Strong Village: What it’s like to share a gym session with Zak Chelli | Boxing News


By Zak Chelli

MY boxing training today hits a little bit different. I get a call from Barry O’Connell, my trainer, asking would I mind sharing my session with Zak Chelli. The professional boxer from State of Mind fitness. The new British and Commonwealth super-middleweight champion. The boxer I just saw beat Jack Cullen in Liverpool.  I laugh – surely, it’s Zak who should mind.

It does give Zak and I a chance to talk about his career – and for me to step-up my training game for a for a White-Collar Fight I might have at the end of April. This feels very much like being in at the deep end, I know the idea isn’t to keep up, but to observe.

We start with shadow boxing. Three-minute rounds with the new British and Commonwealth champion. I feel and look ridiculous. I throw tentative and shy jabs as Chelli moves with expert ease – his jabs move like they can melt air. It is effortless – music-muscle into motion. There are levels to this. We manage to talk as we throw – I find this much harder than he does. I am nervous about where to place my punches – at the same time trying to find the right words, questions.

I start with nerves. I ask how he manages his. He says he knew he was going to win – with an acceptance rather than an arrogance – but he was nervous about how the judges were going to call it. “I’ve been cheated once before,” he says, “so when I had the unanimous call from the judges I was over the moon because I felt justice had been served.”

This sense of justice was a long time coming. Chelli had waited three years, and the time was right. He prayed before his fight, he walked into the ring with faith and a sense of his fate. I wonder if nerves might be the wrong word to use – it feels like Chelli was ready for closure – to begin a new chapter – to get rid of this old story – the burden of old rivalry. I ask if the rivalry added to the stress – and he says after the fight he and Cullen met and exchanged friendlier words. Cullen wished Chelli well – honour can exist in the ring between two strong and good boxers when the fight is done – this chapter closed.

I am relieved when the shadow boxing stops. I am clumsy, unfit, and unsure on my feet. Chelli dances with lightness and flair in his corner – this is what he does. Finding angles, neat pivots – barely out of breath.

We are going to take turns on pads and bags. One of the gym’s upcoming amateur female boxers, Kiki Rebelo, is in the gym and she and Barry alternate with me and Zak, taking us for rounds. We punch and throw for three minutes – then take a break for one. When Barry takes me on the pads, I hear the difference. Zak’s punches smack with echo – mine hit flat, small. The pace of this is getting to me. It’s equally hard with Kiki, who is as disciplined and driving as Barry. There are no short cuts. She makes me move – she corrects.

Chelli on the pads (James Chance/Getty Images)

After a few rounds at this pace, I am exhausted, but there is the adrenalin too, of being around comparative greatness. I am in the presence of not one, but two professional boxers. Curtis Felix now sits at the side of the ring and observes Zak in quiet support. Another name and legend from this gym, he returns to train here and talk to his old trainer, Barry.

The significant shift does seem to be Barry, who is now firmly in Zak’s corner, after taking over from Chelli’s father for the Cullen fight. The win has strengthened the bond. This isn’t to take away from the work Chelli’s father has done – and in fact we talk about how that absolute faith from his father seemed to have made things happen in a profound way – much of what his father said has come true. He claimed, before Cheli’s first fight seven years ago – that his son would be the best super-middleweight in Great Britain. And now he has the belt to prove it. Zak’s father has had a kind of prophetic influence over the last seven years. Even as a 15-year-old, people would see Zak training in the park with his father. He would tell passers-by his son was GB champion – even before he was. Chelli became GB champion at 17.

That kind of fierce loyalty and love is a powerful catalyst for any emerging boxer – you need it in a world where doubt can seep in so quickly – but it’s also clear that Barry has created a kind of needed calm.

As has Zak’s mother and his wife – both come into conversation today. His mother has been a model of stability and security through Chelli’s amateur and professional career. She worked hard, and worked overtime, to make things happen. Chelli was recently married and cites his wife as being a hugely positive influence in his life – always supporting behind the scenes.

I watched Chelli’s fight and saw his team. It takes a strong village to build a strong fighter and Chelli has this. His corner is loyal, long-standing, and diligent – an extension of the family that nurtures him.

“I feel calm with Barry in my corner,” Zak tells me, and I can see there this understanding and appreciation of the ways Barry keeps things composed, relaxed. The fact his fighters come back to train at the gym, when they no longer compete, shows the kind of easy bond he creates between trainer and boxer.

When the training ends, I get the impression Zak will train on with Barry today – I was a warm-up, despite my whole body hurting. I have cut my little finger on the knuckle, but I wear it with a kind of glory – a badge of honour; I just got to train with the new champion and the war wound reminds me of this.

There’s talk of a fight with Callum Simpson – Chelli is keen for this to happen. He knows the future is bright for him. I ask about fighting in America, and he smiles and says it would be good for a holiday – but there are big fights to have here – and a life to enjoy. Chelli has married, invested – grown up.

The relationship with Barry continues to strengthen – a team – they are ready for the next fight – and the ones after it. They laugh with each other – not a father and son – but a boxer and his trainer.

“God willing, I’ll be world champion with Barry in my corner – and Barry will be able to get his dream house in Cornwall.”

I laugh – so this is for Barry as well?

Barry is at the other side of the gym. He doesn’t hear us.

Zak laughs again – “for that dream house in Cornwall.”


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