Chilemba by Pete Moscardi

The dirt-poor landlocked enclave of Malawi is not noted for producing boxers who have achieved world class status. But Isaac Chilemba, a 25-year-old Malawian, is determined to change all that. The likeable Chilemba will be fighting Tony Bellew at the Echo Arena in Liverpool on 30 March in what is a final eliminator for Chad Dawson’s WBC light-heavyweight title. For Chilemba, this represents a step from stagnation to stardom.

Until December 2010 Isaac’s campaign was being carved out in South Africa where, with one exception, he was fighting fellow Africans, and where, with two exceptions, he had won all of his 17 fights. One of these exceptions was a six round points loss to Willbeforce Shihepo in July 2007 – a decision he reversed in his next fight four months later. A draw against highly regarded Tommy Oosthuizen at the Emperor’s Palace Casino in November 2010 gave him a degree of prominence, but it did not warrant international recognition. But his next fight, in Oklahoma USA in February 2011, did.

But turn the clock back and let’s have a look at the origins of this quiet man from Malawi. The word ‘quiet’ is apt as he is so softly-spoken that I have to strain to hear what he is saying. To suggest that Chilemba’s childhood was one of poverty and deprivation would be a gross understatement. His parents, who are deceased, divorced when he was six. Along with his mum, who worked as a bartender, the responsibility of trying to scratch enough money to buy food for the family fell on the shoulders of Isaac who had to sell fruit in the street to make a buck. What little money that was scraped together had to feed the family. “It was a desperate situation,” Isaac recalls. “The family lived in a small shack and we did not have enough beds, thus the boys used to sleep on the floor. We mostly could only buy food for one meal a day. But this is the life of many people in Malawi where it is difficult to scratch out even the most meager living.”

Isaac joined an amateur boxing club in Blantyre, the town in which he grew up, and soon discovered that he had the talent to succeed in the ring. After a few amateur fights he decided that his destiny lay in the professional ring in South Africa. So he set off for Johannesburg in June 2005 where he eventually joined up with Nick Durandt, one of the leading trainers in the country.

“I had my first professional contest in October that year, stopping Thamsanqa Tindleni in two rounds at the Carnival City Casino in Brakpan,” he says.

Isaac won his first eight fights on the trot before dropping that split decision to Willbeforce Shihepo – his only loss to date - at the Emperor’s Palace Casino in July 2007. But in November Isaac wiped out this loss when he outpointed Shihep in a return. An eight-round TKO victory over previously unbeaten David Basajjamivule in April 2008 and a fourth-round KO over Chamunorwa Gonorenda in July followed. Isaac acquired a manager at the time of fighting Basajiamvule. Jodi Solomon, a vivacious 39-year-old physiotherapist, took over his managerial reins and the duo has formed a strong bond. Isaac then faced Charles Adamu, a formidable Ghanaian, for the vacant African Boxing Union (ABU) super-middleweight title in September of that year. Adamu had given Carl Froch a respectable fight, losing a threepoint decision in their 12-round contest when defending his Commonwealth title in March 2004. Chilemba completely dominated Adamu, winning a wide unanimous decision. At this stage of his career Isaac had switched trainers, leaving Nick Durandt to place himself under the care of Colin Nathan.

Isaac looked out of sorts and lethargic when he won the vacant WBO Africa light-heavyweight title by a repeat victory over David Basajiamvule at the Graceland Casino in Secunda. His lack-lustre performance was puzzling as Chilemba was always regarded as an exciting fighter. Four months later he was back at Emperor’s Palace to defend his ABU title – and challenge for the WBC International crown - against the then unbeaten (20-0) French-based fighter from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Doudou Ngumbu. Although Isaac’s form was again well below par he succeeded in pounding out a unanimous points win against an opponent he describes as “the best fighter I have met to date” Isaac’s fall off in form was worrying and he went for a battery of tests and a medical assessment. The outcome was a shocking diagnosis that resembled something out of a cheap Hollywood horror movie.

“I was informed that I was infested by a tape worm which I had picked up by eating under-cooked pork. But, worse still, the doctors discovered that the worm had laid eggs and that they had diagnosed that 17 tape worm cells had entered the blood stream and had lodged on the brain. These were just waiting to hatch – and had they done so I would have had 17 tape worms making a nest for themselves in my brain,” he says. Chilemba was instructed to give up boxing for at least two years while the condition was treated. “I was devastated, but I found a neurologist who upped the strength of my medication – and six months later I was ready to go again.”

