On March 20th, Eddie Chambers will enter enemy territory to fight for the heavyweight title. To beat Wladimir Klitschko, the reigning WBO and IBF champion, Chambers will have to execute a three-pronged attack. First, he’ll have to get into Klitschko’s turf, a piece of canvas the long-armed Ukrainian diligently protects with stiff, straight jabs. Second, he’ll have to stun Klitschko with enough power to earn the giant’s respect. And if Eddie Chambers can achieve these two necessary goals, the third will just happen: Chambers will own Klitschko’s head and, when the fight is over, he’ll also own Klitschko’s crown.
You don’t have to be a five-star general to come up with this battle plan. Any fight fan knows exactly what must be done to wrest Klitschko’s belts. So far, only three men have beaten Wladimir and no one has beaten him in the last six years. Klitschko is not an exciting fighter, but he is big and he is strong and he does train hard and he looks the part, which is a compliment in this division where weigh-ins are a formality and flesh too often spills over trunks. Whenever I watch Wladimir Klitschko fight, I’m frustrated—frustrated at the champion for fighting so methodically and frustrated at his opponents for not executing any sort of plan. Instead of taking chances, today’s heavyweight challengers have accepted jab after jab after jab until they’re so busted up they can’t continue or they’re so demoralized they wilt. That’s when Klitschko’s PhD kicks in. Once Dr. Steelhammer recognizes his opponent can’t hurt him, he turns brave, releases his cocked right hand and it’s show over.
Enter “Fast” Eddie Chambers. He’s a small heavyweight. He’s also a skilled heavyweight. And he’s been a frustrating heavyweight in his own right. Too many post-fight interviews have begun with Eddie apologizing to his fans for not working hard enough or steadily enough. Eddie Chambers has only lost once, and in that loss to tough gold-medalist Alexander Povetkin, Chambers, who won the first few rounds, stopped fighting. In his victories, Chambers stops fighting during portions of each round, thus the post-fight apologies. His boxing skills have carried him past decent opposition to a 35 and 1 record, but Eddie Chambers will have to work harder and steadier to get in on Klitschko, to hurt Klitschko, to break Klitschko’s mind.
Fans of Chambers, and I’m one of them, look at Eddie Chambers’ last fight as a gauge by which to judge the emergence of this tweny-seven year old from Philadelphia as a true contender. Fighting the then-undefeated Alexander Dimitrenko, whose height, reach and weight are very close to Wladimir Klitschko’s, Chambers won handily. He worked hard during most of the fight, steadily attacking the bigger man and, surprise, surprise, by fight’s end Chambers owned Dimitrenko’s head. Suddenly, we saw the fighter Eddie Chambers promised we’d see, a new and improved boxer/puncher who didn’t punch out until the final bell rang. Also new and improved was Eddie Chambers’ physique. Gone was the layer of soft baby fat that once hid his muscle. He wasn’t ripped in the tradition of Evander Holyfield, few men are, but he looked like a professional. Eddie Chambers didn’t have to apologize for anything that mid-summer night. He was excited and confident and seven months later that confidence remains. I believe that Eddie Chambers believes he can beat Wladimir Klitschko. That’s a good start.
Four weeks away from his title shot and Eddie Chambers is fifteen days into his training camp at the Fernwood Resort in the Poconos. Kids on winter holiday are running wild through the resort’s lobby, but across the lot and up the stairs it’s peaceful. There, set up in a converted warehouse, is a simple, functional gym with two heavy bags, two speed bags and a single ring. When my brother and I walk in, no one’s there, but the prep work’s been done. Wraps are lined on a table. Pieces of tape have already been cut. Gloves are arranged in a row, laces loosened. Two chairs face each other, waiting for fighter and trainer to conduct their pre-sparring ritual where trainer prepares his fighter’s hands. It’s an interesting boxing still life, a picture of a man’s world before the men enter. One of these absent men hopes to be the next heavyweight champion of the world.
