Frazer Clarke: The world is going to know who I am

Frazer Clarke of England celebrates winning his Men's Super Heavy +91kg semi-final bout against Patrick Mailata of New Zealand at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Frazer Clarke of England celebrates winning his Men's Super Heavy +91kg semi-final bout against Patrick Mailata of New Zealand at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

British super heavyweight champion who was stabbed in the neck as he celebrated the birth of his first child, walked into a terror attack, was overlooked for London 2012 and Rio 2016, and was just two fights away from qualifying for Tokyo 2020 – only for the coronavirus to curtail qualification – pulls no punches in plotting a return to the ring and promises to fight until his last breath for Olympic glory.

“I remember it like yesterday," Clarke said.

It was a cloudy spring afternoon and the soon-to-be crowned Commonwealth champion had just left a press conference in central London alongside GB Boxing’s Pat McCormack and Callum French when they walked into commotion on the street outside.

A car had mounted the pavement and crashed into the railings outside the Palace of Westminster; bodies and debris were strewn down the road.

It was 22 March 2017, and Clarke found himself caught in the epicentre of one of the worst terrorist attacks on UK soil.

“I’ve seen a police officer killed, and I’ve seen the attacker, I’ve seen him gunned down as well," he recalls.

“I’ve seen some things and they’re not nice, but I’m one of the lucky ones. If we’d walked out a few minutes earlier, God knows what would’ve happened.

“I’ve just scraped out by the skin of my teeth and I’ve gone home to my family. Some people didn’t get to do that that day. It was a sad day for everyone involved. A sad day for the country.

“This is just another chapter in the book of Frazer Clarke. Somehow, someway, I seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Always.”

Frazer Clarke trains during a Team England media opportunity ahead of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images for Commonwealth Games England)
Frazer Clarke trains during a Team England media opportunity ahead of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images for Commonwealth Games England)
2018 Getty Images

The fight for his life

Clarke, 28, is the longest-serving fighter for GB Boxing having been part of the national setup for the past ten years. The super heavyweight is also one of their most successful, scooping a succession of national, European and Commonwealth titles.

However, his story could have been very different.

In December 2016 he became a father for the first time and celebrated with friends in a local nightclub in his hometown of Burton-upon-Trent.

“I’m a good person. I wouldn’t say I’m an angel in any aspects, but it was just a night out,” he said.

“I’d seen a crowd of people in there that, you know, I could sort of sense some hostility between us; alcohol’s involved, emotions get high. You see it every week in different town centres.

“I got into what I thought was a fight,” he said.

Clarke was brutally attacked and stabbed three times; twice in the leg and once in the neck.

“It wasn’t a pretty scene," he says frankly. “It’s not a nice situation to talk about or be involved in, but it’s one I talk very proudly about now.”

Ten years ago, Clarke’s friend and fellow amateur boxer Connor Upton was killed in a knife attack. After surviving his own ordeal and seeing the impact it had on his own family, Clarke decided it was time to dedicate his time outside the ring to highlighting anti-knife campaigns.

“With my daughter being so young at the time, it really opened-up my eyes at how cruel it could be."

“In that one incident, carrying a knife can change so many people’s lives in one second and it doesn’t change anyone’s for the better, that’s the thing. There’s plenty more things to do for anyone than walk around the street carrying a knife.

“It doesn’t matter what background you’re from, who you are or how tough you may think you are, everyone has someone they love. Think about them answering that phone call or answering the door to that horrible news that you’re taken; their son or daughter’s been stabbed.

“My mum had to go through that phone call.”

Joseph Joyce (R) in action with Frazer Clarke during their 91kg+ bout during the 2012 ABA Elite Championship Finals (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Joseph Joyce (R) in action with Frazer Clarke during their 91kg+ bout during the 2012 ABA Elite Championship Finals (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
2012 Getty Images

Gold on the Gold Coast

The following months would prove to be tumultuous. As well as the emotional and physical rehabilitation from his wounds, additional hamstring and hand injuries would cast long shadows over the year.

“I was in the worst mental state and physical state of my life. During that time, mentally it was just so difficult to think that I was going to come back and to be anywhere as good.”

The Commonwealth Games – a key target for Clarke – was on the horizon. “[It was] on my list of things I wanted to achieve and it just felt it was already going to be tough to go there 100 per cent fit, but it felt it was that far away that it was never going to be possible.”

It was at this moment - during the lowest and darkest period of his professional career - that he credits GB Boxing for going “above and beyond” in their efforts to help him bounce back.

“I was having treatment two times a day, Monday to Friday, one-on-one sessions [as well],” he said.

