First or final? World title challenge calling for Campbell or Garcia.

“Boxing has levels”

A tired cliché, often coined by fighters, trainers and promoters alike, dismissive of the fact that each level itself is not distinct, and a boxer’s range may vary from one fight to the next.

On the surface, Luke Campbell’s career would be a case in point, a man who has twice fallen short at world title level. But his record tells only half the story. In Vasily Lomachenko he was outclassed, by an artist who at the time was widely considered the pound for pound best. In defeat there was no shame, but posterity and Teofimo Lopez’s subsequent unpicking of the Ukranian has shone it in a different light.

Two years before, less than three weeks after the death of his father, against Jorge Linares, Victor Loughlin deemed Campbell to have won the WBA lightweight title. Zachary Young and Max DeLuca felt differently and Linares retained the belt, but it was a knockdown in the second that ultimately proved the difference. What “level” would Campbell have been if he had kept on his feet?

On Saturday night in Dallas, we have a match up between Luke Campbell, the recognised contender versus a young prospect hoping to catapult his way to a world title shot. “King Ry” Ryan Garcia comes with backing. Already the King of boxing Instagram the 22 year old American boasts a following larger than even Canelo Alvarez. Bookmakers make him a 1/3 favourite though how much those odds are skewed by the sheer weight of popularity is difficult to tell.

Champion boxers aren’t made online but in the ring, and in that respect Ryan Garcia has acquitted himself with distinction. The usual resume building knockouts came early for Garcia, but credibility was earnt in his two most recent bouts. In the first Romero Duno drew a right hook to the chin, crumbling slowly and painfully to the canvas, his brain short-circuited.

Francisco Fonseca came next, this time the same punch but from his left. Out cold on the canvas within the first round, the world title challenger’s eyes fell to the back of his head.

Startling to say the least, it is a punch Luke Campbell will be well aware of. A fighter who likes to get in and out, Campbell won’t stand and trade like the two before and how Garcia can figure him out will be the ultimate question. Both supremely technical it’s a combination that intrigues.

Campbell has been in Garcia’s shoes, even if the hype was somewhat more subdued. 10 knockouts in his first 12 contests, in 2015 the Hull fighter was looking to build his way up to world title level. In the O2 Arena that day Yvan Mendy represented the type of boxer Campbell would have to go past on his way to the top. Mendy nullified his strengths, walked him down and didn’t allow Campbell to box at range. How Campbell can frustrate Garcia is difficult to tell. Both Campbell and Garcia have similar skills, can box well on the back foot, make their opponents miss and each possess a good jab. Garcia has age on his side.

Campbell will have to use every ounce of his experience and ring craft that led him to Olympic Gold. 33 years of age this feels like the last chance for Hull’s finest fighter, but one that very much remains an opportunity. Whoever wins does open doors, though which ones they are may be different dependent on the victor.

What’s next?

Devin Haney holds the regular version of the WBC belt and this bout is an eliminator to face him, but Teofimo Lopez is the franchise champion and in effect the real holder. A showdown between Haney and Lopez could be made, but the two have different promoters, DAZN and Top Rank respectively. DAZN’s subscription based model wouldn’t necessarily work for Lopez, a fighter who would be looking to be fighting exclusively on pay per view. Of course this clash would merit that status but different networks does may the deal more difficult.

If as some expect that fight doesn’t come next then Campbell or Garcia could fight Haney for the regular version of the WBC lightweight world title. With all three fighters able to fight on DAZN it’s an easy fight to make. An all-American Garcia/Haney match up would definitely be the biggest fight for DAZN but if Campbell wins, a world title fight should be his reward. Either that will be against Haney or potentially another fighter for the WBO belt where Garcia is ranked highly. WBO holder Teofimo Lopez may vacate if looking for super fights across the divisions and that may create opportunities.

A variety of options and eventualities for both fighters but for Luke Campbell one thing is simple. Win on Saturday and prove himself worthy of one last World title tilt or lose and consign himself to the level of perennial contender. That is the short of it, even though the simple message never tells it all.

Watch on DAZN, Saturday 2nd July from 20.00 UK Time

Featured image from DAZN

Anthony Yarde – The Rebuild

2020’s been a tough year for all. For Anthony Yarde it could hardly have been tougher. In late March, he lost his father, a high-profile victim in the early grip of the global pandemic, urging people to stay at home to avoid the same fate. Just a matter of days later, tragedy struck once more. His grandmother lost to the same silent killer.

Few can comment on what grief meant for Anthony Yarde. Raised by his mum from the age of 8. His father came back into his life through boxing, and had been in Russia when Anthony had come a finishing punch from a world title versus Sergey Kovalev. No-one but the boxer himself will know exactly what that relationship meant to him.

