Isaac Chilemba: Life, death and boxing

“That is the scariest part of my life,” admits the voice at the other end of a shaky, cross-continental Facebook Messenger call. It was a call intended merely to recap an experienced fighter’s career; to celebrate successes and ponder the future – inside or outside of the boxing ring. It ended up much more than that. 

What is the scariest part of former light-heavyweight world title challenger Isaac Chilemba’s (26-7-3, 10KOs) life? And what comes next for the troubled, talented fighter, left growing moss in the shadows until hastily dragged down and utilised at a moment’s notice?  

When speaking to Boxing Social, there was plenty to unpack as the South African resident opened up on unthinkable poverty, crushing tragedy, addiction and hope, which continues slipping through gaps in his swollen fingers like grains of sand. As time continues passing, thoughts of what could – and maybe should – have been won’t leave him. But Chilemba unfairly condemns himself for his recent vices.  

“I’m getting older and now I look back with so much regret,” said Chilemba. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs and I’ve had so many low points in my life, most of them I’ve done to myself. I lost some of the fights that I wasn’t supposed to lose; and, when I look back, if I was on my A-game or even on my B-game, there’s just no way I lose those fights. Those chances were washed away, and it was all my own doing. Throughout my career, from about 2014 to 2016, everything that happened was my fault. 

“I don’t know, I just forgot who I was; I was acting in other ways and I got in to drinking. Now, two times a week I actually attend AA meetings because… well, I am an alcoholic,” states Chilemba, leaving his closing word hanging in the air like a speed ball, though far harder to control.  

The ‘A’ word; it’s a common affliction amongst fighting men left without tangible next steps and used to a life of aggravated isolation. Who are they punching next? Who can they trust? Sadly, in a sport like boxing, the list of confidantes is criminally short, and everything came to a head when the proud Malawian fighter turned up in the United States for his bout with undefeated Russian world champion, Dmitriy Bivol. 

“When I fought Dmitriy Bivol, the night before the weigh-in I had to know everything [about the fight]. It got to the point where my mind went crazy, so I left the hotel where I was with my team and I crossed the road to find a motel,” the 33-year-old recalls, thinking back to Atlantic City, August 2018.  

“I went to look for alcohol and for cigarettes; then I went back to the motel and I lay on the bed, drinking and smoking the whole night. In the morning, I got up and went back to the hotel where everybody was looking for me and they were wondering where I was. I had to run for one-and-a-half hours to make the weight. I had the fight with Dmitriy Bivol, and that was it. I couldn’t perform [in the ring] because the night before I had drunk a six-pack. That is all because of me – nobody else. 

“It was when I came back from this fight [against Bivol], I went and talked to some people; I thought I was getting better but then something happened during training camp and it just unlocked my mind. I thought about killing myself – I wanted to end my life because I was living with so many regrets, I just couldn’t be [happy again]. I ended up in rehab for a month with depression and alcohol abuse, and when I came out of rehab after that month, I thought to myself, ‘I cannot go on like this’.” 

Three years and plenty of growth and self-discovery later, Chilemba tells Boxing Social: “The last time I had a drink was in 2018.” Yet alcohol and the trepidation that surrounds another plummet into the abyss isn’t his biggest fear. It’s something he’s aware of but has under control.

When peeling back the blood and booze-stained layers and understanding Chilemba’s incredibly difficult childhood, it seems unjust to let every bit of blame lie at his door. His drinking had spiralled out of control and his behaviour became erratic, but when researching his early years in Malawi, it made sense that his pain and suffering had manifested.  

He told malawi24.com that his mother had turned to prostitution in order to provide for her young family, and that he was often left in the same room, at the same time, to persevere: “Each and every day of my life growing up was about a couple of things: first of all, do not die. That was my priority, not to die because of the hunger and everything else. It was a dream; I used to pray that god would keep me alive. Malawi is a different place today. In some ways, it’s the most wicked place a human being can be. The poverty is different to anywhere else in the world. It was tragic for me, but it was all I had; I didn’t know any better. 

“Many times, on many days we didn’t have any food,” he continued, “There were some days when we had no place to stay; we were homeless because my mother couldn’t afford to pay rent for the places we stayed in. All she could afford was a one-room place in a village-type area. We shared it; we put some cardboard down on the floor and I would sleep on one side, my mother and my younger brother would sleep on the other side. The clothes we would wear, we had to wear them at night to keep warm because she couldn’t afford the electricity.  

“My only other dream was to get out of there one day. I wanted to go somewhere better and to get out of that life. I never want to go back to it. Other people in Malawi are still living it but I don’t want to go back there. It was when I realised boxing was in Malawi, I was thinking, ‘Wow, I can be a boxer now’.” 

An unlikely return to hunger and extreme poverty isn’t his biggest fear, though. He has emerged from one of the poorest nations on planet earth and created a reasonably fruitful career for himself, so struggling again is a worry, but it doesn’t scare him. Boxing was an idea born in the tiny apartments in Hamilton, Malawi, after watching Kung Fu flicks and Rocky movies. He explained that “everybody in those films looked so big,” and worried it was just a sport for giants.  