“Once I’ve got my mind set on something and my goals set, it’s going to take more than a couple of operations and a few stab wounds to the neck and leg to put me off.

“I’m a fighter – this is a cliché – but I’m a born fighter. Once I realised I was going to walk again after the hamstring injury and operation – if I could walk, I could box, so it was all systems go after that.”

Clarke's return to boxing was astonishing. Motivated and rejuvenated, he made the flight to Australia and went on to dispatch India’s Satish Kumar in the final to secure his first major championship gold.

Frazer Clarke of England on the podium after winning Gold in the Men's +91kg Final at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
Frazer Clarke of England on the podium after winning Gold in the Men's +91kg Final at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
2018 Getty Images

London 2012 and Rio 2016: Setting the record straight

“I’ve got so many gold medals that I couldn’t think of. I’ve got bronzes, silvers. I’ve managed to travel the whole entire world and I’ve done it with great people, so I’m proud of everything I’ve done so far.”

Yet despite a glittering amateur career, Clarke readily admits there’s one medal missing from his collection. It happens to be the greatest of the them all.

Twice he has been overlooked for Olympic selection – first at London 2012 in favour of his former sparring partner and eventual gold medallist Anthony Joshua, and again four years later at Rio 2016, where Joe Joyce was picked and won silver.

In Olympic Boxing only one fighter from each country can enter each weight category, meaning Clarke, as a super heavyweight at +91kg, had to be better than the best in the world to even make the team.

“I feel like an Olympic gold medal is a better achievement than any world title,” says Clarke, who helped prepare Anthony Joshua to reclaim the IBF, WBC and WBO world titles.

“A lot people say I’ve missed out on the other two Olympics, but that’s not the way I see it.

“2012 was really unrealistic. The stage I was at in my career, to qualify would’ve been a miracle. I was a young lad - I don’t think I would’ve done anything – I might’ve been able to participate but a medal would’ve been so far out of my reach.”

By contrast, Clarke put himself in the mix to qualify for Rio 2016 only for Joyce to eventually pull clear.

“Me and Joe [Joyce] were both going to tournaments, both picking up gold medals. I [felt] like I was always playing catch-up. To be honest, I think I was just being optimistic that he wouldn’t qualify and then I’d get my chance,” he said.

“Realistically, looking at the form Joe was in, I think he was always going to qualify."

Joyce duly qualified with a split decision victory against Mahammadrasul Majidov at the European Olympic qualifiers in Samsun, Turkey, while Clarke could only watch his hopes vanish at home.

It wasn’t just the thought of missing out on the Games that pained Clarke the most – to represent his country at the Olympics had been his dream since childhood after all - but it was the fact he would have to wait another four years for the opportunity to qualify all over again. He was devastated.

Just twenty minutes had passed when Clarke received an unexpected phone call from his trainer Robert McCracken.

“He knew how it would’ve felt for me – they knew it was going to be difficult. He said ‘there’s not a lot that can make you happy right now [but] keep doing what you’re doing and your time will come."

“They had a lot of stuff going on, they didn’t have to make that phone call – they cared.

“It was one of the best lessons ever taught to me in my life and another reason why I respect the people from GB Boxing so much.”

Clarke put any lingering thoughts of a professional career on hold, picked himself up, and began the long road to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

Joseph Joyce (R) in action with Frazer Clarke during their 91kg+ bout during the 2012 ABA Elite Championship Finals (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Joseph Joyce (R) in action with Frazer Clarke during their 91kg+ bout during the 2012 ABA Elite Championship Finals (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
2012 Getty Images

Qualifying for Tokyo 2020 and its delay

On 14 March 2020, Clarke stood in the dressing room at the Copper Box Arena in east London and prepared to face double Olympic silver medallist Clemente Russo in the first of three bouts that would see him secure one of the final European qualification spots for Tokyo 2020.

Russo – a double world champion – was seeking entry into his fifth Games. The Italian was a formidable and tricky opponent.

“I was right in the mood. I was ready to go and fight, ready to do a job on him,” Clarke says.

Wrapped up and shaking down with 20 minutes to go until the bell, a knock came on the door and Clarke was informed Russo was feeling unwell with digestive problems and he was to be given a walkover into the next round.

Excitement and anticipation was building in the Clarke camp – he was now in the Round of 16 and a further victory in the Quarter Final will see him reach Tokyo – but events elsewhere would provide an unwelcome distraction.

“It didn’t take a genius to see that things were changing rapidly,” he said.

“We went from having supporters there to it being behind closed doors. [With] social media and the way we’re all on our phones and the tv now, I could see [the spread of coronavirus in the UK was] getting more serious and more serious.”