A rare few will have been with him in the aftermath. Never far away, his trainer and manager Tunde Ajayi has navigated his career from his first days as a professional with little amateur experience, to Saturday night and his 9th title fight in total. An unknown entity 5 years ago, with Yarde he has built his credentials. As a professional boxer himself he was undefeated, though on only 5 occasions and all held in the Elephant & Castle Centre in Southwark. Tongue-in cheek describing himself on social media as a “MASTER GENIUS”, together with Yarde they have birthed the “Lions in the Camp” shout heard constantly from his corner and from Yarde after a number of concussive knockouts. It is a term suited for social media but to some unbecoming in a sport where more often than not the fans like to see the fists do the talking.

A hard lesson for Yarde

On Saturday night 2020 left it’s final stamp on Anthony Yarde with a split decision defeat against Lyndon Arthur, a boxer who won the fight on the power and skill of his jab. Both fighters have their case, and it may just be a case of preference. I had Yarde by 7 rounds to 5, but three down through a quarter. With a few of the later rounds nip and tuck, it is easy to see how two scorers preferred the work of Arthur, who peppered Yarde’s head throughout the night with a popping left hand lead.

Respectful from the off, rarely did we see Yarde get inside and engage. An overhand right tagged Arthur in the 4th, but Yarde seemed to enjoy his success more than seize on it. When the onslaught came in the 12th Arthur stayed on his feet and it proved too little too late. Only just; if Arthur had been knocked down we’d be talking about a majority draw with two of the scorecards flipping.

Yet in a fight of fine margins, its effects could be seismic. Both Yarde and Ajayi have built much of their fame through their active social media presence, with constant eye-catching videos of pad/bag work, skipping or cries of Lions in the Camp. It’s provided Yarde a platform and brought with it sponsorship deals from Maxi Nutrition and a global ambassador role with Adidas. With the latter signed when he had just 16 professional wins, and after an amateur career lasting only 12 fights, it’s a reward rarely seen by boxers at that stage of their career, or indeed by most at any.

Yet with a presence comes a backlash and for Yarde it was clear. Not immune to criticism himself, his trainer bore the brunt. Twice he sent Yarde out without a gumshield and twice the referee called him back. After an opening couple of rounds where Arthur got away his jab and started to release some combinations, all his trainer could offer was that the Mancunian was scared. 4 rounds later his encouragement for Yarde to relax drew criticism from an audience that saw Yarde as significantly behind on the cards.

Yarde’s route back

Some of the criticism if fair, some of it is almost invited, and Ajayi gives little indication it will wear heavily on him. To him there are no losses, only lessons. It is a mantra that he should heed, though no-one can say for sure he won’t. Yarde, I believe, will grant him that opportunity, but the favour should go two ways.

In Yarde’s latest defeat we have learnt little. He moves well, and has the ability to hurt almost anyone on the inside. He has a chin that can sustain that battle and a mentality that can at times resemble a streetfighter. The latter is no criticism if that aggression can be controlled. Nothing in his make-up has been exposed. Most men in the light-heavyweight division will have a bigger reach and those able to keep him away will always land scoring jabs, but when they miss he will be able to hurt them. Even in this fight he showed improvements from Kovalev with his ability to come on strong at the end, where previously he had gassed and faultered.

It is not often you can say as much about a fighter who has tasted defeat twice in his last four fights, but this is what makes it all the more frustrating. The streetfighter needs to become streetwise and make those adjustments. Much has been made of Ajayi’s preference for minimal sparring, but we know as much that he does do some, whether it’s enough is not a call any of us without sight of that facts can say.

Would the backlash be so vocal if the pair didn’t put themselves so much in the public eye? It is a blessing and a curse. Perhaps we would be making more of a fighter still learning his trade, only ten years down the line from first having picked up the gloves. Yarde is raw. It is a fact which made his rise all the more meteoric. No measured approach built on years of schooling as an amateur, just a gunslinging power that showed little respect for those infront of him.

Those days are behind him, and for his legion of fans, drawn from a community wider than the sports traditional support, his next few fights may prove their least interesting. For a purist they will be fascinating. Boxing will have the final say. If Yarde can adapt, if brains can meet braun then don’t bet against that early promise being realised.

2021 Calling

What’s next for him remains to be seen, and he may be advised to take a step back before moving forward. A rematch versus Arthur seems logical but another negative outcome could be defining. A tune-up fight could be likely but there remain a few fights past that. Isaac Chilemba could be an option, a man who has fought for light-heavyweight world titles on multiple occasions, but proved a step short of the highest tier.

Then there are domestic dust ups, the winner of Shakan Pitters vs Craig Richards, neither particularly appetising for Yarde but an opportunity to stamp himself somewhere above British level.

Finally in Callum Johnson there is a fight both men could be up for. Like Arthur a risky fight for Yarde, Johnson has a point to prove. Only defeated once, to a man in Artur Beterbiev some consider the pound for pound king, you get the sense Johnson is a man frustrated at the credit Yarde has enjoyed, and the position he currently finds himself in the rankings. In none of boxing governing bodies top 10, a win over Johnson would nonetheless remain the highest profile win on Yarde’s record, whilst a loss would slingshot Johnson back into world title contention.

