It's on the cards: Luke Campbell interview

Mark Butcher
28/08/2019 7:44pm

Photo: Jack Thomas/Getty Images

‘Cool Hand' Luke Campbell hasn’t always been dealt the most favourable cards. Ahead of the Hull man's showdown with Vasiliy Lomachenko, he spoke to BM's Mark Butcher...

One of the most talented but perhaps luck-free fighters in British boxing, Luke Campbell has had to negotiate unenviable obstacles personally and professionally to earn a second world title opportunity. The reward? Vasiliy Lomachenko, widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing.

The Ukrainian maestro was surprisingly shoehorned into a vacant WBC title bout, already featuring No.1 contender Campbell, despite holding the WBA and WBO lightweight crowns. Normally Campbell might expect to meet a rival contender from the WBC’s rankings, but facing this hardest of touches is emblematic of his six-year pro career.

Yet hope remains beyond Campbell’s inner circle. A highly decorated amateur in his own right, the Hull man mixed in similar company to the ‘matrix’ Lomachenko before punching for pay. Both fighters clinched Olympic Gold at the London 2012 Olympiad and enjoyed glittering amateur careers at elite level, but as professionals their paths have forked in different directions - Lomachenko hit the fast-track while Campbell’s march has proved a frustrating slow burn.

This Saturday at the O2 Arena in London, Campbell has the opportunity to knock Lomachenko off the boxing peak and draw the recognition he craves and his ability demands. A win, deemed improbable by many, would be more than a long-awaited step to a world title, but a leap into British boxing folklore.

“You don’t get to be ranked the No.1 pound-for-pound if you’re not some sort of a monster. But how do I get on that pound-for-pound list?” a relaxed Campbell, (20-2, 16 KOs), told Boxing Monthly over the phone. “That’s where I want to be. I want to get on that list. He’s the type of guy who can do it all. It’s going to be a very tough night. But it’s a night I believe I’ll come out on top.”

A 15/2 outsider in a two-horse race, Campbell is a sizeable underdog but still a live one. He’s a huge lightweight and, with advantages in stature and dig, arguably the stiffest puncher Lomachenko has faced professionally. He also possesses the pure boxing ability to exploit a 5½ inch reach advantage against a naturally smaller man. But Lomachenko, of course, is no ordinary man.

“I used to be a tall lightweight, but now I believe I’m a big lightweight,” Campbell continued. “I’ve got a hell of a lot of punching power and keep hitting harder and harder, and getting stronger. This is my time. People are going to say what [they want], regardless of what I say, but I believe in myself and how do you get to be the best? By beating the best.

“I’ll use my attributes to the best of my ability. This is going to be some fight. I believe it’s the best two in the division. It doesn’t really matter if you’re the underdog. The good thing about boxing is it can all change around in a single shot.”

This will be Campbell’s second world title tilt after he narrowly lost out to an in-form Jorge Linares in September 2017. In front of a pro-Linares crowd at The Forum in Inglewood, California, Campbell dusted himself off from a second round knockdown to regularly outbox the silky champion before dropping a contested split decision. Campbell’s stirring performance on away soil was even more remarkable given his father’s passing just two weeks previously. Something the fighter held secret until after the fight.

Second time around, circumstances either side of the ropes are much more auspicious. Against Linares, Campbell was burdened by a weight outside the sphere of boxing now the lightness is apparent in his voice. “I’m a different person now to who I was then. I’ve got the best team around me and I’m in a great place,” he said. “I thought I beat Linares. Thought I nicked it. Linares was smart in the later rounds because he did a little bit of showboating and made it look like he was in control. But that’s the only way I could think they gave it to him.”

Campbell feels he has improved immeasurably since the Linares defeat, subsequently leaving Cuban coach Jorge Rubio and regular training camps in far away Miami to bolster Shane McGuigan’s thriving gym in Battersea. His reinvention was underlined by a dominant points win over old nemesis Yvan Mendy on the Joshua-Povetkin undercard last September, three years after the dangerous Frenchman blotted Campbell’s unbeaten record. Inspired by McGuigan, the Hull stylist set up a second world title try with an exquisite display of footwork and flair - and, perhaps just as importantly, exorcised a niggling boxing demon.