Before long, Clarke was summoned to an emergency meeting on the landing and received news the tournament would be suspended.

His heart sank.

A No entry sign is seen outside the venue as the event is placed behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the Road to Tokyo European Boxing Olympic Qualifying Event in London, England (Photo by James Chance/Getty Images)
A No entry sign is seen outside the venue as the event is placed behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the Road to Tokyo European Boxing Olympic Qualifying Event in London, England (Photo by James Chance/Getty Images)
2020 Getty Images

“I was just gutted because you’re in the moment, you’re there, you think this is it. I’ve got loads of friends who’ve been to the Olympics and they all say qualifying’s one of the best feelings."

“It was not robbed from me, I feel… it was the moment that was taken away from me.

“I obviously had two tough fights. I was ready for them. I was in a physical condition, mentally there. You’ve got no-one to be mad at - usually you have someone to blame for these sorts of things but there’s no-one to be mad at other than it’s a really unlucky time, really unlucky place.”

After swallowing the disappointment of qualification being postponed, breaking news from Tokyo would break his heart: the Games would be pushed back an entire year.

“That sort of threw me off,” he says. “That really was a heartbreaker. You plan for the future. I had certain things in place - not even in sport, but in life.

“A lot things do have to go on hold for the Olympic Games, whether it’s my partner having another child, or just moving on generally, maybe we wanted to move house and stuff, but whilst you’re training for the Olympic Games, you’re that focussed on it, everything [else is] sort of number two.

“The poor people close to you pay the price. It’s hard, but it’s more for my loved ones, my family. They have to wait a little bit longer for me to get back to normality because training for the Olympic Games… it’s not a normal job.

“It consumes your life 24/7.”

Life in lockdown

Following disappointment at the Copper Box and the uncertainty caused by the UK in lockdown, Clarke admits his dream of ever representing his country at an Olympic Games was almost at an end.

“Obviously with the way things have been, the lockdown and everything else, I think everyone’s emotions have been all over the place. You have to forget your dreams for a second and weigh-up what’s best for the family.

“At the time the emotions were that high and I was that disappointed – as much as my love for the Olympics and the amount of commitment I’ve given to the cause – my initial feeling was it’s not meant to be. It’s time to move on.

“A lot of people would’ve just chucked the towel in ‘d’you know what, enough’s enough’ [but] for the most part the Olympics is something I wake up and think of every day. It’s got a strong place in my life and in my heart.”

It was only after conversations with performance director Rob McCracken and his teammates that Clarke was persuaded to fight on.

“You know what, it’s another year, more chance to improve, it’ll fly. It’ll be gone before you know it. My focus and my training is gearing towards the Olympics, definitely. A year’s a long time, anything can happen, but I’ve put 11 years of my life into the Olympics.

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Can’t wait for a swingers 🤪👊🏾

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“On social media I get a lot of people saying ‘oh my God, you haven’t turn pro yet’, and they say it as if I’m underachieving. But what people don’t understand is I’m at the pinnacle of amateur level.

“I feel like it’s a privilege, I feel honoured that I’ve been able to keep my spot on the team for so long. [Team GB] is not a flipping club, this is representing your country. Coaches don’t just keep me there out of good faith and knowing me, I’m sure of it, because they know I work hard and I’m talented.”

With his sight now firmly set on qualifying for Tokyo, lockdown has been anything but sedate: his home gym is now bursting with equipment and his diary flooded with regular check-ins and team updates.

“The training sessions have been coming through thick and fast. I get twice a week phone calls off one of the coaches and I have a Zoom [video call] three times a week.

“This morning I had a random Facetime with the strength and conditioning coach just to see if there’s anything he can help me with or needed with. I couldn’t praise them high enough.

I’ve got itchy knuckles now.

I can't wait to punch someone.

"I've got itchy knuckles now.

“People might think I’m violent in saying this but it’s what I’ve done since I was 11-years-old and I can’t wait to punch someone in a competition – the next time that could be is at the Copper Box, so the excitement it gives you a sort of shiver up your spine.”

Although qualifying for Tokyo is within touching distance, Clarke is already plotting his next move.

“This is just the beginning for me.

“Right now I’m known to the boxing world. One day everyone in the world is going to know who I am for what I do. This is just a start and it’s not a bad place to start is it, representing your country at the Olympic Games.

“If [opponents] are going to beat me they are going to have the best day of their life because, take everything else away – skill, fitness, strength – I’m a fighter through and through.

“I’m a proud man and I’ll fight until there’s not another breath in my body.”

Another chapter in the remarkable life of Frazer Clarke is about to be written.