Luke Campbell speaks to Danny Flexen about the Vasiliy Lomachenko fight, why team work can make the dream work and his late father
There are at least two, distinct sides to Luke Campbell. There is the ultra-professional, Olympic gold medallist with the earnest soundbites, painstaking work ethic and MBE. Then we have the dimension usually only seen by those closest to the Hull hero: the Campbell who proposed to wife Lynsey on horseback, who helped deliver the younger of his two sons in the family kitchen, commandeered McBusted to play at his wedding and finished third in Dancing on Ice.
As we speak on the phone, four weeks ahead of the biggest sporting challenge of Luke’s life, I am, for the most part, interviewing the serious Campbell, the dedicated athlete. However, to succeed in upsetting boxing Jedi Vasiliy Lomachenko on August 31 at the O2, Campbell will almost certainly have to harness some of his creativity and ability to improvise, glimpses of which we have been so rarely afforded but of which, if we look hard enough, there is substantial evidence. Whether or not these dimensions can work in harmony, Campbell certainly retains the self-belief that saw him stick at a sport in which he lost seven of his first 10 bouts before ultimately becoming Britain’s most decorated ever male amateur.
“I found out about the fight on Twitter,” Campbell reveals about a contest in which three of the four major world lightweight titles will be at stake. “This is what we train for, to fight and beat the best. I guess you’ll see after the fight what flaws he’s got. Is he the best pound-for-pound in the world? No, me, I’m number one… I like Terence Crawford, it’s close. It’s me init, it’s gotta be me.”
That supreme conviction has always been there, despite several setbacks that may have shaken the confidence of lesser mortals. The early-career reverse to Yvan Mendy was a surprising blow, while his first world title challenge, against Jorge Linares in California, ended in agonisingly close failure. From all the slings and arrows however, and Campbell learned valuable lessons from his only professional defeats, there is no doubt regarding the one that hurt the most. In 2017, just two weeks before the Linares challenge, Luke lost his father and biggest fan, Bernard, following a lengthy battle with cancer. Disappointing results in the ring can be avenged or at least accepted, but the loss of a parent remains, in many cases, an open wound.
“He helped me out a lot when I first started boxing at 13,” Campbell recalls, understandably happier to discuss the good times than the long and painful farewell. “He used to take me for a run in the morning, pick me up from school and take me for a circuit, then I’d go to the gym at night and he’d pick me up. He’d take me to the running track and do my timing, but he’d never do my timing correct! He’d add 10 or 15 seconds to the clock, to give me less rest.
“He wanted the best for me. He was a miner, he worked underground, moving steel girders and blocks. He would say I was gonna be the Olympic champion, and that I’d win all the belts. If I beat Lomachenko, he would definitely say, ‘I told you so.’”
Campbell would never wish to use his father’s debilitating illness as mitigation for his defeats, but it cannot be denied that the prodigious talent was perennially distracted for around three of his prime years. He may still have been logging the requisite hours in the gym, but mentally Campbell cannot have been 100 per cent. As it transpires, for Mendy, the physical side too was far from ideal.
“That first one was a real eye-opener, I should never have got in the ring that night,” he recalls, a little lingering regret still evident. “I had a virus, I was weak, I wasn’t there whatsoever but I decided to go through with the fight and I take all the blame for it. But if I’d had that ‘team’ around me they might have told me not to go in there that night. I got a knockdown scored against me but if you watch closely, my lead leg is off the ground as he hits me and all it was, was balance; as I stepped over his lead foot, mine was in the air and he hit me with a hook so I fell on my arse.
“It does frustrate me them two defeats because I could easily be here now at 22-0, undefeated [instead of 20-2 (16)]. I thought I won rounds three-11 against Linares, I thought I beat him, but I get it, you’re was on the champ’s show, in his back garden. I could easily be sat here now with a world title round my waist, the only thing that saved him the win was the knockdown [in the second session]. I was just hoping I’d get it, but I’m not a judge.”
The Linares defeat sowed the seed of inspiration and, after one marking-time fight, Campbell pulled the trigger and made a crucial change in his backroom team. Jorge Rubio, who had been his head trainer since the first Mendy bout, was replaced by Shane McGuigan and the incipient partnership gelled instantly, the Wandsworth-based coach steering his new charge to a revenge triumph over Mendy that, at times, resembled a one-sided exhibition. Before employing the Cuban, Rubio, full-time, Campbell had virtually trained himself; now, he has full confidence in McGuigan and the wider team supporting him, especially as the 31-year-old enters what he endearingly refers to as “the brutal stage” of camp for Lomachenko.
“We’re training hard, sparring, doing everything really, just upping the volume,” he explains. Luke lives alone in London during the week, before returning to his young family most weekends. “We’ve got Josh Taylor [an excellent southpaw like both the Ukranian and Campbell himself] in camp, so I’m doing a fair few rounds with him. We’re getting different styles in, you’re not gonna get an exact replica [of Vasiliy] but Taylor’s good, throws lot of punches, quick; he’s great, and bigger than Lomachenko.
“It’s been just over a year here, this is our third fight together and I’ve improved in every department really; I’m going from strength to strength. Before Jorge, I was sort of training myself, going out and about, I spent a lot of time down on the GB camps but other than that, I was mainly on my own. This is why I say now is the first time in my pro career I feel like I’ve finally got that solid team around me. Jorge is a great trainer and still a good friend but I weren’t getting what I was needing at the time.
“I was speaking to [his promoter] Eddie [Hearn] who recommended a few different coaches, but Shane was the first person I went to and I knew early on he was all I needed. The second we started doing sessions, I settled straight away, ‘This is what I need’; we just clicked. Having done everything myself, being by myself a lot, it was good to see that everybody had a team.”
Now with the right team in place, Luke’s father always in mind but mercifully released from his own burden and the golden boy of London 2012 almost certainly in his physical prime, Campbell goes into what is arguably pro boxing’s toughest assignment at the most opportune time; if there is ever a good time to fight Vasiliy Lomachenko.
“I’d be unified world champion, the best fighter on the planet,” he says, with real conviction. “It’s everything I ever wanted.”
The conservative, committed Luke Campbell is ready. The extrovert, maverick Luke Campbell is sufficiently inspired. And the ambitious, mentally strong Luke Campbell may just tip the balance. Guess it was three dimensions after all.