The first men to come through the door are not the day’s featured subject. They’re the sparring partners, a heavyweight named Shawn McLean, and a bigger heavyweight, seven-footer Marcellus Brown. They sit at opposite corners of the gym, open their bags and start to untangle their wraps before re-rolling them. McLean, whose most notable win is a knockout against overly-handled and once 38-0 prospect Faruq Saleem, understands that the room belongs to the man he’s paid to hit and he seems happy to talk about “Fast” Eddie.
“He’s like a magician. In boxing he’s the master of deception. You think you can break him and it’s a set up. You can’t relax in there with him. And he has a particular pop, a certain kind of pop. Not a Tyson pop. A stun pop. Three or four of those and you’re wobbling.”
More men enter the gym. Ex light-middle champion Robert “Bam” Hines, trainer Robert Murray’s two sons, current welterweight Steve Upsher Chambers, and finally big Rob Murray, Chambers’ trainer, who has known Eddie since he was a kid. All of these men have been with Chambers for years and immediately the room takes on a warmth, a looseness, without any tough-guy posturing. Hands are shaken all around, introductions made and then Eddie Chambers enters the room. He’s by no means the biggest man here, by no means the toughest looking, but on closer inspection his eyes take the room’s focus. They are young, alert, alive eyes that have the super-clarity of a winner. His torso looks strong. His arms defined and his chest tight. And his legs are muscled, the legs of an elite sprinter, or a man who has danced the canvas for thousands of rounds. Chambers begins to stretch and Rob Murray begins to talk about his fighter and the upcoming fight.
“No one will outwork Eddie. People say he’s too small. Louis weighed 190 and he stopped freight trains. When we fought Peter we were 223. We didn’t like 223. We wanted to get sleeker. The Klitschko brothers fight like cavemen. Eddie’s a Lear Jet and they’re prop planes. They have such a strong boxing fan base that people bought into it. It’s a pity HBO didn’t buy into Eddie. This kid has character. You can’t go around with a needle and say it’s time for a character shot. He’s the best fighter, the best athlete I’ve ever worked with. What we do here, we’ll bring to the dance. This guy is going to go back to Emanuel Steward and say, I can’t hit this motherfucker. And then Manny Steward will have to earn his pay.”
Chambers finishes jumping rope, a good four-rounds’ worth with no one-minute breaks, and he’s not even breathing. He wears a black T-shirt with the outline of the top half of a face, two eyes peering out, red. Across the T-shirt, two words: Fight Angry. Chambers shadowboxes for a few minutes, watching his moves in the mirror. I watch his feet. He’s a pro. Balanced. Super-quick.
Chambers sits down in one of the empty chairs. Rob Murray sits in the other, across from his fighter. The still life takes on movement. It’s time for this trainer to earn his pay.
Murray wraps Chambers’ hands methodically. Careful and slow seem to be the beat of the pre-sparring work here and even the hip hop music, coming from a portable radio by the door, is more about slow rhythms than frenetic riffs. It’s a beautiful wrap-job, even and smooth, three vertical lines of raised tape on each hand turning potentially lethal fists into almost-delicate sculptures.
Steve Upsher Chambers, no blood-relation to Eddie but a best friend and fellow fighter, turns on the round buzzer and 3:00 flashes in red. It’s time to spar.
First up is Shawn McLean. McLean weighs 220, stands 6’ 2” but it’s not even close. Eddie’s jabs are fast and crisp. His hooks are textbook. The pop of leather against flesh indeed leaves McLean wobbly. At one point Rob Murray asks McLean to get busy with the jab. “Double it up,” he yells at McClean. “Double it up,” Chambers echoes. The contender wants to work. When the third round ends McLean has a badly bloodied nose, and his breathing is labored and heavy. To his credit, the sparring partner wants to go one more round, but Murray waves him off.
