Boxer Derek Chisora’s remarkable journey
By Donald McRae
“I’m the only black guy who lives in Hampstead,” Derek Chisora says as a big smile spreads across his usually serious face and he slaps his knee in amusement. “All my friends there are Jewish and you get some Arsenal players in Hampstead but they’re French and don’t go out much. So I stand out when I walk around. Everyone knows the ‘Del Boy’ in Hampstead.”
It is unlikely, however, that too many people in leafy NW3 are aware of the surreal journey Chisora has made in becoming British heavyweight champion. As a Zimbabwean teenager he left his beleaguered country to join his mother in London, where he briefly went to public school before he fell in with the wrong crew and dabbled on the criminal fringes. His probation officer eventually introduced him to boxing and, despite being initially shocked by the pain of the ring, Chisora has built an unblemished 13-0 record. He will defend his title tonight against Sam Sexton, his friend but a dangerous rival.
The huge crowd that is expected for British boxing’s biggest night this year, as Frank Warren unfurls his Magnificent Seven card in Birmingham and on Sky Box Office, will be just as bewildered as those non-fight fans in Hampstead to hear that Chisora also deals in antiques. His quirky passion chimes with his “Del Boy” nickname and the Only Fools and Horses theme tune that accompanies his walk to the ring. Chisora, after all, is an intriguing enigma in the already deeply strange world of heavyweight boxing.
“I’m actually a very nice guy,” Chisora says in a gym tucked away down a side-street in Finchley. He has set up two tiny stools in the middle of an empty ring, so we are just inches apart. It offers a curious intimacy as, with his sweat still glistening, Chisora speaks first of his anxieties before such a hard and evenly matched fight.
“If you’re not twitchy in this game, then there’s something wrong with you. The only problem with me is that when they announce the fight I’m nervous – like a wreck. The other day, at the press conference with Sexton, it was like I was in shock. But the closer you get to the fight the more chilled I become. I’m totally sorted when I walk to the ring.”
Chisora believes Sexton has more to fear, as he was stopped in the last minute of their first bout, in June 2008. A bruising encounter, only Chisora’s fourth pro fight, looked set to go the distance until Del Boy went to work with brutal effectiveness. “It was the toughest fight of my career but, in the fifth, I’d blasted him and he was saved by the bell. I didn’t want the judges to decide the outcome, so I thought: ‘I’ve got to stop him.’ I dug deep.”
On his small wooden chair Chisora replays that dramatic stoppage by throwing punches in the air. “I hit him with an overhand right, bam, that caught him on the side of his head. He stumbled and I went in and jabbed him before I started landing hooks when he was on the ropes. His head was rocking back – bam-bam-bam – and the ref made a good stoppage.
“That’s why Sam has got a big psychological hurdle to face now. He’s got to get over that memory and I think they’ve gone for muscle over boxing ability. Sam has the most beautiful jab in the heavyweight division but they’ve tried to bulk him up to take my power. He wants to get me back and I want to show the British public it was no fluke. That’s why it’s such an interesting fight.”
There is a striking contrast between this heavyweight clash and the high-profile yet dubious brawl David Haye and Audley Harrison are peddling. Setting aside Harrison’s limited credentials as a world-title challenger, Haye took boxing down another plunging low when he said the fight would be “more one-sided than a gang rape”. Chisora can also be thoughtless and crude, and last year he was suspended for four months after he bit an opponent, Paul Butlin, while outpointing him. But, here, he sounds almost uplifting in describing his affection for a man he still hopes to knock out.
“I’ve got nuff love for Sam,” he says gruffly. “I’ve got nuff respect for Sam. I talk to Sam. He’s a very good guy. He’s my friend. It’s weird. We knock each other about and then afterwards we hug and say: ‘Beautiful fight, man. You got to come round for dinner.’ That’s why boxing, at its best, is a gentleman’s sport.”
What does Chisora think of Haye, the WBA world champion? “Let’s not kid each other. David doesn’t want to fight the Klitschkos [the imposing Ukrainian brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, who hold the other world heavyweight belts between them]. He hasn’t got a chance against them and he knows that. Haye is a good guy but he’s in the wrong sport. Let me fight Wladimir or Vitali. I ain’t scared.”
Chisora is still a comparative novice and so a fight against either Klitschko is a long way from happening. But his intriguing life story will help Warren, his ingenious promoter, drum up bigger and better fights should Chisora beat Sexton again to confirm his place behind Haye among British heavyweights.
“I left Zimbabwe when I was 16,” Chisora says. “That was 10 years ago and of course I still miss it. You always miss where you grew up. I’ve not been back but I’ve still got the African background in me. I still speak Shona. But, at the same time, I’m a Londoner now.”
Chisora’s accent carries more echoes of Finchley than Harare but he nearly lost himself in the big bad city. “When I came here, apart from my mum, I knew no one. But then I met these kids in my area. Some of them are still good buddies but they were bad boys. It was just young stuff, hanging round on street corners doing no good. It’s about being mature enough to move away from that environment.”
How did he end up with a probation officer? “Crime,” Chisora says, under his breath, stretching the word to make it seem more comical than threatening. “The usual petty crime. Touch wood, I never went to jail. There was evidence but not enough to put me in prison. So we asked for probation. I think they saw I wasn’t ruthless. I obeyed the rules for two years and my probation officer, Peter Yates, said: ‘Why don’t you try boxing?’ He fixed me up at Finchley Boxing Club.”
Chisora grimaces as he remembers his first sparring session. “I got hit by a bad jab. It smacked me in the nose and brought tears to my eyes. I walked out the ring but my trainer said: ‘What are you doing? Get back in. This is boxing.’ So I did. And here I am: British champion.”
The 26-year-old admits the perks of his reign have been minimal. “Women never like me,” he complains. “I thought when I won the British title things would change. But it ain’t happening.” Why don’t women like him? “I’m a rude person. But men are hunters. We look. We like. We approach. Women don’t like the fact I do it with a swagger. They don’t like me walking into the room like I got a million dollars in my pocket, when I ain’t. But as a boxer you need that swagger.”
Until Chisora’s love life improves he is content with his more singular interest. “Oh man,” he says, sighing. “I love antiques. I like old-style English furniture but, most of all, I love a special kind of antique. The first thing I collected was an old-style parking meter – you remember the ones with the yellow and green and red flag? I bought it for £100. I’m trying now to get a red phone box. And the post boxes, those red ones, are real nice. I also want an old black London taxi and a double-decker bus. I’ll keep them all in one big space.”
Del Boy grins when asked how he acquired his nickname. “When a reporter heard I was selling cars he said I should call myself Del Boy. Until then I was planning to call myself a stupid thug name. But I thought about it and said: ‘I do sell cars and I do talk a lot of shit. So, fuck it, I’ll be Del Boy.’ Now I wear the Union Jack and we play the Only Fools and Horses theme tune on my way out. I dunno. Do you think I should change it?”
It is hard to know what song might best capture the idiosyncratic journey of a Zimbabwe-born British heavyweight champion, who is fighting “straight outta Hampstead” and has swapped petty crime for old parking meters. “It’s a tough one, innit?” Chisora says. “I reckon I’ve just got to keep winning and we’ll work out what to do next. Something will turn up. It always does.” The UK Guardian