Luke Campbell: Will to succeed
Perhaps no other anecdote personifies Luke Campbell better than the one he shares about his fledgling amateur career, when as a self-confessed ‘little fatty’ fuelled on crisp sandwiches and fizzy pop, he was repeatedly thrown to the wolves by a trainer who told him: ‘I’ve always got a towel I can throw in’. Despite losing seven of those first ten fights, Campbell refused to be disheartened. He went on to become surely the most decorated amateur in British boxing history. “That is my talent,” he offered over coffee in a hotel bar situated within a workaday retail park in Hessle, along the north bank of the Humber Estuary. “My talent is being dedicated. It’s my will to be better than I was yesterday.” As if to illustrate the point, the unbeaten lightweight met with Boxing Monthly just days prior to jetting off to train alongside Cuban super-bantamweight marvel Guillermo Rigondeaux in Miami.
These field trips are nothing new to Campbell, a southpaw whose polite manner masks a confidence he works to contain. His meticulous nature and a desire for continuous improvement have compelled him to travel the world, kit bag in hand. In 2007, as a precocious 19-year-old, he cajoled a fellow boxer from St Paul’s ABC in Hull to fly to New York to train at Gleeson’s Gym. Neither had much money, had booked any accommodation, or even knew where the gym actually was. Salvation came in the form of Mike Kozlowski; a Russian trainer spotted queuing in a Brooklyn Starbucks. Kozlowski had ‘BOXING’ stitched down the side of his track pants. They struck up a conversation that resulted in the pair securing digs and a fortnight’s invaluable training.
It is almost two years since this publication last spoke to Campbell - then riding the crest of a wave after winning Olympic gold at bantamweight at London 2012. His boyish looks, winsome charm and genius inside the ropes led to him being anointed Britain’s “Golden Boy” – a double-edged billing that suggests both a fighter of limitless potential and a high-profile target. The nation latched onto him, demanded more of him; Hull embraced him. Looking back, Campbell found his sudden celebrity unsettling.
“I’m just quite a private person and that all changed,” he admitted. “For the first nine months I really struggled with it, but now it’s just normal. Obviously, seeing the boxing fans and the passion they’ve got when I’m in the ring, I’m a bit overwhelmed - it’s brilliant and it’s nice to have fans.
“The support in this city has been incredible and not only that, boxing fans from up and down the country have come to Hull. I very rarely get any negative criticism which is quite weird really because no matter how good you do or how perfect you say things you usually get some.”
Campbell has coasted to 11 straight wins (nine inside schedule), yet his transition to the pros hasn’t been as simple as he first envisaged.
“Obviously, when you turn professional, from being an amateur, you’re always that little bit naïve thinking that it’s the same at the end of the day - it’s boxing,” he conceded. “The more you go through the sport, the training camps and the actual fights, you know it’s different.
“Things are allowed to slide a little bit - they’re trying to really hurt you. They’re sticking their head in and elbows and doing what they can - so it is more of a fight. In the amateur game it’s point scoring.
“Obviously, when you’re fighting a better [class of] fighter you know what they’re capable of but when you fight someone who’s a novice, who’s a bit wild and very unpredictable and you don’t know what they’re going to do, those fights are a bit more awkward. I think the better opponents you see me in with, the better I’ll be.
“I feel as though I’m adapting well to the pros. I’m the type of guy and a fighter that it doesn’t just happen like that straight away. Give me a little bit of time and when I do adapt you will see it and then everyone can see the difference. Some people can do it like that (clicks fingers), some people can’t do it at all.”
Tall for a bantamweight at 5 feet 9 inches, he strides purposefully into a room, walking on the balls of his feet. His face outside of conversation, during which he is engaging and articulate, is a mask of concentration - as if constantly locked in thought. He is a skilled stylist in the ring, a beautifully balanced boxer with long arms that allow him to strike from range. While that lends a commanding air to his work it his form and composure that impresses most.
Campbell feels he has fared well in the opening phase of his career.
“Getting into the ring first fight, you know there’re loads of unanswered questions like: ‘Will I be able to punch? Will I hurt them? Have I got that one-punch knockout? Can I take a punch?’ But yeah, I think it’s gone great.
