Boxing: Fighting-fit Luke helps amateurs hit back

A slick southpaw from Hull can inspire the British team to punch above their weight in 2012
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The Independent Online

Amateur boxing took a bit of a bashing in Britain after the seismic fallout from Beijing, with the departure of the head coach, Terry Edwards, the defection of six of the Great Eight Olympians to the professionals and fractious internal upheavals in the sport's administration. But the good news is that it is back on the front foot and looking forward to punching above its weight again in 2012.

Now under new management, Team GB have had some uplifting results in recent international tournaments. Ten medals, including four gold, in the Commonwealth Federation championships in Delhi and four (two golds, a silver and a bronze) in the competitive Prime Ministry tournament in Ankara, Turkey. Bringing in Rob McCracken after the acrimonious axing of Edwards and the brief sojourn of Kevin Hickey, has so far proved a masterstroke by Derek Mapp, the chairman of the new umbrella body, the British Amateur Boxing Association.

Allied to this is a new training set-up at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield which is among the world's finest. Much of the credit for this transformation must go to Mapp, the former Sport England chief who will admit he knew little about boxing when he helped form BABA. A multimillionaire who made his money largely from a chain of pubs and nurseries, he says: "I am a businessman and as such I apply business principles to my role. I leave the boxing side to Rob."

McCracken, a 43-year-old Brummie, had a decent pro career as a British and Commonwealth middleweight champion, and like Edwards is no mere bucket-and-sponge conditioner but a cerebral tactician who knows how to bring out the best in boxers, even those of limited ability. He has certainly lifted the spirit of his Sheffield squaddies and created healthy rivalry for places in his GB teams.

Names such as Iain Weaver, Scott Cardle, Simon Vallily, Martin Ward and Fred Evans may be unfamiliar to all but the amateur game's cognoscenti but – with Olympians Bradley Saunders and Khalid Yafai – they are 2012 contenders. So is Hull's 22-year-old Luke Campbell, who has the distinction of being one of the trio of British boxers to have won major international championships in recent years. As Britain's first European champion for 47 years he joins Beijing gold medallist James DeGale and Frankie Gavin, Britain's first world champion, both now pros, on boxing's podium of pride.

Unfortunately, like his hometown football club, Campbell has not had the best of seasons, recovering from a hand injury to be controversially beaten in the qualifying rounds for last Friday's ABA finals, a champion-ship he had twice won. Consequently he has not been selected for the European Championships in Russia next month.

"I was really upset with the ABA result," he says. "The judges must have been scoring everything my opponent [Ryan Farrag] threw but I was catching all his swings and slaps on the gloves and shoulders... they just weren't pressing the button for me. But it's one of those things and now I just want to keep learning and building. It hasn't affected my ambitions for the Olympics, they are two years away and I will peak at the right time. Obviously I am also disappointed about the Europeans but, in a way, it's no bad thing, because me and my partner have a baby on the way in June."

A tall, slick southpaw, Campbell received a number of professional offers after winning his European bantamweight gold but says: "The 2012 Olympics has been my one and only dream. To represent my country in London is my biggest goal. I was never really tempted to go pro – though I may after 2012 – because I was already at that stage of beating some of the best kids in the world and I thought all I could do was improve. I think my greatest assets are my footwork and up here (he taps his head), outwitting the opponent."

He was big for a bantamweight and while he says he feels more comfortable after moving up to featherweight, he acknowledges it is a talent-rich division. "But I feel much stronger now. Last year was a bit of a bad one with all the upheaval over the coaches and things, and people trying to change me. But why change something that's not broken? I always got on well with Terry Edwards – he was a brilliant coach – but I have to say the facilities we now have, with all the hi-tech video stuff, is brilliant. Rob's a good guy and is always looking out for us. There are kids on your back all the time wanting to take your place, and that pushes you even more.

"One of the guys I most admire is Chunky [James DeGale]. He pulled one out of the bag in Beijing, which is what I would love to do. I've trained alongside him and talked to him quite a lot. But the people I really get most inspiration from are my mother, Jill, and my partner, Lindsey. They've helped me to be the best I can be and I want a better life for them, and my dad, Barney [a former miner and engine driver]. He's not very well at all and can't work because he's had two major back operations."

Such is Campbell's resolve that last year he paid his own way to visit Freddie Roach's Wild Card gym in Los Angeles, where he stayed for a week picking up tips from the stars who train there. "I just wanted to learn something different, to pick out things that other boxers did. It was a great experience. I knew Amir [Khan] worked with Freddie and that gave me the idea of going. Me and a friend from my boxing gym just turned up and I said, 'I'm Luke Campbell from Britain, can I stay and watch?' Freddie was great, he said, 'Yes, of course you can'. He didn't charge us anything and usually you have to pay quite a lot just to get in." With such enterprise, British boxing can enjoy a ring of confidence for 2012.

Message from an icon: James DeGale

"Luke and I have a lot in common; he's a southpaw like me and we are very similar in the way we box. Also, we both lost in the ABAs in the build-up to an Olympics. He should not be disheartened as he has all the talent and is quite young. With his dedication and that European gold medal behind him, I don't see why he can't go on and win an Olympic gold medal, as I did. With his tricky southpaw style, and the way Olympic boxing is judged, he would do very well, nicking the points, moving his feet and staying on top of the opponent. He's one of the best they have in their podium squad now. Another similarity is that our defeats in the ABAs were the same story – a bad decision. But you get over it. Moving up from bantamweight to featherweight probably means it is a tougher division for him but he has the character and ability to come through. Really, the two things that he needs to keep thinking about are hard work and dedication. From what I remember of him in our training camps, he's a lovely fella with the right attitude, not flashy or mouthy, he just gets on with it and concentrates on his boxing. It would give me great pleasure to see such a likeable and talented kid him emulate my success. If he has any thoughts about turning pro, my strong advice to him is not to do so but bust a gut trying to get into the Olympic squad, because nothing pays off better than a gold medal, trust me. When I lost in the ABAs I considered going pro, but I am so glad I didn't. So I say to Luke, stick around until 2012 and go out and win that gold medal for yourself and Britain."

James DeGale, 24, won Britain the Olympic middleweight gold medal in Beijing and is unbeaten as a pro

British Olympic Association

The British Olympic Association, formed in 1905, are the national Olympic committee for Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver world-leading services to enable success for athletes and their national governing bodies. For more information: olympics.org.uk

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