Darren Barker reflects on emotional world-title triumph vs Geale eight years on

Darren Barker has not long wrapped up a round of golf with former cruiserweight world champion Tony Bellew when our interview begins on an overcast Friday morning.

"Bellew lost, he has to buy us breakfast," he says.

"On the last hole we said whoever loses this one has to buy it, but it was just a friendly knock to be fair. There was some good stuff and some really s*** stuff.

"Bellew's head went, he hasn't really got the temperament for golf!"

It's just gone 11am and Barker has enjoyed some brief downtime before his DAZN punditry duties resume at Fight Camp, Matchroom's summer boxing festival taking place in the back garden of Eddie Hearn's Brentwood HQ. Bellew's temper aside, his morning of leisure was the calm before the storm.

One day out from Joshua Buatsi's light-heavyweight clash with Ricard Bolotniks on a stacked Essex bill, the former IBF middleweight champion will soon be needed to preview and dissect the upcoming action live on Matchroom's weigh-in broadcast.

24 hours later, further analysis and ringside commentary will be on the agenda as fight night plays out. And there's no place he'd rather be.

"Honestly mate," Barker says, "I'll start by saying I'm just a massive boxing fan. This has been a big part of my life since I was a kid. My dad was a boxer and I've just always loved the sport.

"To have achieved what I've achieved, I can't believe it, and now to be doing what I'm doing I still can't believe it.

"I don't think my passion for the sport can be beaten. I love this sport as much as anybody physically can.

"I remember as a kid watching all the great fights thinking, 'I'd love to be doing that one day', and I did.

"So I'm just living the dream. I'm so blessed to be doing what I'm doing. There couldn't be a better job for me, I love it."

By his own admission, Barker has struck up a TV bromance with co-pundit and presenter Chris Lloyd to much acclaim, meaning it was a no brainer for Hearn to sign the pair up to his new-look broadcast team after breaking away from Sky Sports to pen a five-year deal with DAZN.

Along with colleagues Maya Jama, Laura Woods, Bellew, Andy Lee and Mike Costello, Barker and Lloyd are integral members of this trendy, forward-thinking project on the sports video streaming service.

The popular duo are serious, analytical and informative when they need to be but equally hilarious value as a double act. It is why they have become such close friends away from the studio.

"It's great because I didn't know Chris and since we've been put together we've become proper good pals," Barker says. "We hit it off straight away because we've got the same sense of humour, but Chris is ultra professional.

"Even though he's never boxed, he reads a fight similar to me. He knows his stuff and he's an intelligent man.

"He's great to work with. He's one of the reasons I enjoy going to work because he's such good crack."

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Seven years after calling time on his boxing career Barker has found a new calling on the other side of the ropes. Given retirement can often send fighters on a downward spiral in the wake of their life's work, he is fortunate to have done so.

The Barnet man bowed out from the sport with his fairytale moment already in the bag. It has been eight years to the day since he became the middleweight champion of the world on an emotional night in Atlantic City, where he pulled himself off the canvas to earn victory over Australia's Daniel Geale.

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New Jersey's coastal resort city initially evoked painful memories for Barker, nonetheless. Two years before his crowning evening against Geale he suffered his first professional defeat against 160lbs king Sergio Martinez, failing to return to his feet after dropping to the canvas in the 11th round.

"I'd already had one hip operation and just before the Martinez fight, the last run of the camp we were in Niagara Falls and I broke down," he recalls.

"There were no excuses, I was absolutely fine in the fight, but I had to pull up in one of the runs and we knew eventually I'd have to get my right hip done. After the last run we said I'll have to get the hip done after the fight regardless of the result.

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"But again, no excuses. I didn't feel anything in the fight, I had a fantastic camp – everything was brilliant. I had no excuses whatsoever, none. I was just so intrigued to find out how good I was.

"I came up short, but I had a good go. And I think if it wasn't for the performance I put in, I don't think I'd have got the chance against Geale, because anyone who fought me after Martinez just wanted to do a better job on me than him.

