When Luke Campbell and Jorge Linares face off in the ring at The Forum in Inglewood on Saturday (HBO, 10 PM ET/PT), what is nominally at stake is Linares’ lightweight championship belt. But the two men are also fighting for their reputations, to prove that their reality matches their early hype, and to dispel the doubts about their durability and potential. That may seem harsh, given that between them they boast 59 wins against just four defeats, that Linares has not lost a fight in six years and Campbell is just five years removed from winning Olympic gold. But both men, lauded early in their careers, have struggled through patches that have raised questions, questions that one will hope to put to bed and another will hope are not raised anew – or even deemed to have been answered in a way he won’t want to hear.
Linares (42-3, 27 KOs), has had something of a globetrotting career. He now lives in London, having moved there from Las Vegas; but he was born in Barinas, Venezuela, and turned professional in Japan. Five years later, in 2007, he made his U.S. debut on the Bernard Hopkins-Winky Wright undercard, immediately garnering attention by dominating Oscar Larios en route to securing his first world title belt, at featherweight. He defended it just once before moving up to 130-pounds, where he secured another title.
He seemed to have it all: boxing skills deployed in a pleasingly aggressive style, and knockout power to match, along with a natural charisma that suggested he had the makings of a future star.
Then, in October 2009, he made the second defense of his junior lightweight crown, against Mexico’s Juan Carlos Salgado, and was knocked out in the first round. It is a measure of Linares’ standing in the sport at the time that the loss was dubbed “Upset of the Year” by Ring Magazine, and its nature suggested that there was a very serious chink in the Venezuelan’s armor. A left hook dropped Linares to the seat of his pants, and although he beat the count, Salgado immediately swarmed him in the corner, causing Linares to slump down on the ropes and prompting referee Luis Pabon to intervene. The whole affair lasted just 73 seconds.
Still, it can happen. Anyone can be caught clean and cold in the opening round; perhaps this was just a one-off. But after scoring four comeback victories, including against solid if shopworn veterans Rocky Juarez and Jesus Chavez, Linares was stopped by Antonio DeMarco in a bloody war at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in October 2011. The problem this time wasn’t his chin but his skin, which had long displayed a tendency to cut; Linares had been coasting through six rounds, until a DeMarco flurry opened a gash on his nose, followed by a cut over his eye two rounds later. Sent off-kilter by the bleeding, a fading Linares was being battered by a resurgent DeMarco until referee Raul Caiz Sr. stepped in in the eleventh. The cuts were a mitigating factor, but the late fade hinted anew at an underlying fragility, and when he was again knocked out early in his next fight, against unheralded Sergio Thompson, it appeared he had reached the end of the line.
But slowly, he began to rebuild. By March 2014, he was defeating Nihito Arakawa in a lightweight title eliminator, and at the end of the year won the vacant alphabet belt outright against Javier Prieto. But it was his first defense, against rugged Brit Kevin Mitchell, that truly showed he had turned the corner. In a tough battle, he was knocked down in the fifth; but this time he passed the gut check with flying colors, reentering battle and halting Mitchell in the tenth.
That contest, in London’s O2 Arena in May 2015, was the first of three in England in under two years, the others being a pair of victories against Anthony Crolla, the second of which in particular showcased him at his most dominant.
Right now, says the 32-year-old, “I feel like I’m 25. I feel very good, strong. I have very good focus, mentality. I feel in the best moment right now.” Certainly, he says, “I feel better than six years ago,” when he suffered his losses to DeMarco and Thompson. His fragile skin now stands up to the rigors of being punched in the face, an improvement Linares puts down to taking better care of himself. “I changed some things,” he notes. “Different vitamins and supplements.”
His regular appearances in the United Kingdom have won him recognition and a fan-base, and he likes the idea of returning there for a major fight, perhaps against the likes of Mikey Garcia or Vasyl Lomachenko, or a title unification with England’s Terry Flanagan.
But first he must contend with Campbell (17-1, 14 KOs), although he enters the contest feeling confident.
“He is a good boxer, an amazing fighter,” he praises. “He’s taller than me. I like his style. He’s a southpaw, he moves around the ring, it’s perfect for me. It’s not easy, but it’s not hard for me, this fight.”
Campbell was arguably Britain’s greatest ever amateur boxer, securing a silver medal at the 2011 World Championships and gold at the London Olympics, part of a vaunted crop of British amateurs that includes fellow 2012 champion Anthony Joshua. But whereas Joshua stands at the very pinnacle of the profession following his enthralling victory over Wladimir Klitschko in April, Campbell as a pro has a long way to go to catch up to him (or indeed to come near the professional achievements of Oleksandr Usyk or the admittedly barely-human Vasyl Lomachenko, who also took gold in London).
“I think the perception of Luke Campbell in the UK is oddly not as high as when he turned professional,” observes Matt Christie, editor-in-chief of the weekly British publication Boxing News. “He won the Olympic gold medal on the back of an amazing amateur career, and then when he turned over, he was knocking people out. This wasn’t the Luke Campbell that we knew as an amateur. And then that stopped, as it very often does as you go up through the levels, and people began thinking, ‘Maybe Luke Campbell isn’t as good as we thought he was,’ whereas the truth of the matter was that the opposition had just got that little bit better.”
Then, like Linares, he suffered a loss in something of an upset – and whereas, unlike the Venezuelan, he was not knocked out but instead dropped a split decision, it was a loss that came earlier in his career, in a European championship bout against unremarkable Yvan Mendy. As a result, it perhaps solidified negative perceptions of him before he had had the opportunity to justify a more optimistic outlook.
“Many people saw that [Mendy defeat] and thought, ‘Well, he’s exposed,’” adds Christie. “But I think what you have to remember about that is that he’s still a young man, he’s still learning the professional game; he mastered the amateur discipline and now he’s learning his way in the professional game. But I still think he’s a work in progress, and we haven’t seen the best of him yet.”
Despite being just three years younger than Linares, the man from Hull is unquestionably a neophyte in comparison, and Christie admits that he initially thought Saturday’s bout was too much, too soon.
“But there’s another train of thought to that. We haven’t seen anything from Luke Campbell as a professional to suggest that he can upset Jorge Linares. However, the ability is there. He uses height very well. At times, he can look like he was born to do it. He’s a lovely, fluent boxer, very natural. He may not win, but I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
In the co-main event, undefeated Antonio Orozco faces off against once-beaten Roberto Ortiz in a 130-pound bout. The 31-year-old Ortiz boasts 35 wins on his résumé, but none against an opponent of particular caliber. It would be a shock if he defeats Orozco, who has overturned solid veterans such as Martin Honorio, Steve Forbes and Humberto Soto. Orozco may not be able to do to Ortiz what Lucas Matthysse did, and stop him on an early body shot (although the stoppage in that fight was somewhat controversial, as Ortiz appeared to beat the count), but if he does beat him, and especially if he beats him convincingly, then it may well presage the entry of yet another exciting and genuine contender in a stacked division.