Isaac Chilemba's biggest fights is against the pain within himself
Isaac Chilemba's biggest fight hasn't been inside the ropes, but rather his lifelong battle against depression and, more recently, substance abuse.
The veteran boxer, ranked No10 in the light-heavyweight division by the WBC, this week spoke openly for the first time about his reliance on alcohol, cigarettes and pornography as well as his heartbreaking childhood growing up in Blantyre, Malawi.
The Johannesburg-based 31-year-old has attempted suicide on three occasions, the first time when he was eight and the last less than two years ago.
"The only emotion I could recognise was anger," Chilemba said at his trainer Jodi Solomon's Craighall Park gym.
That anger was invariably directed at himself. "The first thing I do when there was a problem was to just walk away ... I'd go buy a six pack of beer and a packet of cigarettes and go to my place and just sit and drink and smoke until the morning."
He'd also watch porn on his phone, although it was never a sexual experience. Porn was his first addiction.
Chilemba was around five when his parents divorced. He moved with his three-year-old brother and mother, then pregnant with his sister, into a one-room dwelling.
His SA-born mother struggled to find work and eventually turned to prostitution. "Her job was bringing home a man and sleeping with him."
A curtain separated the children from their mother and her client. "I could see, hear everything. Sometimes I'd sit up and watch everything ... that's how I grew up."
He started frequenting informal movie houses to watch porn when he was 10, first putting his two siblings to bed before heading out.
He effectively ran the household, but stole money to get into the cinema.
"Sometimes they're both drunk ... and I'd sneak in and go through their pockets, steal some change."
Life was no easier at school, getting shunned because of his light complexion.
"Most of the kids believed I was an albino, and where I'm from that's a curse ... No kid wanted to be my friend.
"Even the teachers were afraid. I knew I was different, I wasn't accepted. Every day I would ask myself why was I born?
"At night I'd sit and look at the stars ... I'd think there must be life out there, maybe that's where I belong."
The first time he attempted suicide he used his mother's chitenge - a sarong-like cloth - with one end tied to a branch and the other around his neck. "I jumped and the cloth snapped and I fell. I was in pain ... but I was pissed off with the cloth for snapping."
Chilemba was 17 when his mother died of HIV. He cared for her in hospital, sleeping on the floor next to her bed with only a blanket. "Every night there'd be someone dying in there. I'd close my eyes, cover myself because I didn't want to see it. You hear that noise when someone is dying."
After three days a relative came to relieve him. When he returned the next morning his mother's bed was empty. She had died.
Chilemba moved to SA soon afterwards. "I told myself all I'll do is just boxing, so I cut out everything else that a normal human being is supposed to go through every day."
Chilemba, now a father of one, is coming to terms with his past, writing a book he hopes will be cathartic. He has quit booze and porn, but still struggles with smoking. At least he buys singles rather than packets.
He receives counselling and attends a weekly support group.
The boxer still dreams of winning a world title, but his biggest battle continues inside of him, day by day. "I'm trying," he said.
HIS LIFE AND TIMES
EVEN BEFORE A WEIGH-IN
He succumbed to his addictions before his most recent fight in the US. The night before the weigh-in he booked into a motel, drinking beer and smoking 'the whole night'. He made the weight but lost the fight.
SECOND SUICIDE ATTEMPT
Chilemba attempted suicide the second time when he was 14. His mother had become too ill to work. 'I had to go run a business, sell sweets and things to try and support my siblings.' He swallowed all his mom's tablets, but vomited them up.