Regardless of who it is across the ring in Anthony Yarde’s next fight, the man in his corner will more than likely be familiar. Events outside the ring make my mind up that it is a partnership about more than just boxing. Few will have had tougher 2020s than Anthony Yarde but in the ring 2021 could define the legacy, both of a fighter with precocious talent and a trainer himself up against the ropes.

Crossover appeal means little for world title chasing Joyce

If there’s one sport that seeks headlines or highlights like no other then it’s boxing. Careers buoyed and built on showreel stoppages, slow-motion replays and that final concussive blow. On rare occasions devastating fists bring with it a mouth to match, and a promoter’s dream is built. Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Tyson Fury come to mind, though for the latter this has not always been the case.

The heavyweight division draws its appeal precisely because it is like no other, where the size of each fighter brings a power that more often than not ends with a fallen goliath and a picture for a poster down the line. It’s the reason why crossover appeal, the ability to market a fight to an audience that isn’t necessarily a fight fan, more often than not occurs with these heavyweight giants.

On Saturday night that anticipation was intimated at by the meeting of two unbeaten prospects at differing ends of their careers. Daniel Dubois, a softly spoken 23 year old with the capacity and tendency for night ending hooks, a ramrod jab and quick feet. Frank Warren’s chosen one, Dubois enjoyed the rare distinction of having been picked up by the veteran promoter before he had even had his first professional fight. In the opposite corner lay Joe Joyce. 35 years old, a silver medallist at the Rio Olympics. Many predicted that would be the pinnacle of his career. Eager to come forward, easy to read and predictable in his punches, he started the night as a three to one outsider.

Promoters tried to create a rivalry. Sam Jones, Joyce’s promoter did his best to rile Dubois, to tell him the fight had come too early. Both fighters exchanged petty insults at the various press appearances, but neither possessed the cult of personality blessed by others that have trod their path. This was a fight nine months in the making, cancelled on four occasions, but despite the build up all the anticipation rested on what fans expected in the ring. An early knockout from two fighters who refuse to take a step back and a tilt at a world title shot the gold plated carrot in front.

No confident tongue would provide any weight regardless unless it sits three inches above a granite chin. The first round was cautious, a battle of the jabs with both men catching but Dubois being penned back, and boxing for the first time in his career on the outside of the ring. Forward Joyce came offering a gentle jab which look laboured, before darting in with the same jab twice as powerful some seconds later. On a few occasions both men’s head would wobble but each time they retreated. A tentative start.

The minute on their stools passed by and Dubois attacked, a right hand fizzing over the gloves of Dubois and hitting Joyce flush on the side of his head. His right leg buckles and he takes two steps back. Dubois is used to this. He’s seen it before, a punch caught clean and an opponent soon falling to the canvas. But just as Joyce buckles he strengthens once more, with the young prospect catching him again but Joyce standing firm. A brief exchange and the two are stuck together, Joyce taking a moment to breath. The sequence repeats itself a minute later and Dubois is in control. The concussive knockout just waiting to happen.

Or so we thought, how instructive that round was. Joyce weathered the storm and returns the favour with a left hand padding at the right eye of Dubois. In a round won by the golden-boy, it is the reddening around his eye that leaves the biggest imprint on the fight. Slowly but clearly the eye develops and the pattern continues, but each time Dubois’s attacks grow weaker and his eye larger, peppered by the hands of a 260 pound man.

Each round they dance. Little to separate them, but each round the swelling grows. Intriguing to the last that highlight finish grows distant, and with one knee to the canvas after a non-descript jab it finally submits. Dubois is broken, his eye socket fractured. Blind in one eye, he can no longer see the left hand of Joyce coming towards him, but that’s no reprieve when nerve damage sends a juddering pain to his brain.

No sooner has he taken a knee than commentators are taking their aim. A quitter, boxing’s cardinal sin, not a young man preserving a living from an injury that has ended the career of none too few. For boxing needs its black and white, its picture postcard ending. It’s what draws a peripheral sport into the mainstream even though the reality is far more interesting.

Joe Joyce that night did something he hadn’t done before. ‘One dimensional’, ‘easy to read’, people knew he could take a punch but in Westminster Hall he did much more. He adapted when people didn’t think he could or rather wished he didn’t, targeting Dubois’s eye when it was clear he was enjoying success. No need to come forward and trade punches like he can, instead he did what he should. Ring craft of the highest order.

The aftermath of Saturday and the debate around Dubois’s heart may do Joyce some favours, though the lack of credit may be hard to take. Over the next twelve months or whenever that world title tilt appears, the odds will most likely have him still a distant second. I for one won’t bet against history repeating itself. A chin like no other, a boxing brain built on years of experience and an energy unbecoming of his age. Joyce has all the ingredients.

Featured image “28/02/2013 Weigh-in British Lionhearts vs Ukraine Otamans” by World Series Boxing is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0