Next up is the giant Marcellus Brown. Brown is 26 and 17, but the way he spars, his record is deceiving. This super-heavyweight is a towering man, wide-backed, thick-shouldered, mighty-armed and he fights like his afternoon’s shift is more than a payday. This is sparring with bad intentions. In the first round, Chambers beats him around the ring. Brown complains his shoulder hurts and Murray tells him to shut up about his shoulder and fight. Brown takes direction well. He zones in on Chambers, eyes locked on eyes, and shoots jabs reminiscent of Klitschko’s. And then Brown unloads rights that seem capable of knocking off a man’s head. Chambers is the picture of cool. He takes the jabs, moves away from their sting and lands crisp jabs of his own. They’re fast and they crack. And when Brown’s right hands come thundering in, Chambers is nowhere to be found. Still, some of Brown’s jabs land and for too many seconds Chambers stands still, calling his sparring partner forward while producing no offense. “I’m right here,” Brown says and Chambers answers, “Come on.” Brown comes on, stays busy and wins the round. Round 3 feels like a fight. Brown lands early. The punches wake Chambers and he starts to throw combinations, moving to the side of Brown’s jabs and under, landing left hooks and uppercuts that raise Brown’s chin to the rafters. A new rule of physics seems proved: Skill makes you taller. Suddenly the seven-footer doesn’t look that much bigger than the young man eleven inches his junior. When Round 3 ends, Marcellus Brown is huffing and puffing while Chambers breathes easy. In six rounds, he’s beaten two big men and looks untouched, clear-eyed still.
Rob Murray steps into the ring, pads covering his hands, and works with Chambers. Suddenly the trainer is all teacher, showing his student how to get inside the jab and how to work once inside the conquered territory. Murray works the same move over and over until Eddie gets it right, explaining the move, offering positive reinforcement, forcing his pupil to start the move over when he gets it wrong, admonishing Chambers to keep his hooks tight instead of throwing over-handed loops. “You got to do it while you’re right there.” It’s both literal and symbolic advice. Do it when you’re close to Klitschko. Do it when you’re in Germany fighting for the title. Do it when you’re right there, your body sound and your mind sound, supremely confident.
Chambers winds down his workout with stomach exercises that look impossible. Head on the canvas, legs against the ring post, he lowers his legs to the floor and lifts them all the way up, over and over and over and over. His face shows pain but he continues, stoically. Just as he started his day stoically, running five miles through the Pocono Mountains, sprinting whenever he came to a steep incline. Just as he worked over two big men stoically, bloodying one, battering another.
After some final stretches, Eddie Chambers comes over to talk. He’s thoughtful and articulate, clearly a smart young man in a game where smart men often rule. I’ve seen Chambers fight half a dozen times and I ask him about his consistently calm demeanor in the ring.
“I enjoy the business of the fight. I always want to feel as comfortable as in sparring. When the lights come on it’s like messing around in the gym. The only fight I lost, I knew I had him (Povetkin), but I didn’t have the energy. I know I have them when my punches feel like poetry. I can walk in. Most guys think they can bomb me out because I’m not strong. When they realize I’m stronger they’re like, What can I do? Well, I got paid. I did what I could. It becomes survival mode for them.”
I’ve seen Chambers recognize the exact moment when his opponents go into survival mode. He smiles, his eyes go as mean as the red eyes on his T-shirt, and that’s when he seems to take joy in beating the man in front of him. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest-and-fastest joy, a joy that’s appropriate and even necessary for a prize fighter. Think Muhammad Ali, a fighter Rob Murray refers to often when speaking to Chambers, reminding the young heavyweight about the old-school fighter who made big-purse fights possible for black athletes. Ali spoke like a poet, but in the ring, and often out of the ring, he was a cruel man.
“I’m building on what I did last time,” Chambers says. “I’m stepping it up. Wladimir is the same size, has the same style as Dimitrenko, but times two. He’s stronger. I’ve stepped up the intensity. Running. Sparring. Lifting. Everything done is done with extreme intensity. My plan is to do what I did but not stand in front of him.”
If he can give Klitschko angles, if he can force himself to not step straight back when Klitschko throws his methodical jab, and if he can remain intense for all three minutes of all twelve rounds, busy, always busy, shooting the kinds of three-punch combinations he flashed in sparring, Eddie Chambers could become heavyweight champion at the young age of 27.
