Cheavon Clarke may only be 30-years-old, but he has already lived several lives.
In June 2021, the British heavyweight boxer won his quarter-final bout at the European Olympic Qualifier in Paris, securing his place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
But just seven years ago, he was wearing a very different uniform and boxing couldn’t have been further from his thoughts.
Clarke had just been dumped out of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in his first bout, while representing the land of his birth, Jamaica.
He decided to quit the sport, and began driving lorries for his father’s company, delivering DIY and home improvement supplies.
“It was a major knock,” Clarke told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview. “I said, ‘I’ve had enough of boxing,’ I was disappointed. I threw a tantrum basically, and stopped boxing for two years.
“I had to get up at, like, five o’clock in the morning to drive the lorries, and it turns out that I’m not a morning person! So I asked them to put me on nights and that worked much better.”
Tough love from Cheavon Clarke’s friends
While Clarke was undoubtedly a knock out at his new job, and was ‘feeling good for earning some money’, his closest companions voiced their disapproval that he wasn’t fulfilling his athletic potential.
“My friends, they were just on to me,” he continued. “This man who’s done what you’ve done for my area, nobody’s ever achieved what you’ve achieved from our area. You’re wasting your talent. You’ll be a waste of space.”
Harsh words, admittedly, but with the desired effect.
In December 2015, Clarke went back to the boxing gym where his first-ever coach asked his protege if he’d like to box in a local community show a few months later.
The boxer needed no second invitation and got back to work. But despite things going well again in the ring, he still needed to pay the bills.
That meant that he had to combine a rigorous boxing training schedule with his full-time night shifts behind the wheel.
Boxer learning to be resilient
To understand where Clarke’s dedication and ability to persevere come from, you only have to take a look at his childhood.
Born in Jamaica, he was initially raised by his grandparents, who had to fend for 11 kids on their farm. Quitting wasn’t an option for them.
Aged 8, he escaped death for the first time when he fell off a ladder and was impaled by a steel spike.
Two years later, he emigrated to London, in sole charge of his younger sister with no adult supervision.
His next brush with death came aged 18, when he suffered a burst appendix.
“I was just taught to be very composed in all situations,” he said of his upbringing.
“With all that I’ve been through, I’d say boxing is at least 75 percent mental and 25 percent physical. The physical part is easy. But it’s the mental part that makes most people collapse under the pressure.”
Switching allegiance to Jamaica
After becoming a novice national champion, he failed to make the GB team at trials in 2012. With the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow just two years away, one of his coaches suggested that he switched allegiances to represent Jamaica.
“He managed to sort out some sponsorship, all the paperwork was put in place. In 2014 I went to Jamaica to box in their national championships and punched my ticket to the Commonwealths there.”
There was no shortage of inspiration at the multisport event in Glasgow. Clarke’s room was in the same corridor as Usain Bolt’s, and the sprint king invited the boxer round to play video games.
But the fun stopped there, as Clarke was beaten in his first match, which led to his stint as a lorry driver.
Despite the hardship of having to work nights trucking, Clarke is adamant that the period in his life was fundamental in his success today.
“I really learnt that I’m a leader and I’m comfortable being by myself,” he said. “You can’t be late as a lorry driver. You have responsibilities to report your sessions on time, you have to be disciplined. It made me more grounded, and determined to take my second chance at the GB trials.
“It also led me to start reading and learning about other sides of life like business, financial literacy, and just learning that everything isn’t what you see out there. People chase the flashy lifestyle but a lot of that just isn’t real.”
A born-again boxer for Britain
Armed with his new wisdom, Clarke returned to boxing for England and Great Britain.
He worked harder than ever, and won the 2017 British national championships, before sealing silver at the 2017 European Championships in the Ukranian outpost of Kharkiv.
The victory also put him font and centre for Team GB, who offered him a trial ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“It was a moment where, all the people that had believed in me, I had proved them right,” Clarke continued. “My coaches had always said to me, ‘You can become a world champion’, and I felt like I had delivered part of that.”
The next big test was the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, where Clarke successfully exorcised some demons from Glasgow by winning the bronze medal.
Following the upheaval to the global sporting calendar as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clarke was forced to wait for his shot at making the British Olympic team.
When the moment came at the European Olympic Qualifiers, there was unsurprisingly no shortage of drama.
Clarke was behind going into round three of his all-important quarter-final against Armenia’s Narek Manasyan. But with Olympic qualification at stake, the Brit dug deep to see off his opponent, demonstrating superior fitness to claim a nail-biting 3-2 split decision.
With qualification in the bag, he eventually lost to Spaniard Emmanuel Reyes Pla in the semi-finals.
Clarke left with the bronze medal, but most importantly one of the ten British Boxing berths for the Olympics.
“It’s a big achievement,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve fully grasped it yet. I think I’m relieved to be going, but in the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t sunk in.
“But I’m also not one to rest on my laurels. I’m just focussed on the job ahead, so I’ll let everybody else get excited for me.
“I am going to Japan to go out there, perform, let people see who I am, a great athlete, a great person, and represent the country, my town, and most of all represent my family to the highest standards.”