“I think a lot of people weren’t expecting me to be able to punch as a professional but there was no-one that could match me for strength in the Olympic Games. I was tall and skinny for the weight but still, no-one could match me for strength. With my speed, accuracy and timing - now I’ve put a bit of muscle on - when you add all that together it’s quite a nice combination. My physique has changed over the last year that’s for sure. I’m looking stronger and bigger. I’m still developing as a man. Yeah I’m 27-years-old but I matured late - I didn’t develop any strength until I was 23, 24-years-old.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. Campbell’s rise was interrupted in April 2014 when he received the shattering news that his father, Bernard, an ex-miner, had been diagnosed with cancer. Campbell managed to rally himself that summer yet after amassing four more wins he again attempted to withdraw from the sport in February after his father moved into a hospice after a period of intensive care.
Campbell hunches over the table to explain the ordeal had been “really hard.”
“I’ve never had to experience anything like this before and as you know, with boxing you’ve got to be solid mentally when you go in the ring. Why give someone the opportunity to take advantage of me when I’m not fully focussed and mentally strong? I’d be a fool to myself doing that.”
Campbell’s family persuaded him to fight in March, as originally intended. While the Sky Sports commentary team attempted to add pathos, depicting a son struggling with his emotions, Campbell was quick to set the record straight. “What a load of bullshit,” he exclaimed. “It wasn’t going on in there.” He tapped his fingers against his temple - a habit that subconsciously reveals his sharpest weapon: a mind somewhat eased now that his father, Bernard, is “steady”.
“My Dad’s said he’s not going anywhere until I win a world title. And just seeing what he’s done - he’s come back from the medics saying they weren’t going to bring him back and resuscitate him to him saying ‘I’m staying’. To see the fight in him just turned me completely around. He’s got that fight on his hands…it just makes me more determined and motivated.”
Campbell maintains he’s been brought along at the right pace. While fellow 2012 Olympic champions Zou Shiming and Vasyl Lomachenko have already challenged for world titles (at flyweight and featherweight respectively) despite having less pro fights, Campbell points out that both have faltered; he feels Shiming lacks the requisite power to become a true force in the pros and questioned Lomachenko’s supposed lack of professional experience.
“Lomachenko had about six World Series of Boxing fights, which were no head guard, smaller gloves. That is like a pro fight in itself. You get the odd freak like Rigondeaux - who’s just amazing - who can do it but how many Rigondeuax’s are there?”
Lomachenko - he of back-to-back Olympic victories and a stellar amateur record of 396-1 (a record that has him reckoned by many as the greatest amateur of all time) - crops up repeatedly.
“He looked red-hot as an amateur - he didn’t look as good as a professional,” Campbell said archly. “I’d love to fight Lomachenko at a catch weight. I think I’d beat him as a pro. I still watch him now. I still learn off him now but as a professional, down the line, I think me and him could fight. I think it could be a mega-fight.”
Lomachenko recently commented that professional boxing seemed to him more of a business than a sport. When I relayed the Ukrainian’s comments, Campbell shook his head.
“It is a business but let’s not get mistaken, even in the amateur game there’s a hell of a lot of cheating. I think it’s a little bit naive of him to think it is a pure sport because there were that many people who got robbed for medals in the Olympic Games. They tried robbing me in my second fight against the Bulgarian. This is in my own backyard, my own country! The amount of kids that get robbed!”
Campbell is scheduled to fight once more before he finally settles the score with long-time rival Tommy Coyle, a local derby pencilled in for Hull’s 25, 000 capacity KC Stadium. When questioned about their relationship, Campbell scotches any notion the duo are friends.
“We’re more associates,” Campbell said. “We’re not pals that go out for a drink with each other.” Coyle, 21-2 (10), has been posted as the prohibitive underdog after he struggled to impress against Walsall’s Martin Gethin in March. It was a lacklustre showing that prompted “Boom Boom” to issue a public letter pleading for clemency from his supporters.
“He goes into the Hull Daily Mail every day to try to convince people he’s not a dick. Put that in if you want,” Campbell snapped. “He can’t take criticism. People are going to criticise - so what? It doesn’t mean everybody’s writing you off. He says about me: ‘Oh Luke’s underestimating me for this fight’. I haven’t said anything! How am I underestimating him when I aint said nothing? That’s in his head. I don’t underestimate anyone. I take everybody seriously.
“I don’t think Coyle will handle the pressure. I bounce off that pressure. I’ve had that pressure in the Olympics. There’s nothing like an Olympic fight for pressure - even the qualifying stages. I bounce off this,” he promised, his eyes widening. “The more [fans in attendance] the merrier.
“Tommy’s got a big heart, he comes fit, he’s strong and he can box. He can have a fight as well. I’m not taking anything away from Tommy. He’s a dangerous fighter. I’m taking him very seriously and I’m prepared to give him what he wants. I’ll win by KO but I’m not taking Tommy Coyle for granted and I will be at my best when I get in the ring with him. And my best knocks Tommy Coyle out.”
Campbell’s recent stoppage win over Argentinean scrapper Daniel Brizuela, who embroiled Coyle in a life-and-death dogfight in February 2014 (Coyle triumphed in a tumultuous contest via 12th round stoppage), served only to bolster Campbell’s confidence further.
“Brizuela hit me clean on the chin in the first round - through my own mistake - but didn’t affect me whatsoever. Brizuela barely hit Tommy on the chin and put him down three times. You could argue that he got robbed in that fight, Brizuela.”
It is an exciting time for the British lightweight division - easily the most entertaining domestic weight class over recent years. Liverpool’s Derry Mathews was scheduled to face Canadian Tony Luis for the interim WBA title as this issue went to print, with Manchester’s Anthony Crolla awaiting his own world title opportunity. Dagenham’s Kevin Mitchell challenges Venezuelan Jorge Linares for the WBC version in May, while Manchester’s “Turbo” Terry Flanagan stands on the brink of a tilt at the WBO belt recently vacated by American Terence Crawford. Campbell is keen to get in on the act.
“It’s great, yeah. Brilliant. I think they’re all good fighters, I rate them all. I hope they win the world titles, bring them back to England and hopefully I can fight for it and take them off them. I think I need a couple more fights, at least two, to build up to those twelve round fights. Because when I do go for it, I’m winning it. I’m not just going for it to try it. When I do go for it I’m taking it.”
Despite his enthusiasm, Campbell admits he rarely studies his peers.
“Pardon my ignorance but I don’t really keep track. There’re only a handful of fighters I watch. I watch Rigondeaux, Mayweather, Pacquiao, Crawford, [Adrien] Broner and Lomachenko. You can think too much about what everybody else is doing. I care about what I’m doing and that’s it. Maybe I should keep an eye on a few certain ones but at the minute I’m just concentrating on being the best I can be. Let them worry about me."
April saw the launch of the Luke Campbell Foundation, an initiative designed to help Hull’s disadvantaged youth by encouraging them to develop their potential through sport. It is a community-based scheme that works in tandem with the local council and is funded via grants and donations. A return to his old amateur club – still helmed by his coach Mike Bromby - convinced Campbell that he had the opportunity to give something back.
“There are loads of kids with my name on their t-shirts,” he said, buoyantly. “Half the kids go from me winning the gold. This is why I started my foundation. I knew I’d sort of inspired a hell of a lot of people. I wanted to make the most of it and work with kids - from primary school up to college. We can put a project together, work with them and inspire them. We’re working on scholarships for college kids, too”
His team organise classroom visits and coaching courses that allow Campbell to propagate hard work and application – facets he cites as bedrocks of his own success. It is an ambassadorial role he says will “really kick off this year”. It fits this driven young man well and is one he shows obvious pride in.
“I’m dead excited about it. I’ve learnt a lot and have a lot of experience. If I can inspire someone to work hard, concentrate on what they want to do and put the effort in - regardless of whether they want to do boxing, they could be doing something else - but with that same mentality, then they can go on and do something they want to do.”