"Saturday, bloody Saturday"
Don't expect hugs and kisses from champ Nate Campbell this Valentine's Day
Story & photo by Scott Foster
February 14th is usually a date reserved for romantics, but for newlywed Nate Campbell (32-5-2, KOs), this Valentines Day arrives laced with pain.
It is the pain of a long distance runner, patiently laying them down, or the climber who scales the mountaintop only to be confronted by a larger, more ominous cliff dead ahead. Luckily, the lightweight champion will be sharing this Valentines Day with his mandatory challenger, and while Campbell is expected to begin the night by touching gloves with Ali Funeka (30-1, 24 KOs), most do not expect hugs & kisses to follow.
“What I’m going to bring to that table is pain, and he ain't gonna like none of it,” Campbell promised, smiling. “Funeka says he doesn't need special sparring for me because I'm an open book. Well, I don’t know what book he's been reading -- he's been running his mouth and I like it. I'm gonna hit him in that mouth, and then I’m gonna show the world how to walk through somebody’s business before wiping my feet on their rug.”
Soiled rugs aside, the Funeka bout stands as a milestone for Campbell and his team. Not only does it signify his long-awaited 1st title defense, it also offers a chance to reclaim some of the glory garnered after ripping the lightweight titles from the grasp of Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz.
“My 1st defense really means everything to me. I want to show the world that the first time wasn't a fluke. It wasn't just Juan Diaz having an off night, it was me being the great fighter that I am.”
Don King has dubbed this card “The Valentines Day Massacre,” an homage to one of Campbell’s most revered heroes, “Sugar” Ray Robinson. Nate has adopted several of the tools Robinson wielded nearly half a century ago, but Ray’s dogged determination left the most indelible mark on Campbell, the mentality to forgo safety in search of the definitive, declarative knockout.
"I stole a lot of my style from “Sugar” Ray Robinson,” Campbell admitted. "He was offense at it's finest. You can't find a guy who was more offensively balanced than him. Defense sometimes was put in his back pocket, but offensively, Robinson was a beast.”
A beast, to be sure, and Robinson’s overall technique not only merits distinction, it endures, untouched. Renowned for his flash & guile, Robinson was quick to point out that every slashing left hook began with solid footwork, and every late round knockout was the result of a devastating body attack. Campbell incorporated the rock & roll defense, and the footwork to set up the left hook, but Nate’s calling card is his commitment to the body, a devotion that would prompt even Ray Robinson to sit up & smile.
“Anybody can hit a guy in the head and knock him out, but a good fighter has to be softened up. A good body attack is the key to that. For me, the greatest thing I was ever taught was the left hook to the liver; it's a lost art, they just don’t teach it anymore. You gotta have balls to stand & fight a guy -- anybody can stay outside & run -- but you gotta have balls to stand in the pocket and fight a guy. As the fight with Funeka progresses, he's is gonna have to fight me. Once I touch him with a body shot, I’m gonna take his legs.”
Mike McCallum, arguably one of the top 5 body-punchers in our recent past, was so taken by Campbell's dedication to the "lost science" that he contacted the impressionable young fighter, quietly bestowing his title with a keen eye on Campbell's future.
"Mike McCallum called me years back and said, 'You are the next coming of the body snatcher.' From that day forward, I wasn't ever gonna change. That carried more weight than anybody ever understood. The thought that this man who I revered, who I held in such regard, that he was willing to call me that -- man, it made me happy beyond the world. My body attack is the most scintillating in boxing. When I hit a guy with a body shot, everybody in the arena pays attention."
Winning a world title effects a boxer in many differing ways, and as the “silk pajamas” axiom leaps to the forefront of those discussions, the educated guess is that Campbell’s reign, at least in terms of intensity, should resemble Bernard Hopkins more so than David Reid. At age 36, Campbell may not match Hopkins’ overall longevity, but his willingness to punish himself, toiling through the roughest hours in dank, sweltering gyms, remains an intangible exclusive to the elite.
“I still think I’m the meanest cat in the gym,” Campbell deadpanned. “Every time I step into the ring, with a sparring partner or my best friend, I mean to prove it. I haven’t made millions of dollars, I still have to get up in the morning & run, everything I’ve always done before I won the title is still how I do it today. I give myself the very best chance to win. Once I give all the hard labor in the gym, everything else takes care of itself.”
As was the case with many of the sports more storied champions, Campbell’s ascent to the mountaintop began well beneath the bottom rung. Entering the game as an afterthought during his mid-20’s, Campbell’s struggles were well documented, and the pitfalls he endured not only bolstered his detractors, but served as inspiration, providing a sore spot for Campbell to pick at whenever he felt the urge.
“Someone once said that if you haven’t lost a fight by the time you fight for a championship, then you haven’t fought anybody. My record shows that I’ve fought everybody. I fought hard, and I never quit. I know that the thing that made me champion was my mishaps – the things that happened in my career, they galvanized me.”
Much of Campbell's success also stems from the people he surrounded himself with. Terry Trekas, founder of One Punch Productions, serves not just as Campbell's longtime manager/promoter, but as a sounding board & friend, a confidant Nate openly refers to as family. Their relationship transcends the sport, and is as valuable & treasured as the title belts adorning Campbell's mantle.