“Shane is such a great trainer. The work he does and the programme he sets out for us all is really good,” said Campbell. “I feel I’m learning all the time with Shane. I also get to be home every weekend with my family, which just reminds you of why you’re doing it all.

“Mendy was non-stop coming forward. I’d have given him two rounds at the most [in the rematch]. I’ve never seen a guy who is just so tough. Never seen a chin like it. I think that’s his biggest attribute – his toughness. He never stopped trying all night, but I had fun with him, really. I beat him comfortable, boxed him and did a good job on him.”

Many forget the widely avoided Mendy was a late notice substitute first time around. In an era of soft imports and cautiously plotted opposition, this was high-risk matchmaking for a blue-chip 12-0 house fighter, especially after Campbell’s maddening, two-year build-up to a domestic encounter with local rival Tommy Coyle. Understandably distracted by his father’s battle with cancer, Campbell was dropped by a surging Mendy and withstood waves of pressure before losing a split decision, forcing a career reassessment and sweeping changes.

“[The first Mendy fight] was a hard lesson I didn’t feel I needed to learn. I should have pulled out of the fight five, six days before because I wasn’t nowhere near the races,” Campbell reflected. “I didn’t have the right team around me. I didn’t have any team around me, really. It’s one of those things. I’ve owned it and I’ve got my redemption. I boxed him again and beat him comfortably over 12 rounds.

“I felt like I wasted the first four years of my pro career, going around in circles and not progressing. I think it’s crucial to look around and get the right team for you to move forward in your pro career. I never had that. I was more or less doing it all on my own for the first four years of my career. But now I finally feel like I have that solid team around me.”

Sometimes in life, and boxing, it can feel as if everything is stacked against you. One might call it a travesty if Campbell doesn’t win a professional world title given the skillset at his disposal. Lomachenko probably presents his worst possible, statistical chance of victory though it’s highly unusual for a rival world champion to be dropped into a vacant title fight when his opponent has patiently waited for a shot within that organisation. But Campbell seems unconcerned by the legitimacy and enticed by the possibility.

“It’s one of those things. The cards have already been dealt now. It’s irrelevant what I think,” he said. “These are my cards and this is what I’m playing. I guess things happen for a reason. I’ve never had it easy in my boxing career. It won’t be starting now. It’s 20% physical and 80% all in your head. That’s where a lot of fighters fall short [against Lomachenko]. They’re beaten before they get in there or whatever else. Everybody has negative thoughts and doubts here and there, but I believe I my ability and I can’t wait. It’s an exciting time.

“The gym is buzzing at the minute. Josh Taylor has just become a world champion so everybody is really happy for him. It’s in a good place. [Campbell and Taylor] don’t do a lot of in-house sparring. But we use each other at the right times and we’ve both got fights coming up against southpaws. I’ve got this massive opportunity that I’m going to grab with both hands.”

Fighting on home soil is an undeniable advantage and an opportunity to headline on Sky Box Office Pay-Per-View in the UK affords Campbell with some financial security for his wife and children. As a young lad in Hull, Campbell dreamed but never believed he’d scale such heights.

“You always have your dreams and ambitions, but it’s all the hard work from being a young lad. Sometimes people think it’s just come out of nowhere, but I’ve been doing this from the first day I walked into the boxing gym and I’ve given it everything,” said Campbell. “I’ve never slacked off, I’ve never gone out partying with my friends when I should be in the gym. I think that’s my biggest attribute. It’s my discipline and dedication to what I’m doing. I believe that’s why I’m here today, fighting the best.

“I’ve been dreaming every night from being a kid about being in mega fights, beating guys, being the best and being champion. I’ve always had those dreams. My dad always said to me that I was going to hold all the belts and I can see it now. He said I was going to be Olympic champion [when Campbell was young]. I never believed him. Not one bit. I didn’t get to the Beijing Olympics [2008] and my dad was still saying, ‘You’re going to be Olympic champion’. I still never believed then the next thing is…I’m an Olympic champion. My dad always said I will hold all the belts and I will hold all the belts.”

With Bernard Campbell’s prophecy halfway there, it would mean the world for his gifted son to complete the dream against Lomachenko, of all people.

“I guess it would mean everything,” mused Campbell. “It will mean a lot of tears of happiness and a nice moment I can share with the man upstairs. He’s always said it and that’s what’s going to happen. This is why I do it. I want to be the best.”