Danny Flexen quizzes Zak Chelli about his upcoming clash with Kody Davies and balancing boxing with a university degree
While his forthcoming opponent Kody Davies is friendly with his compatriot Joe Calzaghe, it is actually Fulham’s Zak Chelli, despite being neither Welsh nor a southpaw, who has more in common with the legendary former world champion. Both started boxing very early on, Chelli under the guidance of his charismatic Tunisian-Italian father (as Joe did with bombastic Enzo, who is Italian like Zak’s mum), their amateur careers were fought mainly as juniors and, with styles better suited to the paid game, they turned professional as young men (Calzaghe 21, his spiritual successor just 19). They were even born in the same hospital, Queen Charlotte’s in Hammersmith. As he prepares for a step up, in both weight and class, to meet Davies at light-heavy on September 14 at Bethnal Green’s York Hall, Chelli, who came into the world a year before his father’s last of 10 pro fights, insists he is delighted to have been directed towards boxing, despite never having much of a choice in the matter.
“I’ve been boxing for as long as I can remember,” Chelli tells me. “There are pictures of me as a one- year-old in boxing gloves, and I went to my first gym at three because my dad used to train people at a gym in Fulham. At a young age I knew he used to train people and he still has most of his fight videos; he was very strong, more of a fighter than a boxer. He got his pro boxing license, opened a gym and I used to watch him train.
“It’s something I’ve always done – go school, come home, train, even once I started university I carried on doing it. Once I turned pro I started to really take it seriously, I saw it as my life. I guess I could say I was born a boxer, I wasn’t made. I still can be anything else I want, but I’m now actually kinda happy I chose boxing. When you play football you’ve got your team, but in boxing it’s all on you.”
Chelli is not yet 22 but won a pair of junior national titles, has amassed a 7-0 (3) pro record and shut out Jimmy Smith in April for the vacant Southern Area super-middleweight title. These early accomplishments have been achieved despite the sport not being his only focus. Zak is about to begin the third and final year of his Business Management degree at the University of Surrey and, despite his boxing journey starting to accelerate, he is aiming for a first.
“I know how to manage my time,” he says assuredly, but with a hint of understatement. “I just plan ahead, I know what I’m gonna do the next day, the next week, the next month. I’ve been doing it all my life, balancing boxing with GCSEs then A-Levels. It’s honestly just to make my mum happy, but it could come into play when I’ve made enough money from boxing. I could open a chain of boxing gyms, and a high-class restaurant in Mayfair.”
Zak is the middle child of three. His older brother was also a gifted amateur boxer, but is currently finishing his Masters and may or may not return to that vocation. He still lives at home with his parents, which is fortunate as both their lounge and garden currently double as the Chelli gym, in a daily transformation that would put the Tardis to shame.
“We move the TV, hang a punch bag in the doorway,” he relates, matter-of-factly, as if this is how everyone trains. “There are weights under the sofas, pads and a mat for groundwork. Next to the living room is our garden and when it’s hot we train out there. I’m really lucky where I live because there are two huge parks I’m near Imperial Wharf, and it’s also nice to run around the Thames Path.”
Chelli plans to move into a regular gym once he graduates next year and, assuming he gets past Davies, should settle at light-heavyweight for the foreseeable future. Still growing, Chelli mandated the Davies fight had to be in the heavier division. While neither man has fought any big names yet as pros, Chelli has sparred the likes of James DeGale, George Groves, Chris Eubank Jr and, recently, Joshua Buatsi. Relatively local superstars DeGale and Groves retired within the last year, robbing Chelli of world-class sparring but also potentially benefiting his progression in another way.
“We all came from Dale Youth, and their amateurs seem to always become big names in the pros,” Zak chuckles. Daniel Dubois as well. With Groves and DeGale gone, hopefully I can fill their gap and take their place.”