At the time, Luke Campbell didn’t think much of the old accessory.
‘Just their quirk,’ he admits.
Then just 16, the promising amateur had travelled to Saratov in Russia for the 2004 European Cadet Championships.
Luke Campbell takes on Ukrainian Vasyl Lomachenko on August 31 in London at the O2 Arena
Their two worlds will collide again following their first meeting fifteen years ago in Saratov
It was his first elite international competition, and a first chance to size up his opposition.
‘I was seeing guys from Russia, Romania, Belarus, Ukraine,’ he remembers. ‘They were like a different breed of people to what I’d ever seen before.’
Among those to catch his eye was a young Ukrainian, whose cap featured a tennis ball dangling on a piece of string.
‘He was doing things that I’d never seen,’ Campbell says. ‘It’s only now that people are selling the caps with tennis balls on a string – he was doing that from being a kid.
‘That was the first time I’d ever seen him and I thought: “Wow this kid is really good”.’
Vasyl Lomachenko went on to win gold that September, while Campbell was a beaten semi-finalist.
Ahead of the lightweight fight, Campbell sat down with Sportsmail’s Daniel Matthews
The 31-year-old labelled the upcoming bout in London as ‘the biggest fight of my life’
Over the years they would tread parallel paths around the world. Both won European gold in Liverpool in 2008, both triumphed at London 2012. They never fought and Campbell admits: ‘I don’t know if he (ever) recognised me’. Fifteen years on from their first meeting their two worlds will finally collide.
The cap remains a key weapon in Lomachenko’s training arsenal but now the 31-year-old is one of the finest fighters of his era. After 14 fights, he is already a three-weight world champion. Campbell must put that scouting into practice when they collide for the unified world lightweight titles on August 31 at the O2 Arena, where they came face-to-face on Saturday night.
‘The biggest fight of my life is coming up and certainly the biggest test of my life. I guess you’re going to see what I’m really made of,’ he says.
Today, the McGuigan gym in London is otherwise empty. Campbell’s coach and stablemates are elsewhere. There is a darts board to help pass the time, but chess is Campbell’s preferred release when the gloves are off.
For now, though, the work doesn’t stop. Not when you’re afforded a second bite at the cherry.
In September 2017, the Hull fighter faced Jorge Linares in his first world title fight.
The pair squared up to each other in the ring at the O2 Arena on Saturday evening
He climbed off the canvas in California but lost a split decision. And the scars of that trip have never fully healed. ‘I should have pulled out,’ he reflects.
Two weeks out from the fight, Campbell’s father Bernard died aged 58 after a battle with cancer. Alone in the States, he came close to cracking.
‘I had a fair few moments where I sort of exploded a little bit, I was having palpitations sometimes when I thought about it,’ he says.
‘I had to shut every single door in my mind and live in like a little cupboard because if I opened a door, then all the thoughts outside that door would start flooding in.’
The knife was twisted when the judges ruled in Linares’ favour but he now reflects: ‘I believe I’m a different man to what I was then. Physically and mentally. I’m in a much better place… if I was to fight an old version of myself from two years ago, I would whoop me.’
Next month, his improvements under Shane McGuigan will be put under the microscope by the dancing, feinting, and at times perplexing Lomachenko.
He believes he is a ‘different man’ since his loss to Jorge Linares in his first world title fight
The Englishman climbed off the canvas but lost a split decision in California against Linares
‘For the majority of my amateur boxing career, I was the underdog weirdly enough and that served me well,’ he claims.
‘This is exactly where I want to be. I want to fight among the elite and beat fighters in the elite. There are world champions out there that no one has heard of. I don’t want to be one of those guys. I think nowadays it’s not about whether you’re a world champion, it’s about who you fight. I’ll do it the hard way and my story will be better at the end of it.’
Lomachenko can be beaten, as Orlando Salido showed in 2014 – albeit with little regard for the rules. And earlier this summer, Campbell watched Anthony Joshua suffer a terrible beating at the hands of Andy Ruiz Jnr.
The grace with which Joshua sucked up defeat earned him many more admirers. But Campbell, who shared an apartment with AJ at London 2012, was left with more questions than answers.
‘The AJ I know, is like: “If you land a good shot on me you’re going to get two back and you won’t land that one again”. But he just looked like he just took it all too easily and it seemed like he wasn’t too fussed,’ he says.
‘The only thing I can think of was that he was dazed and maybe a bit confused and not all there because he’d just been hit with some heavy shots… he might look back and think: “What the f*** was I saying there, what was I doing?… ah God I can’t watch that interview I’m embarrassing myself”.’
Campbell insists he is in a ‘great place’ ahead of the fight against the 31-year-old Ukrainian
In the seven years since their golden summer, both AJ and Campbell have faced bumps in the road and the Hull fighter insists: ‘It’s in those downs when you find out really who you are.’
Now, though, opportunity knocks. Lomachenko and Campbell have taken long and winding roads to the top of the professional game. Next month their paths will cross at last.
‘In a perfect world I could be sitting here right now, easily 22-0, undefeated, with a world championship belt around my waist. But I’m not,’ he reflects.
‘It’s not gone that way for me but I’m still here, I’m still busting my balls. I’m still dedicated, disciplined and have a hell of a lot of desire to win. I’m feeling good and I’m in a great place where I am. I’m performing and ready for this challenge.’
When the talking stops, Campbell heads towards the ring to begin a circuit session all by himself.
Music blares from his phone and the clock ticks down to fight night. 15 years and counting.
Campbell admits he was left stunned by Anthony Joshua’s defeat by Andy Ruiz Jnr in New York
Have something to say? Leave a comment: