LEADING THE TRIBUTE
Zelfa Barrett, one of the brightest prospects in Britain, is being guided through boxing by his uncle, father figure and former European champion, Pat Barrett. But it’s his beloved mum who the 24-year-old owes the world,
Why top prospect Zelfa Barrett is fighting for more than just himself
THIS is my estate,” said rising super-featherweight Zelfa Barrett, 18-0 (11), as he showed Boxing News around the area in Harpurhey, Manchester where he was born, raised and continues to live with his mum, Sonia. “That youth centre over there was built because of us, but they built it too late.” A wistful glance is thrown in the direction of the Factor Youth Zone. “There is a boxing gym in there, so imagine if we’d have had that when we were younger? When I was 15 it was just grass there, we’d play football on it and get up to mischievousness. I wish it had been there before as I might have started boxing earlier. All we had was a wall to put a goalpost on and play football. The lady who lived there would always come out and shout at us because the ball hitting her wall made it shake inside.”
Barrett – now 24 – took up boxing relatively late, he had a few early amateur fights yet only knuckled down when he was 16, so he has used his professional career thus far to play catch-up.
“Brown Flash” also ignored the sweet, pungent and tempting shroud of marijuana that hangs over central Manchester like a cloud. An aroma that can help you cope and forget, yet is also responsible for so many lives lazily wasted beneath its haze.
“You are a product of your environment,” he explained. “When you are from an estate it is about choices, my mum always told me that. She’d say: ‘You don’t have to do things, you have a choice to do them or not.’”
Instead, Barrett followed his uncle Pat, a former British and European champion at super-lightweight, and WBO title challenger at welterweight. However, he is keen to do it on his own terms, with his own style and swagger, and without having to rely on his family name.
“I was always my own person,” he declared in a voice that seems to have an innate, lyrical iambic pentameter. “I was always myself from the age of 10, and people would respect me for being me. If I got into trouble, I’d say I am Zelfa Michael and wouldn’t say the [Barrett] name.”
Unlike many inner-city kids, his support network stretches beyond the house and spills over to the streets surrounding it. His peers recognised his latent talent, which in some cases can lead to jealousy and “Tall Poppy Syndrome” – wishing to cut others down to size. Not in this case, though; rather than seeking to stifle or corrupt him, Zelfa’s friends act as Pat’s eyes and ears outside the trainer’s Collyhurst gym.
“When I was 16, I thought: ‘Nah, I want to take this [boxing] serious’, so I’d stay in when everyone else was out doing whatever they were doing,” he said. “Everyone loves me and I’m like their trophy. If I go out, people ask if I’m allowed out and if Pat knows about it. “I’ve had arguments because my friends see me out and I have to tell them I’ve got a week off the gym. Obviously, you might have that friend who goes out a lot, mine tell me to stay in and prepare for my fights. They won’t even message me for food if they know they are going to eat rubbish.
“They want me to be where I want to be. Some people have friends who want to drag them down, my friends from the estate support me. Even though they might not have a lot of money they’ll save
up to support me and that is why I like to give back to everyone. This is a community. They want me to be successful, so that they can tell people that their friend did well.
“They’ll ask me for 20 tickets then go out and sell them for me. Me being me, winning fights and dedicating my life, is making them proud, so I try to give back to them. Even though there will be a time when people can get my tickets online, I’d still like to sell tickets and go out of my way to speak to people. The fans are your dream-makers. If people don’t want to buy tickets to watch you fight then you won’t get fights in this day and age.”
Despite his quick, easy smile and laidback demeanour, Barrett has had it tough. His father walked out on him and his brother at an early age, leaving Pat, his older brother John, and his cousin John Lee Barrett, as his chief male role models. However, he also had someone in his life who gave him all the life lessons and support he needed, a constant presence, the glue without which things fall apart, and his best friend.
“I won’t lie, I’m still a mummy’s boy,” he admitted. “I live with my mum. I see her every day and give her kisses – I won’t ever leave my mum. She has been my dad as well as my mum. I love her so much and am not afraid to say I lie on the couch with her and chill with her like I’m still a little boy.
