Photos by Ed Mulholland
LOS ANGELES, Calif -- There is a feeling of familiarity ahead of Saturday night’s World Championship Boxing lightweight title bout; and yet, at the same time, change is in the air.
The familiarity comes from the location. Jorge Linares and challenger Luke Campbell meet at the Forum in Inglewood, the third time in five weekends – and the second time in three – that HBO Boxing has broadcast from the Los Angeles area. If Campbell and Linares provide the kind of sustained action seen at nearby StubHub Center when Yoshihiro Kamegai kept valiantly impaling Miguel Cotto’s gloves with his face, or when a sextet of 115 pounders put on a trio of sensational fights, then an entertaining evening beckons.
But the sense of is also manifest that a page is turning. For one, boxing is still recovering its breath after the build-up to, furious action during, and controversy after, last week’s middleweight clash between Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez. (A replay of that terrific 12-round brawl will precede tomorrow’s live broadcast.) For another, the Wednesday announcement by Andre Ward that he is retiring from the ring after an undefeated professional career is the latest in what began as a series of coincidences and has now grown into a full-blown trend.
Wladimir Klitschko was the first, the former long-time heavyweight champion turning down the opportunity to pursue a rematch with Anthony Joshua and choosing to instead enjoy the fruits of a long and distinguished career. Juan Manuel Marquez, who had not fought since 2014, followed suit the next day, and Timothy Bradley confirmed his own retirement days after that. Within a couple of weeks, Shane Mosley had done likewise. Floyd Mayweather joined the club at the end of August. And Cotto, of course, insists that he’ll be doing likewise after he has just one more fight, tentatively penciled in for December – which means Canastota, the home of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, will figure to be a busy place five or so years from now. That’s fully six retirements from the sport in under two months – plus Cotto’s yet-to-be-enacted departure. Add to that Bernard Hopkins stepping away at the end of last year and the apparent likelihood that Manny Pacquiao will leave the ring in 2018, and that’s a profound transformation at the head of boxing’s table.
A new generation is taking the old guard’s place in rapid fashion, and one of the things that’s especially notable about it is its polyglot nature. Terence Crawford surely now stands supreme among American boxers, but he’s joined at the top of the pound-for-pound list by the likes of Ukraine’s Vasyl Lomachenko, Mexico’s Alvarez and Kazakhstan’s Golovkin. And while the United States and Mexico will always, it seems, churn out top boxers, the new wave is populated with representatives from around the world – although a few countries in particular stand out. Russia is one, represented by the likes of Sergey Kovalev, Dmitry Bivol, Artur Beterbiev and Murat Gassiev. Ukraine is another, with Lomachenko joined by Olkesandr Gvozdyk and Oleksandr Usyk. And then there is the United Kingdom.
British boxing is undergoing a surge in popularity and quality, fueled by investment in a first-rate amateur program that has achieved success in numbers at three consecutive Olympic Games. At featherweight, Belfast’s Carl Frampton is the reigning Boxing Writers’ Association of America Fighter of the Year; Billy Joe Saunders holds a middleweight belt that Golovkin craves; James DeGale may be the best man in a talented super-middleweight division; and, of course, Joshua stands very tall at the top of the heavyweight tree. At lightweight, Terry Flanagan holds an alphabet belt and on Saturday, Campbell will be aiming to join him.
For Linares, it will be the third time in a row that he has faced a British opponent, following two victories over Anthony Crolla. Two fights before he first squared off against Crolla, he defeated yet another Brit, Kevin Mitchell. He has even moved to London.
Given all that, it stretches credulity a little when Campbell says – as he did after a media workout on Wednesday – that, “I don’t know much about Jorge Linares.” He almost certainly knows far more about him than he is prepared to concede; certainly, Linares has done his research on the Englishman.
“Luke Campbell is a young and hungry fighter and that can be a critical difference in the ring,” the Venezuelan said at the workout. “Being a former Olympic fighter, the big lights and cameras won’t scare him off and neither does being the underdog.”
Campbell is not only a former Olympian, but a gold medalist at the 2012 games – and, by popular acclamation, the best amateur boxer the U.K. has ever produced. He has struggled to reach those heights as professional, and in a country with so much boxing talent from which to prove, has not really been able to break through. Victory over Linares, however, would be the catapult for him to do so, not just in his homeland but also on this side of the pond.
“Motivation is a massive thing,” he said. “I'm fighting on the biggest network out there. It's a fantastic way to introduce myself to the American market … This is my opportunity to show what I've got."
The timing, at least, is impeccable. The race is on to see who emerges.
Jorge Linares: 134.2 lbs.
Luke Campbell:134.8 lbs.