Don’t expect Luke Campbell to be impressed by Ryan Garcia. And much as Garcia is seeing Campbell as a stepping stone to the top when they meet in Texas on Saturday night, Campbell sees the young American in much the same way.
“Everything is about timing and this is my time,” Campbell boldly declared this week. “I want to prove I am the best in the division and I believe I am the best in the division.”
Lightweight is a hot division and a good case could be made the neither Campbell nor Garcia, who meet on Saturday night in Dallas, are in the top four in the world. Still, that does not mean it isn’t an excellent fight between one boxing seeking a breakthrough and another looking for a last chance to make it to the top.
Campbell might be 11 years older than Garcia, but he is not lacking in ambition. What is more, he has faced these kind of nights before, as amateur and professional – evenings where a career goes upwards or gets shunted into the sidings. He has always delivered before.
It is easy, certainly from the other side of the Atlantic, to dismiss Campbell’s achievements. But in an era of multiple world titles and easy opportunities to box for belts, Campbell has had it unusually tough. Yes, he did come up short in his two world title fights, to Jorge Linares – a fight that happened just weeks after the death of his father and which Campbell resolutely believes he won – and Vasiliy Lomachenko. But that is a high level of opposition and he has been written off before, even in those amateur days.
When he won a gold medal at the European Championships in 2008 – alongside Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk – he was the first British amateur to claim a European senior gold in nearly half a century. Yet a change of leadership in the GB squad meant he was not even picked for the following European Championships in 2010 and even considered quitting the sport. It wasn’t until Rob McCracken took charge of the Olympic programme that Campbell was restored to the No 1 spot. He won World Championships silver in 2011 and Olympic gold in 2012.
Both those achievements and the subsequent start to his professional career were rather overshadowed by Anthony Joshua, who secured the same colour medals at both tournaments and then started his professional career in a blaze of publicity in London, while Campbell’s popularity was centred around his home city of Hull.
A couple of years ago, I sat down with Campbell for a catch-up over a cup of tea in a south London cafe and suggested that time was not on his side. After all, he had not turned professional until his mid-20s and an average of three fights a year meant progress seemed slow. He was having none of it. The right fight at the right time is the all-important thing.
In fairness to Campbell, a lack of knowledge of professional boxing meant he was learning on the job. Like Joshua, he tried to continue as a professional with Rob McCracken, but found his training time with him was limited and, when he faced his first career crisis against Yvan Mendy, McCracken was not in his corner. He switched trainers and based himself in Miami with Jorge Rubio, largely because the Cuban was the only professional trainer he knew. And while they did have success, he has found a closer bond since switching to Shane McGuigan.
He had been due to box for the WBC title against Javier Fortuna in April. Four weeks out, the fight was first delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic then scrapped, leaving Campbell training in his garage in East Yorkshire and trying his best to homeschool his children.
The world title fight was to get taken away. The lockdown enabled Devin Haney to get fit and he successfully appealed to the WBC to get his title back, leaving Campbell to get his name put forward for a series of eliminators. He said yes to all of them.
The bout with Garcia for the interim title, effectively a glorified eliminator for the right to face Haney, could be the toughest of the lot. For years Garcia has been the sort of boxer that those pushing him – promoters, publicists, TV executives, fawning media members – will call “the future of boxing” while keeping a straight face. However, he has never faced an opponent as good as Campbell and has never been 12 rounds.
Last January, when he went into training to face Fortuna, it is a fair bet to suggest that Campbell would not have expected to spend this Christmas and New Year in a hotel in Dallas. But if 2020 has taught us anything it is that boxers cannot afford to turn down opportunities because the next one might not come along. His route to a world title, his ambition since he won Olympic gold, goes through Garcia and Haney. He won’t be intimidated by that.
Ron Lewis is a senior writer for Boxing Scene. He was Boxing Correspondent for The Times, where he worked from 2001-2019 - covering four Olympic Games and numerous world title fights across the globe. He has written about boxing for a wide variety of publications worldwide since the 1980s.