"And secondly, putting in a good performance grew my confidence. If I believed in myself a bit more, I'm not saying I'd have beaten Martinez, but I could have pushed him a bit harder.

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"I look back at that with a little bit of regret, but mainly fond memories."

One memory that wasn't so fond for Barker came in the ring before that maiden defeat, when iconic MC Michael Buffer made a rare blunder by introducing him as "Darren Baker".

He laughs: "I did notice it because being the boxing fan I am, it was one of those iconic moments with the legendary Michael Buffer saying your name. Well, attempting to say it!

"I remember I looked at [trainer] Tony Sims straight away and sort of sighed because he got it wrong. But it's funny how the world works, because we're actually mates now me and Michael. We speak all the time and have a joke about it."

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Barker got off to an impressive start at Boardwalk Hall, bloodying Martinez's nose in the fourth round with a swift combination, yet as the fight reached its championship rounds the Argentinian was in full control. The stoppage did not come as a major surprise.

Fast forward 22 months and Britain's crestfallen star was offered a shot at redemption in the very same US city. After bouncing back with wins against Kerry Hope and Simone Rotolo, Hearn had secured him a world-title shot against Geale in Atlantic City. But was there any apprehension about heading back?

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"Completely the opposite. It was bittersweet," Barker insists. "I thought, 'it went t*** up last time, let's right that wrong.'

"There was a real buzz, I felt familiar with the place. I know I'd only been there once, but I knew the Boardwalk, I knew the shops in the area, I knew the hotels – it just wasn't unfamiliar.

"And that coupled with the fact I'd been in a massive fight before, it all just felt right. It felt like something special was going to happen, I really, really believed that."

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On his Stateside debut against Martinez Barker felt like a small fish in a big pond. The American press were unfamiliar with his achievements on UK shores – which included European, Commonwealth and British title wins – and his opponent didn't appear all that fazed when he burst into laughter while conducting their pre-fight stare-off.

"I did feel a little bit disrespected before the Martinez fight, they just didn't really know who I was," he admits. "I'd won all the domestic belts there were and they didn't know me.

"But then my stock rose when I boxed him, so I went back out there for the Geale fight with my shoulders back, my head held high thinking, 'I can do this.'

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"With the familiarity of my surroundings, I just felt something special was going to happen. And Michael Buffer got my name right this time!"

For the first five rounds Barker appeared a man in his groove, slipping and countering Geale to great effect and growing in confidence. That was until a crippling body shot put him on the deck in the sixth. Somehow, he mustered up the strength to return to his feet.

His greatest motivation when shedding blood, sweat and tears in training, battling it out on fight night and pulling himself off the canvas against Geale was the memory of his brother Gary, who tragically lost his life in a 2006 car accident. He could envisage Gary urging him to get up in that dramatic sixth round.

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"Putting the absolute agony to one side, the fact you're in crippling pain and you can't breathe, it was the longest nine and a half seconds of my life," Barker says.

"There's a huge part of me saying, 'you're in agony, just quit, why on earth would you get up? Don't bother'. It's like the devil on your shoulder.

"But then you've got the other side of me, the memory of my brother, my brother telling me I can do it, visions of my daughter and thinking I've got to provide for her, I've got to do this, I've got to get up, and just the competitive nature that I've got embedded in me too.

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"There was so much going on in those nine and a half seconds, it was incredible."

He then pauses before adding: "I felt a presence there. This feels mad talking about it because it's like I'm trying to make it all Hollywood, but there was some sort of power that helped me to my feet.

"I still couldn't breathe when I got up. The referee came over and asked me if I was ok and in a really squeaky, high voice I went, 'yeah I'm ok!'

"It was just a case of weathering the storm and trying to get my breathe back. Then the bell went and I made a point of putting my hands above my head.

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"That spoke so much of my mentality in the sense that I was on the brink of losing and then I finished the round really well. He must have been thinking, 'what have I got to do to put this man away?'

"It was just to let him know I'm back in this fight, you've had a good one-minute spell there but don't worry, I'm back. And the seventh round was arguably my best round."

