His performance to take the IBF middleweight title from Australia’s Daniel Geale in Atlantic City last Saturday will go down as one of the bravest ever seen in the ring, as over 12 punishing rounds the 31-year-old former Commonwealth Games and European champion went to the well time and again to summon up the grit required to win by split decision.
In particular the way he dragged himself up off the canvas in the sixth round, after a body shot that would have floored an elephant, was nothing short of heroic.
No-one would have criticised the north London native if he’d stayed down for the count instead of getting to his feet after nine seconds.
He had been unable to rise off the canvas in his first world title shot back in 2011 against Sergio Martinez after he was on the receiving end of a clubbing right from the Argentinian.
And at this late stage in his career, who could have blamed him for deciding to follow the instincts of self-preservation that were no doubt screaming at him to quit in response to the kind of pain associated with torture?
But Barker was able to overcome those instincts by something within that proved stronger, when years of early morning road work, endless rounds of sparring, and self-sacrifice was distilled into that precise moment.
After the fight, describing how he managed to get back to his feet, he said: “I was in absolute bits. I was gone. But as the seconds went on my brother and daughter, they got into my head.”
The ability to transcend the limits of endurance, pain, suffering, and agony — in sport or in life — more often than not boils down to having something to live and strive for which is greater than self.
In the midst of those seconds in a boxing ring in Atlantic City, on his knees in the throes of unspeakable agony, Barker had thoughts of two people he loves more than himself and they enabled him to get up on when reason, common sense and every instinct he possessed were screaming at him to stay down.
The emotion present in the ring after the fight — with not only Barker but his promoter and friend Eddie Hearn in tears — was evidence that a man whose personal demons and setbacks would have broken most had finally reached the pinnacle of a sport which had taken as much if not more than it had given.
After a successful amateur career, culminating in a gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Barker turned professional in 2004, quickly amassing an impressive run of back-to-back victories over the next two years.
But at the end of 2006 his world came crashing down with the news that his 19-year-old younger brother Gary — himself a rising star in the sport — had been tragically killed in a car accident.
The loss affected him so deeply he took a year out from the sport to try to come to terms with it. Returning at the end of 2007 he regained momentum to clinch first the Commonwealth title, then in 2009 the British title, followed by the European title in 2010. All that remained was the world title, which given his uninterrupted run of victories seemed assured.
But while training for a much anticipated defence of his British and European titles against domestic rival, Matthew Macklin, Barker suffered a re-occurrence of a hip injury, forcing him to pull out and relinquish both titles in the process.
It was a monumental setback, which would have had most athletes opting for retirement. Barker is not most athletes.
With the desire to honour his brother’s memory continuing to stoke a fire inside, he returned to action in May 2011 to regain the European title against Italy’s Domenico Spada in London. Now, at long last, the shot at a world title had arrived.
On October 1 2011 in Atlantic City, he stood across the other side of the ring from Argentina’s Martinez, then a contender for pound-for-pound best boxer in the world, knowing the odds were heavily stacked against him.
Martinez was considered as close to invincible as it is possible for a fighter to be. So it proved on the night, with the Argentinian proving a step too far, stopping the Londoner in the 11th round.
For Barker it must have seemed the bitter culmination of years during which progress was immediately followed by setback, almost as if he’d been cursed by the gods.
Yet the adversity he’d suffered both in and out of the ring, rather than break him, had equipped him with the inner strength to force himself back off the canvas in that seminal sixth round against Geale last Saturday to go on and win the IBF world middleweight title.
Sometimes people do get what they deserve.