The epic ambition of George Kambosos

The epic ambition of George Kambosos

MELBOURNE, Australia — Devin Haney isn’t merely presumed to be a transcendent talent. He’s a bright, sincere, impossibly likable (for a fighter, at least) 23-year-old who suddenly finds himself in hostile environs 8,000 miles from home. What’s more, he’s here without the father who not only raised him but painstakingly has orchestrated his entire career — from his 2015 pro debut in a Tijuana pool hall to this moment, with a crowd in excess of 40,000 expected this Sunday (9 p.m. ET Saturday night on ESPN/ESPN+) at Marvel Stadium for a bout that will grant the winner sole custody of all four belts and decide the undisputed lightweight champion of the world.

In other words, the prodigy has already accomplished the near impossible: Being both the betting favorite and the sentimental one.

And yet, all the heat for this fight is being generated by the other guy. That would be George Kambosos, who until late last November was regarded as merely another obscure IBF mandatory challenger. Before that, he’d been best known as a Manny Pacquiao sparring partner.

In fact, it was Kambosos’ work as Pacquiao’s sparring partner that inflamed his sense of, well, ambition doesn’t quite seem grandiose enough. Call it destiny, as Kambosos surely would. Five years ago in Brisbane, he watched from ringside as Pacquiao dropped his WBO title to the local guy, Jeff Horn. Still, the decision concerned Kambosos less than the sight of 55,000 screaming Aussies at Suncorp Stadium.

“I wanted that stadium fight,” he says. “I needed that stadium fight. I said to my father, there with me ringside, ‘We’re gonna do this. Maybe no one believes us, but me and you, we believe it.’ I knew my moment would come.”

If so, he had the good sense to keep his convictions to himself. “People would’ve thought we were crazy,” says Kambosos, who was already older at that moment than Haney is now, but hadn’t yet fought outside his native Australia.

Still, five years hence, here we are on the eve of another massive stadium fight. “I manifested it,” declares Kambosos. “I envisioned it. I made it a reality.”

It took a minute. It required some deft and persistent maneuvering on the part of his manager, Peter Kahn. But mostly, what created this opportunity was Kambosos and his habitual contempt for the odds. First, he beat New York-based Mickey Bey, a former lightweight champion, at Madison Square Garden, earning a split decision by dropping Bey in the last round. Then he went to London to beat Welshman Lee Selby, another former champion, again by split decision. Finally, in a star-crossed promotion last November, he beat the man who many considered the undisputed lightweight champion, Brooklyn-born Teofimo Lopez, again at the Garden. Lopez, who seemed boxing’s most dynamic young talent coming off a dominant win over Vasiliy Lomachenko, vowed to finish Kambosos in the first round. And why not? He was a massive favorite. Only problem was, it was Kambosos who put Lopez down in the first.

It’s worth noting here that Lopez had a troubled training camp, during which he split with his wife. He entered the ring with an esophageal tear that, according to doctors, potentially endangered his life and made breathing difficult. If you think that diminishes Kambosos’ eventual victory, however, I remind you that Kambosos thrives on being diminished. Moreover, it does nothing to cheapen what he considers the finest moment of the fight.

It’s not his knockdown of Lopez that he most treasures. Rather, it’s getting up from Lopez’s devastating right in the 10th round. “We all get knocked down at some point,” Kambosos says. “Many decide to stay down. But it’s that rare person that gets up and says, ‘No, this is not how this story will end.’ So I touched the bottom rope. I crossed myself. And I got up to finish strong.

“I got to show my warrior instincts. It’s my heritage. I’m a Spartan.”

In fact, Kambosos’ grandparents emigrated from Sparta to Sydney, but more important is the fighter’s ego. Kambosos cares less for how he’s seen than how he sees himself: as the protagonist of his own epic poem. Well, maybe it’s an adaptation of a graphic novel. You’ll recall “300,” the bloody, semi-animated retelling of outnumbered Spartan warriors in the ancient Battle of Thermopylae.

Well, Kambosos has taken to calling himself “301.” It’s a saga he has had memorialized on his body, which is covered with tattoos.

“I told my wife I’m prepared to die this Sunday,” he says.

It’s a curious comment from a guy who insists that Haney has “zero chance” of winning. Still, as he hasn’t fought in Australia since 2017, Kambosos fashions this fight as the return of a conquering hero. Marvel Stadium, he says, “is my Colosseum.”

His wife and three young children will watch from ringside. When it’s over, he says, he’ll present his 2-year-old son, Leonidas (King Leonidas, as played by Gerard Butler, was the Spartans’ leader in “300”) with Haney’s version of the WBC belt.

Fighters and promoters talk often of “the best fighting the best,” but of course, they rarely do. An event like this, then, has rare and authentic merit. Kambosos, trained by Javiel Centeno out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, could easily have taken a victory lap, celebrating his homecoming with a glorified journeyman as is boxing’s unfortunate custom. Instead, he first chose the great Lomachenko. And when Lomachenko pulled out, on account of his native Ukraine being invaded by Russia, Kambosos turned to Haney.

Haney made his own concessions to make the fight happen. He’s not merely going on the road; this stadium crowd will be unlike anything he has ever seen. And if Kambosos should lose (an impossibility, he says, but one that his promoter, Lou DiBella insisted on considering), Haney agreed to an immediate rematch back in Australia. Finally, he’s without his father, Bill, who was denied a visa because of a now 30-year-old drug charge.

In other words, each fighter has embraced uncustomary risk. Both are to be applauded. But instead of mutual respect, it’s the charismatic, churlish underdog who has dominated the lead-up. Kambosos, who had no problems working for Pacquiao in his fight with the Australian Horn, has taken to calling Haney a “snitch” and an “informant,” owing to messages he says Haney sent him before the Lopez fight.

“They had a big fight lined up, Haney and Lopez,” Kambosos tells me. “I didn’t know Devin Haney from a bar of soap. But he went on Twitter to send me messages about Teofimo … what he’s doing, the problems he was having with his wife. … For me, that’s a rat. … The little sneaky things he did.”

So what? I wonder. The enemy of one’s enemy is a friend. It seems that Haney, with ample justification, thought Kambosos was an easier opponent than Lopez. More curious, especially after Haney agreed to Kambosos’ terms, was Kambosos’ choice to make it personal.

“It’s ‘The Art of War,'” he concedes, citing the title of his favorite book, Sun Tzu’s celebration of ruthlessness as virtue. “This is business for me.”

“You wanted to get under his skin,” I ask. “Did you not?”

“I just wanted the world to know the truth,” he says, somewhat impishly. “Did I ruffle some feathers? Maybe. Has he already been broken? I think so.”

I ask about a posed stare-down they had earlier this week.

“I saw him break three times in that faceoff,” says Kambosos. “And when you break against a Spartan warrior like me, I already have you.”

When exactly did he break? I ask.

“I think he’s been broken since the day he signed for the fight.”

I’m not sure who Kambosos is trying to provoke here: me, Haney or himself. It occurs to me that if self-belief is regarded as a talent, then Kambosos should be top-10, pound-for-pound. We’re walking around the pitch at “his Colosseum,” Marvel Stadium. Better get used to it, he tells me, as his next fight will be here, too.

A rematch with Haney? I say.

“No,” he says. “Lomachenko.”

Assam Press