Tommy Oosthuizen was down to fight for the vacant IBO super-middleweight title at Emperor’s Palace on 19 June 2010. Two weeks before the fight disaster struck Rodney Berman’s promotion when Tommy sustained a badly gashed face in an accident. Tommy’s scheduled opponent was the unbeaten Australian, Michael Bolling (12-0) who was already in the country and training.

An SOS call went out to Chilemba to step into the breach. Although he was well over the weight and was coming off a devastating illness, Isaac did not hesitate into accepting the fight. In the two weeks that he had to train he came down from well over light heavyweight to get inside the super middleweight limit. Although looking a bit rusty at times, Chilemba boxed the ears off Bolling to win by a wide unanimous decision.

The obvious step for Golden Gloves was to then match Isaac and Tommy for Isaac’s recently-won title. There was no love lost between the two when they clashed at Emperor’s Palace in November 2010. After 12 punishing rounds the judges were unable to separate them and the fight was declared a draw. “I have no issues with either Tommy or this fight. I gave it my best shot and I thought I had won it clearly. But it is what it is and I have moved on from this fight and have advanced to better things,” he stresses. It should be said that the majority of fight fans in the arena that night, although rooting for Tommy, would have probably conceded that Isaac had taken the fight.

Jodi had her finger on the take-off button right from the off and February 2011 found Isaac in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he was matched against an unbeaten Russian, Maxim Vlasov (19-0). A TV favourite at the time, American audiences expected another easy win for Vlasov. But to the surprise of everyone it was Chilemba who dominated the fight for nine of the ten rounds, winning by a clear unanimous decision after having to climb off the floor twice in the eighth round. “This was one of the easier fights of my career,” he recalls. “He caught me with a nice punch in the eighth round which put me down. I was not too bothered by it, but I got careless when I got up and he caught me again. I was down for the second time, but again not really hurt. I got up and by the end of the round I had him covering up and in trouble. I won the next three rounds on the trot to take a clear decision.” Vlasov is, incidentally, 25-1-0 at time of writing.

Isaac returned to Johannesburg where, the following month, he was matched against Vikapita Meroro, a tough Namibian with a 20-1 record. The fight was for the vacant WBC International lightheavyweight title and Chilemba cruised to a wide unanimous decision. This was to be his last fight in this country to date.

His enterprising manager had concluded a deal with American fight mogul, Lou Dibella and Isaac found himself fighting on Dibella’s promotions in the US. Jameson Bostic (23-4) was easily dispatched in two rounds in their fight at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in October 2011.

In February 2012 Isaac found himself in the ring with a seasoned and dangerous veteran, Edison Miranda of Colombia. “This was a fight I never should have taken. I had a full-on dose of flu and I was running a temperature in the dressing room. Jodi was trying to persuade me to back out, but I had seen too many opportunities go astray and I was not about to lose this one,” he recalls. In spite of being probably no more than 50% of his normal self, Isaac pounded out a wide unanimous decision victory over Miranda.

A fight against the triple time world l i g h t - h e a v y w e i g h t champion Zolst Erdei, was scheduled for September 2012 – but again the bad luck bogey struck when Erdei cracked his ribs in sparring.

Rayco Saunders, a solid and wily veteran with a 22-16-2 record substituted. Isaac won every round of their eight-round contest at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Connecticut. This was to be the last time for Isaac to see action prior to his 30 March encounter with Tony Bellew. “I was shattered at not being able to fight Erdei as I am positive that I would have won. That would have been a good name to have in the win column on my record,” he says.

Chilemba’s Christmas present was the news that he is to fight Bellew in March in a final WBC eliminator. Isaac’s year has started well as he has secured the services of Alan Toweel, who trains him when he is in South Africa, and Buddy McGirt who trains him in the US and who will be in his corner for the Bellew fight. A lucrative sponsorship from Rival Boxing Equipment in Canada has also been concluded.

“I have seen Bellew in action on TV and have detected some faults in his armoury. I am 100 percent confident that I can win this fight. Our records are similar and our physical statistics are almost identical. But I have one thing which Bellew has not got and that is all-consuming motivation.

“I have lived most of my life with my family in impoverished circumstances, the likes of which I never want them to suffer again. I am still fighting for my family and I am currently putting a younger brother and sister through school. The future of my family lies squarely on my shoulders and I shall not fail them. These are the thoughts that always lurk at the back of my mind when I enter the ring,” he says.