Sydney boxing promoter Paul Nasari knew early on he had a good fighter in George Kambosos Jr.
“George had his first professional fight on one of my cards, and then he won his NSW and Australian titles on [another one of my shows],” Nasari told ESPN. “And after he won his NSW title I said to my mum ‘this kid’s going to be world champion, one day,’ and she said ‘Yeah, you’ve said this about a couple of others.’ And I said ‘nah, mum, this guy’s got it, I just know he has.'”
Turns out Nasari was right.
When Kambosos won that NSW State lightweight title in 2013, he was fighting in front of around 1,000 fans at the Punchbowl Croatian Club, which Nasari says he sold out every time Kambosos fought in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Fast forward eight years and Kambosos is going to have many more watching. When he fights American Devin Haney for the undisputed lightweight championship at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium on Sunday [AEST, Saturday, 9 p.m. ET in the U.S. on ESPN] there will be roughly 50 times that number.
But just days out from what is arguably the biggest fight in Australian boxing history, Kambosos’ humble beginnings remain at the forefront of the champion’s mind. A “chip on the shoulder,” he says, which continues to drive him day in and day out.
“No one ever gave me nothing, I was never silver-spoon fed like these other guys,” Kambosos told ESPN from his Mortdale gym 10 days out from the fight. “I wasn’t given a platform straight away, I didn’t come out of the amateurs or an Olympian as someone famous, I had to do it the hard way.
“But I wouldn’t want it any other way, because I look at myself in the mirror, I look at myself in this gym and I think, ‘You know what, you got here the hard way’. If I didn’t get through the [Teofimo] Lopez fight and he had beat me, then I still would have said ‘You did it the hard way. I never cheated myself.’
“And that’s what so important, going through the grassroots, going through the way we did it, selling the tickets, hustling every bit that I could, building my fan base, a lot of people were turned off me at the start but I got their attention and I made them watch. Now a lot of them are supporting me, and if they’re still not supporting me they’re watching me. So every bit of my career has been the way it’s meant to me and I love it , I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Nasari, who fought for an Australian title himself, recalls the fights when he truly knew Kambosos was something special.
“He took apart Michael Correa for the NSW state title. He hit Correa with a left hook and he just jumped out of the ring — he didn’t want to play anymore,” Nasari said. “But then the Robert Toomey fight, [Kambosos] didn’t get excited — he got 10 rounds and he took his time. When he hurt Toomey — who was a great fighter, he won Australian titles at lightweight, middleweight and super middleweight — in the middle rounds he just took his time and it was like he wanted to test himself and go the distance. And he won by unanimous decision.”
Kambosos said that fight was just another case of proving the doubters wrong.
“That Toomey fight was the right time, the right fight for me, he was a former two-time Australian champion and he had an Australian championship. I had to go and get that belt off him and that’s what I did, I battered and bruised him, over 10 rounds, and showed Australia and the local boxing community at that point who I was.
“Well I showed on that day that I did have it, and I continued to show that I would be world champion one day.”
Kambosos’ fight against Haney and junior middleweight Tim Tszyu’s rise to the precipice of a world title shot, along with the growing list of Australian heavyweights and the rise of IBF women’s bantamweight world champion Ebanie Bridges, all point to a boxing revival Down Under, with talk of a golden era in Australian boxing edging ever closer to legitimacy.
But the sport can get ahead of itself, too, particularly with young fighters who enjoy success on home soil before getting found out on the world stage.
This is where Kambosos differs from Tsyzu, who has enjoyed far greater notoriety by remaining in Australia. The lightweight champion headed offshore in the search for sterner training opponents and, eventually, the fights that would put him within reach of a world title showdown.
“What he did do — which was a bit different to a lot of Australian boxers — was that he based himself overseas and spent a lot of time over in America training and sparring over there, and that definitely helped him,” Australian boxing analyst Paul Upham told ESPN. “When it came to fighting Lopez or even when he went over to Wembley [in London] to fight Lee Selby, that helped him. [Hall of Famer Australian boxer] Kostya Tsyzu always said to me that people underestimate how hard it is to go and fight overseas, to fight away from your own country. People underestimate how hard it is.
“What happens with the Australian boxers is that they only spar the local guys, and unless they bring quality opponents in from overseas, they only have a certain level of talent [available],
Despite wins over Mickey Bey at New York’s Madison Square Garden no less, and then Selby, Kambosos was still given little chance of dethroning the then-undefeated Lopez again back at the famed New York City arena in November last year. But as is the story of his career so far, Kambosos outboxed Lopez, overcoming a late knockdown along the way, to claim each of the WBA, WBO, IBF and The Ring lightweight titles.
That victory, and the adversity that he faced within it, only further embedded Kambosos’ unwavering belief and the knowledge that whatever Haney throws at him on Sunday, he has the ability to counter.
“I always knew that I was a champion, that I was going to be world champion and I had that inside me, that whatever I had to do to I would win that fight,” Kambosos reflects. “But it was good when I got put down in Round 10 as well. I showed what a warrior I am. I can talk it and I can show it, bits and pieces of it, I’m a warrior, I’m a Spartan. But when you’re actually in there and I got to show it to the world, to get up, so many guys would have said ‘no, that’s enough for tonight’ but I got up and fought back in rounds 11 and 12 “
The comforts of fighting on home soil, which Kambosos hasn’t experienced in since 2017, are a huge advantage for the Australian, so too the 50,000-plus crowd that will make its way to Marvel Stadium. But Upham is wary of Haney’s pedigree and has warned those same fans expecting to see a homecoming coronation for Kambosos to not get ahead of themselves.
“Haney’s an out-and-out boxer, he’s a very good fighter, very skilled,” he said. “His amateur record was 138 wins and only 8 losses. And he turned pro as a 17-year-old, he had his first few fights in Mexico because you can’t turn pro in America until you’re 18. So the guy is a genuine talent, the guy is very skillful. He’s not a knockout puncher in any way, but more of a boxing aficionado; get a visa — so I don’t know how that is going to affect Haney.
“But it’s a real fight. Most people overseas consider Haney to be the favorite. They look at the Lopez fight for Kambosos and they think that Lopez was handicapped because he had some weight issues and he had some drama outside the ring with his family. So they think that Lopez wasn’t the best that night and George beat a weakened guy.”
Which brings us back to the chip that still resides firmly on Kambosos’ shoulder.
While he has been able to enjoy a rare chance to train at home, the opportunity to spend more time with his young family and the prospect of finally putting on a big show for the Australian sporting community like he always promised, Kambosos still can’t shake the thought that the global respect isn’t at a level befitting a champion who holds all but one of lightweight straps.
And that, he says, is a good thing.
“That chip on my shoulder makes me as hungry as ever. The ones that have said things about us, no problem, they’re going to watch. But go and find them on the fight night, I bet you won’t find them , because they ain’t got nothing to do with us, or this show, we’ve made sure that we’ve had it our way.
“That chip on that shoulder, I don’t think it’s ever going to go,” he told ESPN. “But when it does go, maybe that will be the time for me to give it in and move on to something else.”
Moving on is yet on the agenda after honing his craft on the other side of the world, and emphatically answering all of his critics to date. Defeat Haney on Sunday, to be crowned the undisputed lightweight champion of the world, and those remaining critics won’t have a proverbial punch left to throw.
And Kambosos’ own special place in the annals of Australian sporting history will be secured.