Frazer Clarke is a few fights away from achieving an Olympic dream that has eluded him for 10 years, longer than any other British boxer in the amateur game, and he knows this is his final shot.
Clarke will fight at the European Olympic boxing qualifying event at the Copper Box in East London starting on Saturday, the first of only two opportunities for the 28-year-old to book his place at Tokyo 2020 and finally qualify for an Olympic Games after twice failing to do so.
Having joined the Great Britain boxing squad in 2010, Clarke is, by a long distance, the organisation’s longest-serving fighter since it took control of the country’s Olympic boxing capabilities in 2008. In fact, Clarke can stake a claim for being one of the longest-serving British boxing Olympic hopefuls going back to the 1970s, when turning professional was not so commonly done. Clarke continues to reject the chance to enter the professional ranks, opting instead to again undergo the gruelling task of qualifying for an Olympic Games.
There have been knockdowns in Clarke’s journey. Twice he has failed to reach his promised land — first at London 2012 and then at Rio 2016 — due in large part to qualification rules. Only one fighter from each country can enter into each weight category. Clarke, weighing at over 91kg, had to be the best amateur super heavyweight in Britain. Thanks to Anthony Joshua and Joy Joyce, that was a harder task than simply being one of the best in the world.
The Burton-born fighter began boxing at the age of 11 in a small local gym, but it was not until he got called up to the Great Britain squad seven years later that he began to harbour dreams of an Olympic medal. His first chance at London 2012 came too soon for him, losing out to eventual gold medalist and now world heavyweight champion Joshua. His attention turned towards the games in Brazil in 2016, but Clarke’s Olympic dream would be over before he really knew it.
Clarke lost on points to Joyce in the ABA Elite Championship Finals at York Hall in April 2012, before two further defeats prior to selection for Rio 2016. “I did everything that have been asked of me,” Clarke says. “I was going to tournaments and winning gold medals all over the place. But he was always that one step ahead of me. I was trying to play catch up but I could never close the gap.”
Joyce went on to qualify at the European Olympic qualifiers in Samsun, Turkey in April 2016 as Clarke watched on from his hometown with his father and grandmother. His family were cheering for Joyce. “They’re just great supporters of anything to do with Great Britain. Patriots. They’d watched all the other lads — [Joe] Cordina, Galal Yafai — they’d watched them all and supported them. I don’t think they quite understood what was about to happen.”
Clarke was sitting in his grandma’s living room as Joyce dominated his fight and booked his own place in the Olympics, sealing Clarke’s fate for a second successive games. “I’m sitting there, watching and with each blow Joe is landing, my dream is getting a little bit further away from me,” he says. With 10 seconds left in the third and final round, he walked home, opened the door to his dad’s shed at the bottom of the garden and nursed his pain with a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Clarke has persevered through heartbreaking defeats and hopes that 2020 will be his year. Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images
“It was one of the toughest days of my life,” Clarke adds. “It was just at that point, I had been on here [the Great Britain squad] for six years. That’s a low time. People don’t usually last that long on this squad. And then comes the question: ‘What’s next?'”
Coaches from the national squad, many of whom were still in Turkey, rang minutes after Joyce’s victory to offer condolences and say that he could still qualify in four years’ time. Seeking financial stability, Clarke again refused to give up: Tokyo 2020 became his new goal.
He went to Rio and looked at the super-heavyweights in the ring, feeling frustration when realising that he had already beaten the majority of them at one time or another. But, the consummate team player, he cheered on Joyce from the stands with everything he had, waving a British flag with such enthusiasm as to try to sway the judges to the favour of his compatriot, who eventually won silver. Gazing around the arena, he knew that this was where he belonged, but it would be a long, tough four years ahead before he could book his spot.
It takes a special kind of determination to travel back around the European boxing circuit, to arrive again and again at the same tournaments, from England and Spain to Turkey and Russia, and keep the level of motivation required to be the best. Even then, so much of the success in amateur boxing can lay at the hands of judges that motivation is sometimes not enough.
Clarke was fighting at the World Boxing Championships last September in Ekaterinburg, Russia when he won his quarterfinal bout against home fighter Maksim Babanin on a split decision before it was controversially overturned on appeal. The AIBA, who ran the tournament, will not be in charge of boxing at the Olympics in Tokyo after it was suspended by the International Olympic Committee. Instead of advancing to continue his fight for the gold medal, he was packing his bags. Nobody said amateur boxing was easy.
Clarke’s ability to persevere through heartbreak and refuse to quit his dream has become perhaps his greatest asset: he has the kind of experience and maturity that is hard to match at amateur level. He showed as much at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, taking home the gold medal in his first fights since suffering a nasty hamstring injury a year prior.
“I’ve got a lot of experience,” Clarke says. “I’ve seen a lot things happen and stuff. I don’t just want to go to the Olympics. I want to lead the team; I want to be the one to give them all [the rest of the squad] a pat of the back and words of encouragement, be a father figure to them all.”
Last week, Clarke told his family about the time in his grandma’s living room, when they were cheering for Joyce in the 2016 Olympic qualifiers. Even four years later, they still were not aware what they had done. “My nan, bless her, she didn’t even know so she was a bit mortified,” he says. “I look back now and I do laugh about it. It was unknown to them.”
Clarke is very aware that the European qualifiers are the beginnings of his last shot — there will be another chance at the final Olympic eliminator in May — but if all goes to plan there will be no waiting around and there will be many, from the Burton Amateur Boxing Club to the national side, that will be relieved to see his Olympic dream finally materialise.
“No matter what happens, I know I have a good future in boxing,” Clarke adds. “But this is the dream now, this is what it’s all about.”