Aside from Klitschko’s strength and six-year dominance of the heavyweight division, there is one other concern going into this fight that, surprisingly, doesn’t seem to overly concern trainer or fighter—it’s the issue of German home cooking. The Germans are notoriously nationalistic when it comes to judging fights. Witness the scores when Chambers defeated Dimitrenko, a Ukrainian now residing in Germany, in their fight in Hamburg. While the Auslander beat the hell out of the Deutschlander and knocked him down twice, one judge scored the fight a draw. Rob Murray seems philosophical about the matter and believes Goossen Tutor Promotions will work in the pre-fight days to ensure post-fight fairness.
“It’s supposed to be all neutral. I have a lot of confidence in Dan Goossen. Winning or losing, he always answers the phone. Not just when we ate steak. He also answered when we ate hot dogs.”
Unfortunately the Germans prefer Sauerbraten to American grade-A. I hope Dan Goossen actively and vociferously insists on a panel of impartial judges and an impartial ref for this championship bout. Perhaps it’s a sign of Murray’s supreme confidence in his fighter that he’s not overly worried about the three men sitting ringside. Echoing Murray’s sentiment, Chambers says, “I’m not going to think about it. I have no choice. I’ll fight twelve rounds. In my mentality I’m a boxer/puncher. If I don’t knock him out I have to leave it in the judge’s hands. I hope I get a fair decision.”
A fair decision. Too often in boxing, especially too-often for the visiting team, this is a pipe dream. One scenario I see is Chambers dominating the fight, neutralizing Klitschko’s jab, avoiding the powerful straight right hands just as he did sparring against Marcellus Brown, and getting the short end on at least two judges’ scorecards. Sure, an appeal is possible, but we all know that a day later, maybe two, bad decisions solidify and cries of outrage fade. And with this fight not being shown in the United States (shame on HBO and Showtime for not featuring the one American boxer who actually has a chance to win the crown) a bad decision is sure to stick.
Las Vegas odds, right now at about 2 to 1, do not favor Eddie Chambers. And the odds makers are usually right. They’ll look at Chambers’ small stature and his lack of power and his inexperience performing on the biggest stage. While it’s easier to make a case against Chambers, a case can certainly be made for him. At 6’ 1”, 210 pounds, he’s small by today’s super-heavyweight standards, but he’s bigger than Jack Dempsey when he beat Jess Willard, bigger than Joe Louis when he beat Primo Carnera. Chambers may not be the second-coming of Tyson, but his punches have pop. He’s knocked out half his opponents and I’ve seen the swift sting of his textbook left hooks and right crosses and inside uppercuts from a ringside seat several times, most dramatically when he bloodied Derric Rossy’s face and busted his eardrums. I also saw Eddie Chambers smile while doling out that brutal beating, a visible cruel streak that starts in his eyes. This will help him against Klitschko. Too many of Wladimir’s opponents didn’t appear to truly want victory and after a round or two their dances turned defensive, their faces softening, their eyes glazing over with dull acceptance. In Chambers’ sneer there is something taunting, cocksure and crafty, and dangerously aggressive. He knows he’s good and he enjoys imposing his will, two marks of a winning fighter. And while he has never fought for the title in front of fifty thousand enemy fans, he has been a road warrior of late. The Klitschko fight will take place in a soccer stadium in Düsseldorf, but the too-polite German crowd, whose cheers are more ordered than raucous, won’t faze him. So Chambers has a chance. It’s a David and Goliath story, which is the story of a little man against a big man, but also the story of a young, quick, crafty man against a Philistine lumberer, whose arrogance hinted at mental fragility. Long shot, yes. Impossible shot, not at all.
Thinking about the upcoming fight, the eloquent Rob Murray uses another man’s words to highlight what he foresees happening next month; Murray paraphrases lyrics by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
I don’t want nobody
to give me nothing
Open up the door,
we’ll come right in.
Together, Eddie Chambers and Rob Murray have worked hard for many years—and this training day was a hard day, the sparring some of the most vicious I’ve seen. When Eddie Chambers stands in his corner on March 20th facing the champion, he won’t have to ring the bell to enter Wladimir Klitschko’s door. The timekeeper will do that for him. What Chambers does next will be up to Chambers. If he comes in right, if he fights correctly, if he stays calm and confident, which I believe he can, “Fast” Eddie Chambers will soon be smiling.
Photo By Claudia Bocanegra