By chance, that theory was disproven: “We moved to another area and one of my friends invited me to see where he was doing karate; I was about 12. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll come with you’. This place had a lot of things going on. It had football on one side, it had cricket going on, it had karate going on. But then I saw boxing training was happening and I walked in and asked one of the guys, ‘Hey, can anyone do this?’ He said, ‘Yes, you can do it. Do you want to start now?’ And that was it for me. We couldn’t afford a TV or a radio or anything. So, when it came to sports, I didn’t really know anything about them. 

“I never had any fear when I walked in. In my head, for me, my only experience of boxing was watching that [first] Tyson vs Holyfield fight. I watched the Rocky movies, and they were all pretty big! I didn’t know about the weights, so when I walked in, my mind was telling me: ‘If he can do it, you can do it, too’. The first time I felt fear in the gym was after a few months of training, I was set to start sparring and I can remember it; my whole body shook. What will happen if this other kid hits me in the face?”  

Chilemba’s journey through boxing continued after he moved to South Africa following the death of his mother. He was 17 and lost, like many of the sport’s great students. He would make his professional debut in 2005 and continues boxing even now, suffering a contentious draw with experienced Russian campaigner, Fedor Chudinov in February 2021. It was a fight many thought Chilemba had won – but this wasn’t his first rodeo. Draws with Thomas Oosthuizen and Tony Bellew had riled him years prior; it is the nature of the game. Liverpool’s Bellew was the only one to run it back, though, and Chilemba lost their second encounter fair and square.  

“The fight [with Chudinov] went very well; I believe I fought very well. Taking into account the fact that I hadn’t fought in about a year due to Coronavirus lockdowns, I thought I fought well and I won the fight. I still can’t believe they made it a draw. I didn’t see the scorecards, but it was a shock, the decision itself. They made it a draw; I couldn’t believe it. I was only given four weeks of training before the actual fight. I was in the gym, keeping fit, but I wasn’t ready to fight. But I’m a fighter, so I said, ‘I will take it’.” 

As with Team Oosthuizen back in 2010, he believes Chudinov will now seek alternative opponents. That’s just his luck, though. A fighter of Chilemba’s stature; tricky, well-educated but troubled, falls into a certain bracket. There’s the expectation that he’s sat on the sofa, feeling unwanted and desperate for a fight, but for Chudinov, he was in better shape than he’d been for years due to clean living. The Russians soon didn’t fancy it on the night and they certainly don’t fancy it again. So, back to the sofa it is. 

I asked Chilemba how he deals with that frustration – and it’s tough, but it’s not the scariest part of his life. Neither is parenthood, after welcoming a child in recent years. Neither is inactivity, surprisingly, because he doesn’t have as many miles on the clock as you may assume. He’s okay with that; he understands it.

Three suicide attempts and over two years of sobriety (earned one day at a time) later, the Malawian light-heavyweight, sometimes super-middleweight, explains that retirement may have to be delayed due to two years of inactivity. He’d originally planned on calling it a day at 35 or 36, but now, it’s looking more like 38 or 39. His dream now remains clutching a world title again, feeling the leather straps in his hands, thrusting it skyward with dead arms summoning the energy from somewhere. 

World champion again? Maybe. But probably not. The scariest thing, taking steps closer every single day and with every injury, delay, and debatable result; the thing hanging over him like a curse, reminding him of years misspent, money misspent and time lost, is what follows boxing…  

“That is the scariest part of my life. That year that I was out of the ring [after suffering a serious elbow injury opposite Oleksandr Gvozdyk in 2016], the doctor told me after the operation he didn’t think I could ever box again. They didn’t know if I would ever punch again, so when I came home, it was the beginning of my depression. I tried to take it out on drinking because I didn’t know what else I was gonna do. Now, I don’t know what I’m gonna do – what else can I do? After my career, I would like to do something. I have a child now; I can be with my child. That’s been a wake-up call.

“Now, I’m trying to get my education so that I can focus on something and I can try to get something over the line. I’ve been boxing since I was 14, but I haven’t done anything in between, just some personal training. I take my career day-by-day; I have no idea where to step next. I don’t know what to do – just be an ordinary man? I don’t know how to do that. I would walk in and I’d be a blank page. I worried [when I was injured] that I wouldn’t be able to use my arm again. What would I do? I couldn’t do personal training; I’d never be able to hold the pads for anyone, so what else is there? It’s a real fear of mine.” 

He’s not alone. Fighters reading phrases like “blank page” or “ordinary man” know just how daunting that prospect is. It’s probably the scariest part of their lives, too, although perhaps unacknowledged. Chilemba continues fighting, aged 33, and has given himself another five or six years to achieve whatever is left. The important things now are family and financial stability; fighting comes third. 

We close the call before the internet prematurely closes it for us. Chilemba goes back to his family in Johannesburg, just waiting for the phone to ring, hoping (and doubting) that he gets a fair shake. Dreams have changed dramatically from the early days, when staying alive was first on the list.

“The most important thing I’d like to achieve or to be remembered for is being that kid that came from Malawi; the kid that came from nothing and became a world champion – that would be good enough for me.”