lot of powerful emotions and powerful images I was seeing. It was crazy.
“Somehow I got to my feet, and when I get to my feet I was still in agony. The referee, as he does, asked if I was OK, and I was still winded so I said ‘yes’ in a high-pitched sort of squeak.
“Thankfully he let me carry on and I was under immense pressure, but somehow started firing back as soon as I could get my breath back.”
When the final bell rang, Barker knew it was close but was convinced he had won the fight.
Eventually, he was given the nod via a split decision and got the moment he had dreamed of from legendary announced Michael Buffer.
He explained: “Initially when the bell went, a fighter will always know if he believes he’s won the fight and I did. I believed I’d won the fight.
“But I was the away fighter, and the chief support was another one of Gary Shaw’s world champions and he lost so he was already one of his stars down.
“I started thinking it could go against me, but I was proud of myself and proud of the performance I put in.
“I was proud I left everything in that ring, so if I had have lost, yes I would’ve been bitterly disappointed and it would’ve haunted me for the rest of my life, but I could’ve been proud of the performance I put in.
“A little bit of nerves then the scorecards are read out and it was just one each then I can’t remember the last judge but he said 114.
“As soon as he said 114 I was convinced it was going to be a draw, so my initial feeling was gutted then, 113.
“Hearing Michael Buffer, who two years previous had got my name wrong when I fought Sergio Martinez for the world title, again in Atlantic City.
“My big moment, I was buzzing for Michael Buffer and he announced me as Dazzling Darren Baker!
“I had him this time getting my name right and announcing me as the new champion of the world. You see me smiling now, at the time I just cannot believe it.”
After sharing a moment with Geale to hand his belt back in the dressing room and fulfilling his media obligations, the Barker family finally got the celebrate.
They certainly did just that – but a drained Barker was unable to keep pace with his grandad.
“We went straight to the press conference, saw all my family very briefly but not all of them,” he recalls.
“I didn’t see them properly until afterwards, then I got to see the family and there were a lot of tears, a lot of hugs, a lot of kisses because they knew what I’d been through.
“We ended up having a few drinks and I couldn’t drink or eat any more, I was just exhausted, so I went back to my room.
“One by one, everyone started going back then we woke up the next day, all ready and packed, and everyone’s like, ‘where’s my grandad?’.
“My nan says ‘no, he’s not been back to the room, he ain’t been back’. ‘Where is he then? The boardwalk hasn’t swallowed him up has it?’.
“We eventually found him in a little courtyard area in the hotel in Atlantic City, fell asleep with a drink in his hand.
“And he was annoyed with us all afterwards because we hadn’t carried on celebrating. ‘My grandson just became world champion and you all went to bed!’
“From there we flew back to New York and I was just on top of the world.”
Barker lost his first defence against Felix Sturm and called time on his career due to a recurring hip injury.
He has gone on to carve out a successful broadcasting career and, last week, watched back his crowning moment alongside old coach Tony Sims for the first time whilst working at Matchroom Fight Camp for Sky Sports.
He could not help but get emotional as the triumph and tragedy of his journey came flooding back.
He added: “It was emotional watching it back with Tony. It was the first time I watched it back with Tony Sims, my coach and we went through a lot.
“We went through blood, sweat and tears, experienced loads of highs but a lot of lows. I’m so thankful to Tony for sticking by me and helping me through the toughest time of my life.”
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