Author Richard Milward tracks down the boxer to find out how his life has changed since winning gold
Whenever kids act up at the St Paul’s pro-am boxing gym in Hull, head coach Mike Bromby lays down the law to the miscreants: "What would Luke do?"
Now, Britain’s most decorated amateur boxer, Luke Campbell, has long been the club’s benchmark for dedication. He has a ‘first in, last out’ approach to training, more steel than the Humber Bridge, enough silverware to rival an Egyptian tomb, and now, after slaying the world’s elite boxers at London 2012, Luke is the first British bantamweight in more than one hundred years to win Olympic gold. Had Yorkshire been an independent sovereign state during the summer, he would have finished 12th in the medals table – tucked closely behind Australia and Japan. And, while the boxing tournament commences on the opening day of the games, Campbell was the final Yorkshireman to claim a medal – his ‘first in, last out’ tradition true to the end. It’s a gruelling path to the podium for the pugilists – five bouts maximum in two weeks – and so, understandably, Campbell’s eventual homecoming garnered much riotous appreciation from his fellow Hullonians, and a sense of deliverance for the southpaw.
"It was priceless," Campbell explains of his public balcony appearance at City Hall. "I had between fifteen and eighteen thousand people turn out for me, all cheering me on and, you know, I was really taken aback by it. I got quite emotional by the support I got."
Apparently Campbell’s was the second-largest homecoming – after Jessica Ennis’s twenty-thousand-strong contingent in Sheffield – and Campbell is keen to reflect this adulation back onto the city and, more specifically, the St Paul’s club in the Old Town where he learned his ringcraft. Like many boxing clubs, low funds have frozen the décor in a state of well-pummelled, well-loved disrepair – the paintwork is chipped and part of the roof has fallen in, though Bromby hopes his protégé’s success might speed up the council’s response to his renovation needs. On the wall behind the ring, The Saint logo battles for space with expressively-daubed Spartans, and Campbell exudes both these qualities in abundance: he is a gentleman and a warrior; a self-confessed ‘shy’ boxer with enormous self-discipline and the fistic venom of a taiban.
It was priceless. I had between fifteen and eighteen thousand people turn out for me, all cheering me on and, you know, I was really taken aback by it. I got quite emotional by the support I got
Now midway into his twenties (Campbell turns twenty-five tomorrow, September 27th), he began boxing aged thirteen, with a modest ambition of placing "a couple of trophies in my cabinet at home". Despite losing seven of his first nine bouts, Campbell was committed to "better myself and be the best I can possibly be", though perhaps the toughest obstacle for an aspiring boxer is the sacrifices necessary to reach greatness. Many of the pleasures commonly associated with youth – fast food, alcohol, lethargy – have to be shunned in favour of strict dieting, intensive exercise, and a zero tolerance to intoxicants.
Did he find it frustrating, missing out on certain luxuries? "It’s always a difficult one," Campbell replies. "You could say it’s frustrating but I’m sat here now, Olympic champion. So all them sacrifices and that, it’s been all worthwhile. And if you never make the sacrifices and put one hundred percent in, you’ll never know what you’re capable of."
It’s humbling spending the afternoon with such a focused individual, especially a sportsman whose progress I’ve been following closely for a few years now. I was present at the ExCel Arena when Campbell won his gold against Ireland’s John Joe Nevin – it was a typically measured, tactical victory for the Brit; a battle of brain over brawn, Campbell darting in and out of range, picking off his opponent with the nimble ferocity of a safecracker. I can’t fathom how it must’ve felt in the dressing room leading up to the culmination – the pinnacle – of twelve years’ hard graft in the gymnasium. Twelve years of abstinence and perseverance, condensed into three three-minute rounds.
"[I was] nervous, anxious," Campbell admits. "You know, the adrenalin was going but I felt focused. I felt switched on and I knew what I had to do." Did he listen to music to fire himself up? "Tell you what I was listening to, it was, erm, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. It was a song called… 'I came to win, I came to conquer' – yeah, 'Fly'. I was listening to that."
I was more nervous turning up with a black eye than I was actually shooting for Vogue. It was the first black eye I’ve had in four years – I don’t tend to get hit
And conquer he did. To be fair, Campbell’s achievements before August already soared above most twentysomethings’: not only is he father to a two-year-old, Leo (with another on the way), Luke has recently signed on with Select Model Management following a shoot for British Vogue by Peter Lindbergh. There are probably not many male models who turn up to their first Vogue shoot with a black eye, but Campbell’s shiner was as unexpected for him as it must have been for Lindbergh.
"I was more nervous turning up with a black eye than I was actually shooting for Vogue. It was the first black eye I’ve had in four years – I don’t tend to get hit." True enough: our interview is taking place less than a fortnight after Luke’s gold medal bout, and the bantam’s face is completely unmarked. To come out of an Olympic boxing tournament unblemished is a testament to Campbell’s prowess between the ropes. It is only when Luke works the heavy bag for the Dazed cameras, he complains of a slight shoulder twinge. Bromby jests from the other side of the gym, "It’s because you haven’t been in training, Luke."
It’s a well-deserved breather. The debate now is whether Campbell will turn professional or stay in the amateur ranks to defend his title at Rio 2016. What Luke will do is no longer a question for the miscreants at St Paul’s – it is a question for Campbell alone. Still, whatever the future brings, Campbell is sure to dig in with the heart of a lion, and with the pride of Yorkshire behind him.
Film and photos by Amy Gwatkin
Text and film interview by Richard Milward