If it takes character to walk into an opponent's backyard and endure the jeers of thousands of spectators, then light heavyweight contender Isaac Chilemba has plenty of it to spare.
Chilemba (20-1-1, 9 KOs), 25, who travels to Liverpool, England, on Saturday to face homegrown Tony Bellew in a title eliminator, has no problem circling the globe in search of difficult challenges. He's also no stranger to overcoming odds in the face of adversity.
One of 10 siblings born in the poverty-stricken African nation of Malawi, Chilemba was tasked with helping to raise his younger siblings while his single mother travelled for months at a time in search of work to support the family. The death of both his parents -- when Chilemba was 16 years old and living in South Africa at the time -- left him completely in charge, forcing him to turn professional two years later.
Chilemba enters the bout with Bellew on a five-fight win streak, dating back to his split draw against unbeaten Thomas Oosthuizen in 2010. He recorded his biggest victory to date when he defeated former super middleweight title challenger Edison Miranda by unanimous decision last February -- seven months before Bellew faced Miranda, stopping him in the ninth round.
This is your second bout under the guidance of well-regarded trainer Buddy McGirt. How has his influence helped you?
Buddy is a good trainer when it comes to technique and working on a fight strategy. He has improved my technique a lot and in particular on which combinations we are going to use in order to defeat my opponent.
What kind of challenges do Bellew and his fighting style present to you at this point in your career?
Tony is a good fighter. He is strong and tough, and it's going to be great fighting him on his home ground. All I know is that he has heart and when he gets in the ring all he wants is to knock out his opponents. So we are working on every weapon he's got.
You share a common opponent in Miranda. What did you learn from watching the tape of Bellew's fight and comparing it to your own?
I believe when I fought Edison Miranda that he still had everything in him. The time he fought Tony, he wasn't the same Edison. That's what I believe. I think Edison just give up the fight and did not fight the same. I'm not going to take that away from Tony in that he didn't do well against Edison. He fought very well and stopped Miranda, but I still believe Edison wasn't the same. I truly believe between the way I fought him and the way Tony did that I put up a great performance, and in our fight it's time to show who is better.
Describe your fighting style for anyone who hasn't seen much of you on television.
I always try to be different each and every fight. I adapt according to my opponent that particular night. I could be working on two, three or four different styles of defeating my opponent, and when we start exchanging punches, that's when I adapt according to how he is in that match. I do everything I can do to win the fight and be the best in that match.
You fought to a draw against Oosthuizen in your last fight at super middleweight before moving up to 175 pounds. What did you take away from that experience that has helped you?
First of all, when you are fighting in somebody's backyard, you have to put up 10 times better than you're supposed to do. That's what that fight taught me, because I truly believe I won the fight. But I fought him in his backyard and I had, like, 10,000 fans against me. Everybody believed he had won the fight before it even began and they ended up making that fight a draw even though everyone else that witnessed it knows that I won the fight. This Bellew fight is the same, as I am fighting on his home ground, and I'm going to make sure I am, like, 10 points away from where he is. I'm not going to let the fight stay close where they can take it away from me or make it a draw.
What does it feel like to have 10,000 fans screaming against you in your opponent's hometown?
That doesn't really bother me. Fans make the fight and bring the atmosphere. I truly believe it would be worse if there was no fans at all. The arena would be empty and there would be no fight. But when you hear that screaming and noise of the fans, that gives me energy and motivates me to go, whether they are screaming for me or against me.
With four of your past five bouts having taken place in the U.S., how important is it for you to make an impact on American television?
This means a lot. I believe it's every boxer's dream to fight on American soil and make it onto the TV station. I'm trying to get myself to being one of the best fighters up here -- where they say it's the capital of boxing. That would mean a lot to me. There will be nothing to stop me from getting there and reaching the goal that I want to reach.
You endured a very difficult childhood under tough conditions in Africa, including the loss of both parents at a young age. How much has that experience helped you overcome adversity inside the ring?
That has really given me a challenge. There is nothing that can stop me in this world to get what I want. From where I was and where I grew up with my mom and the life we lived, to survive and get to this point is something that I never thought that one day I would be in. Because of that, I truly believe there is nothing in this world that could stop anyone. If you truly believe you can make it and you've got your goal and you work on it, you get it. You just have to not give up and just have to work hard for it.
What were your thoughts on Bernard Hopkins' victory over Tavoris Cloud, and how impressed are you by what Hopkins has been able to do at his age?
That was unbelievable. I can't explain how he won. I couldn't believe Bernard could come into that ring and put up the great performance against an undefeated young fighter. That was great. I truly believe he's got some more years after that performance in this ring. I would love to one day step into the ring against him, even though it's going to be heartbreaking because he's one of my heroes. Stepping into the ring and fighting one of the legends like that would be great.
What do you think fighters today can learn from watching Hopkins?
With Bernard, it's not just mentally -- he's a whole lifestyle. You can see and learn that if a person takes care of themselves and is disciplined, you can fight up to that age. Bernard was just a witness to everybody's eye. A lot of fighters, once they reach 36 or 38 or 40, their performance goes down. Most of the time, I truly believe it also has to do with your lifestyle. As my manager, Jodi Solomon, always says, "What you put in is what you get out." It's what you drink, what you eat and how you live and use your body. I truly believe that man looks after himself very well.
If you can get past Bellew, is there a specific challenge at 175 pounds that you are focused on down the road?
I will say [Chad] Dawson is someone that I have my eye on at this moment in time. He is the one holding the WBC title and the Ring Magazine [title] -- which is the best title that everybody wants to fight for. So I've got my eye on that. After this fight, if I get past this fight, I'm going to go for Chad. I'm fighting for the No. 1 spot [against Bellew], and this is a big challenge.