Isaac Chilemba’s Best Chance at Glory May Have Passed

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Boxing is a sport that should be decided by the merit of the fighters in the ring. No matter where you’re born in the world, if you’re good enough to compete at the very top level, you should have the opportunity to claim a world championship.

In reality, though, that often isn’t the way that things work out. The statistics tell us that American and European boxers get to compete on the grandest stages a lot more often than boxers from elsewhere in the world, and African boxers get fewer opportunities than most. Africa might be beloved as a venue for boxing because of the success of the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ but African fighters rarely get the respect they deserve.  

Right now, it might be fair to say that nobody is more aware of that fact that Malawi’s Isaac Chilemba. In his prime, only a cynic or a fool would suggest that he wasn’t one of the best light heavyweights in the world. He’s had an all-too-brief reign as the IBO Super-Middleweight world champion, and he’s stepped in the ring with a few of the sport’s better-known competitors. He’s never truly had an opportunity to bring one of boxing’s most respected version of the world championship back to Malawi, though – and at the age of 33, we have to wonder if his chance will ever come.  

As is the case with so many things in life, money talks in boxing. The role of a boxing promoter is to create a card that will attract money. You could think of a promoter in similar terms as someone who tries to extract money from an online slots website. It’s all about the lineup. An online slots player spins the reels repeatedly, looking to create a lineup that will guarantee a lucrative payout. If the wrong symbols appear, no money is paid out at all. Get the right symbols in the right places, though, and you could become rich. A strong pay-per-view card is the equivalent of an Online Slots UK jackpot for a boxing promoter. Chilemba, rightly or wrongly, has never been thought of as one of those winning symbols.  

The highlight of his sporting career to date ought to have been his world championship reign, but that isn’t the way that most international sports fans remember him. If non-African boxing fans remember him at all, it will probably be for the pair of contests that he had with British boxer Tony Bellew in 2013. 

Chilemba was brought to England as a throwaway opponent for Bellew on the Brit’s way to a world championship opportunity of his own. The Malawian had other ideas on the night. Against all the odds, in Bellew’s own back yard, Chilemba held the Liverpool-based fighter to a split-decision draw. The British press called the decision ‘controversial.’ Back at home in Malawi, the general consensus that Chilemba had been robbed of a historic win.  

Naturally, there was a rematch, and this time Bellew won on points in a unanimous decision – although yet again, there were those watching at home in Malawi who saw the fight differently to the judges. Bellew was allowed to resume his journey toward the pinnacle of the sport. Chilemba was expected to be satisfied with his moment in the spotlight and go back to fighting average competitors.

That wasn’t enough for him, and nor should it have been. By rights, Chilemba ought to have received at least one match with Canelo Alvarez. The world-famous Mexican boxer is thought by many to be unbeatable at super-middleweight. Perhaps they’re right, but it would be polite and respectful to at least allow Chilemba the chance to find that out for himself. As the months and years go by, though, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that nobody is going to allow Malawi’s greatest boxing son that opportunity.  

In the interests of being fair and balanced, we should point out that some of the blame for this should fall on the shoulders of Chilemba himself. Many sporting observers feel that he was never the same after that second contest with Bellew. He secured a few wins against lower-ranked opponents after the fight, but in recent years he’s shown signs of being a fighter past his best. His defeat to Bellew was only his second in a career that had spanned 24 professional fights by that point.

Since then, he’s racked up another five damaging losses, all of which have come in his last seven contests. He’s also slowed down dramatically. Those seven fights are the only ones he’s had in the past five years. In 2017, he didn’t fight at all. A boxer shouldn’t automatically be past his best at the age of thirty-three, but Chilemba’s form appears to tell a different story. Perhaps he’s taken one too many hits, and his body can no longer do the things he wants it to do. Alternatively, perhaps his confidence is shattered.  

If Chilemba has made a mistake, it might be that he’s taken too many fights against eastern European boxers. They’re notoriously tricky opponents, and yet at the same time, contests involving them don’t attract the same type of box office attention as fights against Americans or Brits. Chilemba has recorded losses to Maxim Vlasov, Dmitry Bivol, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, and Sergey Kovalev in recent years, but without being knocked out in the process.

Most of those defeats came by unanimous decision, with the exception of the Gvozdyk loss, which came after his corner retired him to spare him any more punishment. In taking these difficult fights, he might have damaged his prospects of ever getting the right he really wanted, which is undoubtedly with Alvarez. After fighting Alvarez, he would be financially made for life win or lose. Right now, as he contemplates his next move after a December victory against the virtually-unknown boxer Alexander Kubich, he must be wondering if he’s missed his opportunity.  

Accepting that his chance might have passed him by will be a difficult process for Chilemba. Even if his recent record hasn’t been great, he’s never been knocked out in his professional career, and he’s consistently taken those who have defeated him to the limit. He, like the Malawian sporting media, will believe that he deserves one more shot at the top table before he retires. Sadly, the chances of it happening appear to get lower with each passing year.  

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