t’s been a fucking mess,” Luke Campbell says bluntly in his kitchen which spreads out into a vast living area. His home, in a suburban mews on the leafy outskirts of Hull, is as airy and spacious as boxing during Covid-19 is bleak and restrictive.
“Since November I’ve trained for two fights. Neither happened. One because I was going for a world title and the other because of the pandemic. Fights are all over the place now and people talk so much shit. Like announcing fights without any sign of them happening. It’s absolute bollocks. I enjoy training with the lads and I’m getting better. But boxing’s pretty shit at the moment.”
It’s a sign of how hard the Covid crisis has hit boxing that even the mild-mannered Campbell should talk so graphically. On Tuesday it is eight years to the day since Campbell won Olympic gold in the ring at London 2012. Since then he has become a gritty and impressive professional who has fought twice for a world lightweight title. In September 2017 he endured a split-decision defeat against Venezuela’s Jorge Linares, having lost his father to cancer shortly before the fight, and then last August he put up a creditable display over 12 rounds against Vasiliy Lomachenko who operates near the very top of the world’s pound-for-pound rankings.
Over the past six weeks, while boxing has made a low-key return behind closed doors, Campbell’s name has been used repeatedly to hype a potentially intriguing and lucrative fight against the young American Ryan Garcia, who has a flawless 20-0 record with bouts won by knockout. Garcia is one of the rising names in US boxing partly because he has an Instagram following of almost 7 million but, also, owing to his speed and power. Yet it is difficult to know whether Garcia is actually world-class because he has not met anyone of the calibre of Campbell or Linares, let alone a master in Lomachenko.
Garcia and his promoters, Golden Boy, have been calling out Campbell as the test he needs to prove his credentials beyond being a good-looking social-media sensation. The World Boxing Council also joined in the hoopla by issuing a statement that Campbell and Garcia would fight for their interim lightweight belt. A few weeks ago the fight seemed certain but now, stewing at home with frustration as boxing’s usual bluster becomes even more meaningless, Campbell explains he has had not had a single approach from García, his promoters or the WBC.
“There’s been nothing. All of a sudden the WBC made me and Garcia the mandatory [challengers] for the interim world title. Garcia announced it a couple of weeks ago and I still know nothing about it. The WBC tweeted it like the fight was certain. They’re supposed to be a professional company but they don’t know nothing. They’ve announced it, saying it’s official. Well no, it’s not.”
How has Eddie Hearn, Campbell’s promoter, reacted to the speculation around Garcia? “Eddie’s put one offer to them and they declined it. That’s the last time he talked to them.”
This seems depressingly typical of boxing. Unlike the UFC, where testing fights are made quickly and as a matter of routine, boxing remains a mess. The UFC is a dictatorship, and their MMA fighters earn less than boxers, but they supply a steady stream of compelling contests.
Campbell might feel disillusioned by boxing’s machinations, which have become even more complex during the current crisis, but he stresses his enthusiasm for meeting Garcia. “It’s a great fight,” Campbell says. “It’s certainly a fight that excites me. But there’s a difference in someone talking it up and it being real. But me and my team are open for anything. I do what Shane McGuigan [his trainer] tells me to do. I will fight any of those guys. I’ve proved that.”
McGuigan and Campbell are an excellent combination – as proved against Lomachenko. While the result was rarely in doubt, and the scorecards gave the Ukrainian a lopsided victory, Campbell was always competitive. “I actually hurt him in the first and the seventh,” Campbell insists. “The scorecards were shocking because that was a very competitive fight. But he’d always do enough at the end of the round to win it.”
From the outside it resembled a dazzling Lomachenko masterclass. Is he as difficult to fight as he is a delight to watch? “He was very good at distance control,” Campbell says, “but I didn’t feel there was a lot of difference. I didn’t feel like: ‘Oh, I’m in here with the No 1 pound for pound in the world.’ But that’s showing how good I am as well. The stuff he’s done to other fighters, he couldn’t do to me. So I was disappointed I lost.”
That intensity, allied to his sound boxing skills as a southpaw and an Olympic champion, helped Campbell during the traumatic build-up to his first world title challenge against Linares. “My dad had been diagnosed with cancer [in 2014],” Campbell says. “It hit me massively. I found myself crying behind my gloves when training. In sparring I just wanted to get hit to cover up the pain of my dad.”
