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,

Boxing News - - Contents - writes Terry Doo­ley

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

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