A NEW tattoo has appeared just above Zelfa Barrett’s right wrist. None of Barrett’s ink comes from the well thumbed pages of the tattooist’s catalogue. From the portraits of his brother, John, and cousin, Wayne, – both of whom were taken tragically before their time – to the ‘Flash’ symbol that represents the nickname that both he and his uncle and trainer, Pat, have carried to the ring, every piece is unique and personal to the 26 year old. The latest addition to his soon to be completed sleeve is a brain in the shape of a boxing glove.

The small tattoo symbolises a big shift. Over the past year, Barrett has changed. The belief that was shaken by a surprising loss to Ronnie Clark last year and a torn achilles tendon has returned but these days there is a real conviction about his actions and words.

“I’ve wanted that tattoo for ages. I just had to find the right time to get it done,” Barrett told Boxing News as he sat in the Collyhurst and Moston gym in Manchester. “Boxing is about using your brain. People can’t see what’s really going on inside, even I can’t really explain it. I’m just different. I’ve seen a different side of life now. 

“I can feel that I’m back. I’m back to being me again. I’m picking up where I should have left off. I believe that when you talk about something, it’ll happen. I’m putting it into the earth and it’s going to grow.”

The seeds of change were planted in the driest of ground. A losing dressing room isn’t a nice place to be. A winning fighter carries an air of confidence throughout everything they do and the first time they lose you are introduced to a side of their personality that you have never seen before. Barrett is a naturally exuberant character but as he sat, head bowed, in a back room at the York Hall after being upset and outpointed by Clark in February 2018, all energy had drained from him. As the usual celebratory war stories were replaced by consoling words, one sentence cut through the hushed post-mortems that swirled around Barrett. “I’m proud of you,” his uncle Pat said. 

The words may not have registered at the time but in hindsight they cut straight to the heart of the matter. In the months that followed the shock defeat, Barrett was cast into no man’s land. Learning to deal with defeat is something almost every boxer must do, but the naturally active Barrett also found himself laid up with his damaged achilles and struggling to work out exactly what his uncle wanted from him.

Zelfa Barrett
Action Images/Lee Smith

The Collyhurst and Moston gym isn’t a place where excuses flourish and Barrett was forced to search inside himself for a solution.

With a vacant Commonwealth title fight with Lyon Woodstock looming, something finally clicked. In June, Barrett produced the most polished and eye-catching performance of his career to outpoint Woodstock. When it mattered the most, Barrett’s mind operated in perfect sync with his Uncle’s.

“Thinking was the only thing I could do while I was injured. I decided that when I came back, I was going to really be back. These guys aren’t gonna stop me,” Barrett said.

“At one point I was in a blurb. I wasn’t even on the same page as Pat, I was at the back of the book. Now, I know what he wants me to do. If I do something wrong in the gym or a spar, I know in a split second. I know what kind of fighter he wants me to be and what he expects. At one point I had an idea but I wasn’t sure. Now, I know exactly how he wants me to fight.

“I realised that I need boxing, boxing doesn’t need me. When you’re doing well and knocking people out, you start thinking that boxing needs you. Nah, I need boxing.

“Now, people have seen the real me and seen the difference.”

Happy with the day’s technical session, Pat takes a seat on the ring apron, an image of him with his British and European title belts, won as the 1980s became the 1990s, looming large over his shoulder. Passionate but precise, any fighter climbing the well-worn steps to the gym can expect to be taught in the same way that Brian Hughes taught him all those years ago. They will be taught how to use rhythm and how to punch correctly. In return, they will be expected to listen, put their full trust in what they are being told, and work out how to use it. Some fighters can handle the high level of expectation and thrive, others crumble. Zelfa is treated in exactly the same way as the other fighters in the gym but, subconsciously or not, the close family tie must add an extra dynamic.

“I’m never demanding,” Pat says. “That’s the wrong word. I’d prefer to say I’m a perfectionist. I don’t demand from anybody. I don’t even demand respect, I earn it. If anybody is disrespectful, there’s the door.” He turns to look at the poster hanging behind him. “This is my gym. As you can see I was the first champion to come out of this gym and now I’m running it and training them the same way. If they aren’t gonna listen to me they might as well go and learn somewhere else.

“I have a criteria in my mind for my fighters, just like the one Brian Hughes had in his mind for me. He painted a picture of how I should be and I had to start adding colour to that. If you can’t see the colours, you start worrying about what you need to do. That’s where frustration comes as a trainer. You know they have it but why are they not doing it? 

“Now Zelfa is walking in every direction I tell him to. He can relate to everything that I want from him. If you watch all his interviews, he talks like me. He goes on about the mind but in the past he needed to start practising what he was preaching. I’d say to him, ‘You say all the right, fancy words in your interviews. You want to start doing it. Don’t just say it for saying its sake. You say what you mean and if you aren’t going to do that, don’t talk at all.”

In scrap metal yards, engineering companies, and corner shops up and down the country, fathers are introducing their sons to the family business. The conflicts and tensions that simmer in a boxing gym are exactly the same as those which take place in the real world. Full of new ideas and ambition, the youngster wants to progress quickly and be given more responsibility but with the benefit of experience, the father is only too aware of the need to learn the basics and put the foundations in place. Eventually, the son forges a definite idea of where he wants to go and how to go about it and the father realises that his advice has been heard and that he can afford to loosen the reins.

“Pat’s changed,” Zelfa said “He sees me as a proper, dedicated athlete. I’m not ‘little Zelfa’ anymore. He’s seen through the Clark and Woodstock fights that I’m as hard as nails. I might not look hard but he knows deep down I am.

“I think he respects me. He always knew I could do it, but he’s now seen me do 12 rounds and become a man. Doing 12 rounds is a real man thing. You’re a proper seasoned professional then. I think he’s seen that and thought, ‘Wow, Zelfa has grown. He’s got his own house now and he’s his own man.’ He doesn’t shout at me as much these days, he speaks to me. He’ll never lick my arse, but he knows how much I want it and I know he’s proud. You know what? If I had a nephew like me, I’d be proud too. I’m chasing him in the gym, I’m asking what’s next and how we’re gonna do it.

Zelfa Barrett
Action Images

“I know what I need to do. It’s made Pat’s job easier and it’s made my life easier by doing the right things.”

During Zelfa’s rise, Pat insisted that his nephew would need 16 fights before being let off the leash. With every victory, the clamour for sterner tests increased but Pat refused to deviate from his strategy. A strong-minded character, any criticism he received for refusing to alter his schedule went in one ear and out of the other. The Clark defeat wasn’t part of the plan but it served a purpose. It seems like his patience has been justified. 

“Zelfa’s always had that full respect from me. He didn’t need to prove anything. That’s what he’s got in his own head and his own perception of things. I’ve changed because I think it’s time to change. Not because of any other reason. He’s growing up into the game now. Before he was clueless, but he thought he knew the game,” Pat said.

“There was always controversy before. There was always debate. It’s never as black and white as you think you see. You know, ‘Oh, Pat and Zelfa are like father and son.’ He used to do my head in. How the hell are you going to tell me how you’re gonna do something when you’ve never been there before? I’m just the same person as I am with every other kid. The respect has always been there, there have never been any changes. The changes have been made by himself. It’s nothing what I’ve done.

“He’s learned to accept things and he’s started to listen. You learn how to work together and it becomes a balance. What I’m trying to teach all of the kids who come here is that it isn’t about the ability, it’s about the mindset. Once you have a good mindset you can be anything you want. Without a good mindset you are always going to question and doubt yourself.

“I know when a fighter is ready. Zelfa is ready now.”

The Commonwealth super-featherweight champion is longer just ‘Little Zelfa.’ He is a grown man with a clear understanding of where he is in life and the love and respect of his family behind him. From here on in, the fights will get bigger and the relationship between fighter and trainer, and uncle and nephew will need to be stronger than ever. 

“I’m making the right decisions in life. It’s not like I’m out drinking or galivanting. I’m not doing what other fighters do. I’m not here for the same things as them. I want to become a champion. That will get security for me and my mum. Those are the perks of being a champion. Fame is fame. I don’t care about that. Let me secure mine and my mum’s future. Pat knows that I want to be a champion now.

“It’s the growth. He’s seen me as a baby so it must have been hard to see me grow. He didn’t have to mollycoddle me or reassure me. I knew what I had to do.”