Was his father in bad shape when Campbell left for America in the autumn of 2017 to fight Linares? “Everyone nicknamed him Titanium Man,” Campbell says wryly. “He had been on his deathbed three times. The doctors would say he’s got minutes left and so I’ve said goodbye to my dad lots of times. But he’d bounce back every time. So he seemed OK when I was in the States. But then my older brother rang me one evening in Miami. I knew it was bad news because it would have been around one in the morning at home.”
I should’ve pulled out. I just wanted the fight out the way so I could breathe and mourn my dad
The devastating news of his father’s death hit Campbell hard. “My mum said: ‘Your dad would’ve wanted you to carry on.’ So that’s what I did but I should’ve pulled out. I was having panic attacks in those last two weeks before the fight. It would happen whenever I thought that my dad’s not here any more. It’s a different kind of grief when you lose a parent. I just wanted the fight out the way so I could breathe and mourn my dad. When the fight started I went down early. It was a flash knockdown and I wasn’t hurt. I just thought: ‘You’re embarrassing yourself. Get up. Let’s go to work.’”
Many ringside observers, including one of the three judges, thought Campbell won the fight. The deciding scorecard was 114-113 in Linares’s favour. “I thought I won seven clear rounds so it was hard to take,” Campbell says. “I flew home on my own but I didn’t really want to go back because I knew it was his funeral the next day. That Christmas was really hard. I was burning up on the inside, getting angry while grieving.”
It will be three years next month since his father died and Campbell seems at peace now. He explains that his dad, who had worked for years as a miner, never watched him box live. “He had eight discs taken out of his spine because of the damage done when he worked underground. It left him a bit hunched and weak. Maybe he felt vulnerable because my dad was a strong guy before it all happened. He didn’t like seeing himself that way as he was a proud man, and when he went out he wanted to feel good and look smart. So he never came to the fights but he was always there in spirit and watching on TV. He always told me the same thing: ‘Come out like a lion and you’ll be an Olympic and world champion.”
Campbell has completed the first objective and he will fight on in pursuit of his dad’s second prediction. But the worrying impact of boxing, especially on his family, is plain. Campbell has been with his wife Lynsey since he was an amateur boxer and she never misses a fight. “But she’s always really nervous. Nowadays she always gets ill after my fights because of the nerves. She is wiped out because it’s so hard for her to watch. She feels helpless.”
Their two sons have also begun to worry. “They found out that a couple of boxers died last year,” Campbell explains. Last year was especially dark for boxing because five professional fighters lost their lives in the ring. “My eldest son [10-year-old Leo] said to Lynsey: ‘I don’t want my dad to die.’ Lynsey said: ‘That’s why he trains very hard. So he doesn’t get hit and he’s one of the best in the world.’ They would be happy if I were to retire so I chatted about it. I said: ‘I’m not ready yet, son. I’ve got a few big performances in me.”
Campbell understands their concern. “Massively. It’s dangerous, innit? And you’re not just thinking about yourself when you’ve got a family. I don’t want to get punched in my face for the rest of my life but I still have massive passion for the sport. I strive to be the best day in, day out.”
He is bruised under his right eye after sparring but Campbell emphasises that, while working so hard despite not being paid since he fought Lomachenko a year ago, he is better off than most boxers in lockdown. Some professional fighters are having to do ordinary work to pay the bills. It’s different for Campbell – as his lavish home shows.
“I’ve got a very smart wife who invests our money so well. I’m switched on but she’s very clued up. I’ve never spent a penny of my boxing money. We’ve just invested it so I’m in a position where I’m lucky. I don’t need to work [in an ordinary job] so I’m 100% focused on boxing.”
Anthony Joshua, who also won Olympic gold in 2012, has earned multimillions in and out of the ring. But Campbell feels no resentment towards the heavyweight with whom he is friendly. “That’s the problem in life nowadays – too many people look at what they haven’t got. I just think: ‘I’ve got a beautiful wife, family, good friends, beautiful home. I don’t need anything. I won’t change nothing.’
“If someone had said to me 15 years ago you could be the most successful amateur in Great Britain history, Olympic champion and then one the best lightweights in the world, would you take it? You kidding me? Of course I’d take it.”
Campbell needs to get back into the ring, hopefully against Garcia, in the next few months. “I feel physically and mentally great,” he says. “I can have as many years as I want in the sport because I’ve lived the life and haven’t got too many miles on the clock. I feel my best is yet to come. We just need to get past all the talk and make things happen.”