“I’m fortunate to have her. I had my older brother too, I wanted to be just like him. It was also good to have some sort of male role model like him, John [Lee] and Pat in my life. It was good to have an idea of what and how a man should be, but my mum did both jobs, she raised me well and taught me manners. I was raised correctly, so it is now my job to pay her back.
“I see him [his father] sometimes. I show him respect, but it is not how a proper father-son relationship should be, the way it would be if they were around. I don’t really know the situation as I’ve never asked, I just felt fortunate to have my mum.”
Sonia took up the story: “His dad didn’t want to be around. I prefer it that way to be honest because what I say goes. As they get older, you’ll find that children try to play you off against each other, which couldn’t happen with me as it was just me. There was no confusion.”
Tragically, Barrett lost his cousin John Lee on Christmas Eve 2013. A gang attacked him after gatecrashing a nightclub party in Rochdale. The 31-year-old died of a single stab wound to the back.
Six of his attackers were cleared of murder but convicted of GBH – the killer was not identified – and six others were hit with other offences, including violent disorder, all 12 were sentenced. That was scant consolation to a family left devastated by the loss. It hit Zelfa hard, he refers to John Lee as his “brother”, and bears a tattoo of his face on his arm.
“It is just about being strong,” he said when asked about that night. “After it happened, I was still running and training. People were asking me if I was okay, but boxing saved my life and kept me sane. It channelled my anger in a positive way. That’s why I have John [Lee] here on my arm and I kiss him before each fight. Nothing that happens in the ring can be that bad. All I need to do is look at my arm and think: ‘Nothing can be harder than that pain I felt.’
“Some people would have gone out drinking or fallen off – it just made me a better fighter. Outside the ring, I’m a nice guy, but inside the ring I turn from a goldfish into a shark. I express all the pain that I feel and channel it into a positive route. I’m trying to be the saviour, to bring all the positive times
back to the family. Everyone was devastated, but, as a man of the house, you have to not quite get over it but grow up and be the one that grows into a man mentally.”
Sonia added: “Something like that, you don’t know how anyone will take it. I worried about my children, but I was grieving too. We all grieve in our own way. He knew that John [Lee] would have preferred him to carry on with his boxing and do well in it. John [Lee] was here constantly, I more or less raised him, and Zelfa classed him as his big brother.”
There were fears that the situation would drag the Barretts down, yet they went in the opposite direction. Zelfa poured everything into his craft. He turned pro the following year with a decision over the everreliable Kristian Laight, and did 10 rounds for the first time when outscoring the experienced Eusebio Osejo in May. The opposition has been modest, so there are high hopes that the boxer-puncher will be moved up a notch, particularly after he withdrew from a British title eliminator against Sam Bowen, who is also undefeated.
“I’ve always been a winner,” Barrett said, after admitting the online criticism for the pull-out hurt. “I always wanted to run or play against the best, so how can a guy tell me that I’m scared? If it was down to me I’d fight him now, but my uncle has a plan, he is a very wise man who knows the sport inside out.”
Bowen has since added two consecutive stoppages, most recently over former WBA flyweight titlist-turnedtrial horse, Lorenzo Parra. With promoter Frank Warren planning big things for him, Barrett knows that this is a crucial moment in his career.
But there is no danger of drift, especially as he still has vivid memories of a chastening early amateur sparring session that went on to define how he goes about his business.
“I was sparring with a guy who was the same level,” he recalled. “I was relying on my natural ability, but as the rounds got on he grounded, worked hard and was putting more pressure on me. I remember getting hit, getting my lip busted and thinking: ‘This isn’t going to happen again’. I was relying on my natural ability in the past, now I rely on hard work too.
“The natural ability is like these coins in my pocket, they are there but I don’t rely on them. Floyd Mayweather is the prime example of being gifted but putting in the work. Not many boxers can do what he does: hard work and dedication equals Mayweather.”
With that said, he sauntered back to his house, stopping to give his mum a hug en route. Over the coming seasons, Barrett will no doubt hope that he can unlock the equations needed to fulfil his talent and make an impact on the world scene, before heading to what he believes is his destiny of a world title.
BELOVED MOTHER: Barrett hugs his mum, who he is very close to
TRIBUTE: Barrett has a tattoo of his late cousin on his right arm
POWER SURGE: Barrett stops Ross Jameson back in April