The knockdown almost served as a wake-up call for Barker on the most important evening of his career. As he accurately points out, the seventh was one of his best of the fight and he followed it up with another four high-quality rounds before Geale, perhaps sensing his crown slipping away from him, desperately upped the ante in an enthralling 12th.

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Both teams were unsure how the judges had scored it, but Barker's gut instinct told him he had done enough despite being the away fighter on an opposition promoter's show. His and Geale's contrasting moods while waiting for Buffer to announce the scores reflected that, and when a split-decision went in his favour wild scenes erupted inside the ring.

Barker, unable to hold back the tears, sunk to the floor in a mixture of elation and sadness.

"I was buzzing, don't get me wrong, but it almost felt like letting my life's work go. Not letting go of my brother, but letting go of that task I had and I'd become obsessed with," he admits.

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"It kept me close to my brother's spirit, soul, memory, whatever you want to call it, and then it was almost like, 'f***, I've done it.' It was almost like saying goodbye to him.

"So it does sort of get me a little bit. But what a night, it was a great night after.

"There was a funny story, we couldn't find my grandad the next morning. He got absolutely steaming when we'd all gone to bed. We found him on the outdoor terrace sparko.

"It was brilliant. He had a go at us because we all went to bed. I was f*****, I must have turned in at about three in the morning. But he had the arsehole with us, 'my grandson's just won the world title and you've all gone to bed, it's a liberty.' We all got a b********g off him, but it was a brilliant night."

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His defining moment was secured, however Barker didn't hang up his gloves on a high. Four months later his first and only world-title defence ended in an early stoppage defeat against Germany's Felix Sturm, who ripped the IBF strap from his grasp inside two rounds.

The beaten champion, 31 at the time, was floored twice during the second round after dislocating that problematic hip in the first. Sims threw the towel to signal the end of the bout and his fighter's nine-year career as Sturm unloaded another vicious attack.

Despite his hip failing him once more, Barker stresses: "The issue with the whole thing wasn't really injuries or any of that, even though the injury went. The issue was I'd become content, I'd become soft, I didn't want to fight anymore. I'd achieved my life's work.

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"I didn't want to lose a stone and a half, I didn't want to get punched in the f****** head, I didn't want to do the training. I just wanted to enjoy life.

"People sometimes ask why I didn't pull out of the fight and say it was unfair on the people that travelled. I was in turmoil. I thought if I pulled out, I'm not gonna get paid, people are gonna lose out on flight tickets, train tickets, hotels. So I just thought, 'I can do this. I can with this.'

"And I can honestly say if I'd have beaten Sturm, I wouldn't have fought again. I couldn't have been enticed into another fight. I told everyone win, lose or draw that was my last fight."

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It was a harsh way for Barker to exit a sport he had dedicated his life to since first venturing into boxing as a young child. Yet, he at least did so with his main objective complete.

"Everything I set out to do from a kid, from the moment my brother passed away, I achieved. It still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up," he gushes.

"I still can't believe I'm a former world champion. I dreamt of it as a kid. I had a picture of Mike Tyson on my wall, it was a picture of him wearing a red crown and a big cape with the IBF belt. I always wanted to win that belt because of that picture, I always loved it.

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"So my ultimate bloody dream came true. Madness, absolute madness."

After reminiscing about his title triumph and the gut-wrenching defeats which preceded and followed it, I can't let Barker go without discussing Chelsea.

A lifelong fan of the club, he rarely climbed through the ropes without donning his trademark blue shorts complete with a Chelsea badge. So how optimistic is he about their chances this season?

"Romelu Lukaku will hopefully get us 25 goals. I think that'll put us very, very close in the title race," he predicts.

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"That will take a lot of pressure off Timo Werner as well and he'll give a lot of service to Lukaku. We've got some great players around him and I think they'll chip in with a lot of goals.

"I do think we'll push Man City all the way. The pressure's on them.

"To be honest though, if they get Harry Kane we're f*****!"

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