"Nate is family," Trekas explained, "and when you know what someone is capable of, and all it takes is for the pieces to align right, and then it does -- that's very satisfying. For the pieces to finally fall into place -- and for him to be as good as he is -- I guess the most satisfying part is when the rest of the world doesn't think you're nuts anymore."
One Punch intends to stay true to their roots, focusing on a small stable more apt to partake in Sunday afternoon BBQ’s than a Monday morning business meeting. Relationships are forged and loyalties ironclad, affording his boxers less worries and more peace of mind in a sport consumed by doubt and distrust.
"I don't have any desire to go out and sign 50 fighters and not be able to adequately represent each of them,” Trekas said. “I'll never be a Golden Boy, or DKP or Top Rank simply because I'm not interested in that type of party. Nothing against them, it's just that I'm a little more of an individual; I have to have a certain deal with a guy. If I don't, I can’t make the commitment to him. You have to have both -- you have to have your corporate promoters, and your mom & pop. Basically, I'm a mom & pop."
Inside the ring, Campbell has benefited from several trainers in his past, but the last piece of the puzzle didn't fall into place until late 2003, when former 154/160lb champion John David Jackson lent a hand in preparation for the Daniel Attah bout. Jackson, trained under the tutelage of Georgie Benton, an Eddie Futch disciple himself, imparts many old-school lessons in the gym, emphasizing bodywork & defense. In the intervening years, John David's influence grew exponentially, quickly becoming a fixture not only in Campbell's corner, but around the dinner table as well.
"John is my family,” Campbell explained. “His wife & kids are my family. Our families are close, and when we are not in the gym, we miss each other because we're friends. John David is one of my best sparring partners, and is the most respected guy in the gym. He is a teacher. I always had an old-school style, but when I got with somebody who knows the old-school game -- me & John could figure out how to beat King-Kong."
Before tackling any monoliths in the sport, Campbell must first dispatch his IBF mandatory contender. At 6'1'' Funeka presents an imposing figure, and his background & style suggest that underestimating the South African could likely result in an upset. Even with his future on his mind, Campbell insists Funeka remains his sole focus, fully aware that a stumble out of this gate might incur catastrophic consequences down the road.
"If I lose this fight, they won't deal with me," Campbell reasoned. "They will freeze me out, but because I know that, I train that much harder. They can't control me, they don't know what I'm going to say from one moment to the next, and because of that, they don't like me. I believe that fighters should fight the best fighters out there. I won't take BS fights just to make the ‘powers that be’ happy. I want to fight the very best champions."
If successful against Funeka, those marquee champions appear aligned for Campbell, with several beginning to add his name to their lucrative, albeit limited dance cards. The obvious match would be a unification bout with the winner of the Juan Manuel Marquez/Juan Diaz WBO title fight. Campbell appears less likely to achieve the return match with Diaz, given their camps history, but the talk of Marquez bears more weight, animating the lightweight champion in an openly visceral way.
"If Diaz had the ring belt, everybody knows they can't call him the linear champ, I beat him up. The fight with Marquez would mean that I get to shut everybody up, right away. I could close the book. Stop with the linear stuff, I could take all of the foolishness out of the game, at least at lightweight. If I sign Marquez, I'll probably have to draw 1st blood. It's not that I want to get into his head; I want in his ass.”
Manny Paquiao's name has also been bandied about, and as much as that bout would draw financially for Campbell, his motives appear rooted in styles rather than dollars & cents. Beyond being the hardest workers in their respective gyms, Bernard Hopkins & Campbell share another common thread, and that is their ability to nullify the southpaw stance. Campbell thrives against that style, dispatching all southpaws on his ledger, save the lone loss to one of the most skilled, heavy-handed lefties in the past decade, Joel Casamayor. To be fair, Manny brings much more to the table than simply a southpaw stance -- namely speed, power & unbridled determination -- but Campbell is convinced that styles will dictate the outcome of that fight.
"I would love to break Pacquiao into a thousand little pieces -- I think I may make the whole Philippine nation hate me. They can scream ‘Pacman’ all they want; Pacquiao doesn't want to see me. I don't feel like Pacquiao can deal with what I'll bring. My body punching wouldn't bust him up, it would make him throw up. But Marquez will sign & he will fight, and I respect him for that."
A win over Funeka, and the subsequent paydays that victory should usher in, seem poised to provide a fitting postscript to the roller-coaster ride Campbell has enjoyed this past decade. Nate Campbell talks like a man satisfied after a great meal, and as the dessert tray makes its rounds, he appears eager to bypass the low-hanging fruit. There are larger things in store for the lightweight champion, and for once, they all appear within his reach.
"My legacy is the most important thing," Campbell revealed. "I want to make the Boxing Hall of Fame. That’s what I want. But if people smile when they say my name, then I'm OK. I want some kid in a gym to say, ‘I watched Nate Campbell fight one time, did you see the body punches he threw, did you see the combinations? Did you see his power?' If some kid somewhere calls me a beast, and decides he wants to fight like me, then I'll be OK."