May 24, 2024

At the age of eight weeks, British super-middleweight fighter Zak Chelli received his first pair of boxing gloves.

 

When he was six years old, a five-minute bicycle ride home with his father following felt more like a marathon. This forced him to run home from elementary school.

The Londoner’s phone would ring when he got home from high school, begging that his son go home quickly so he could practice. Zak Chelli Sr.

“OK, I’ll simply tell the bus driver to drive faster should I?” Chelli would respond.

However, at the age of 26, the boxer from Hammersmith is appreciative of his father’s assertiveness.

As a child, I was not fond of boxing. I’m actually really happy that things worked out this way, even though I detested it and missed a lot of my childhood—even simply being able to play PlayStation with my pals.”

On Saturday in Liverpool, Chelli will compete against Jack Cullen for the British title. Mikaela Mayer, the global champion, will be defending her title against Natasha Jonas.

In an interview with BBC Sport, Chelli explains how he evolved from being “forced into boxing” as a youngster to a fighter who discovered his love for the game, partly because of a brief job as a teacher during lockdown.

With 14 victories in professional combat, two losses, and one draw, Chelli is realizing his father’s ambition.

“Dad is a professional boxer who was born in Tunisia and has won national titles. He relocated to Italy and won the title there, but after establishing a family in England, his boxing career took a turn for the worst, according to Chelli.

“So instead he said his kids – me and my brother – eventually became boxing champions.”

While both Chelli and his older brother Yahia excelled as amateurs, Yahia chose to continue his schooling rather than pursue a career in engineering. Yahia is currently pursuing a PHD in the field.

“My dad saw what my brother did and said no to me doing the same,” Chelli recounts. “He took me to [promoter] Frank Warren who convinced me I had what it takes and showed me the money I could be earning.”

Concurrently, Chelli’s mother ensured her son had a backup plan because she recognized the unpredictable nature of boxing.

Chelli, who has already started her career, received a degree in business, management, and marketing from Surrey University.

“Having the degree was helpful,” he remarks. “My mother didn’t want me to spend my days doing nothing but lying about, so when lockdown arrived, I had to find work. Although my boxing savings were getting low, I was unsure about how long Covid would last.

He received expedited certification to work as a substitute teacher. Chelli found herself in front of a high school class in a matter of weeks.

“To be honest, they wanted just anyone with a degree because teachers were dropping like flies because of Covid,” according to him.

“They put me in a year 10 class at a ladies’ school on my first day. I wasn’t even doing the GCSE in geography, but I was teaching it!

“Nevertheless, the first day went so well they asked me to come back for a couple of months.”

Although Chelli’s new career had its uses, he quickly realized that teaching was not his true calling.

“I was doing 8am to 4pm days and I soon realised how tough a working day is,” he recalls. “I came to the realization that I don’t want to live my life like way. What I wanted to do was box.”

Four months after he shocked everyone by defeating Chorley’s Mark Jeffers in February 2023, he emerged victorious over the highly accomplished amateur American Anthony Sims Jr.

“That loss really was a wake-up call,” according to him. “Perhaps I got a bit too arrogant and complacent.”

The thought of ever going back to the classroom makes him laugh. Rather, Chelli, who is now being backed by Ben Shalom’s Boxxer, is intent on punishing opponent Cullen this weekend at the M&S Bank Arena.

 

“Our 2020 fight ended in a draw. I thought I had prevailed. However, I was only 22 at the time, and I think I’m at my best today,” Chelli adds.

“All through my career, my father has been saying I’m the finest super-middleweight in Great Britain – now this is the opportunity to prove it.”

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