NEW YORK — This is what winning looks like, battered, bloodied and with a smile that stretched from ear to ear. George Kambosos, the 28-year old Australian, resembled a man just pulled from a car wreck after going 12 grueling rounds with Teófimo López on Saturday. But standing in the middle of the ring, four lightweight titles strapped to his midsection, Kambosos couldn’t have felt any better.
It has been a year of upsets in boxing, from Mauricio Lara’s win over Josh Warrington, Gabriel Rosado’s knockout of Bektemir Melikuziev and Sandor Martin’s win over Mikey Garcia, but this might top them all. George Kambosos? Oddsmakers made Kambosos a 13–1 underdog against López, the unified lightweight champion, and many believed the odds should have been higher. López’s last two wins came against Richard Commey and Vasyl Lomachenko. Kambosos earned the title shot with wins over Mickey Bey and Lee Selby.
George Kambosos? This was supposed to be less a fight for López than a sparring match. For weeks López has been linked to other opponents. A rematch with Lomachenko. A showdown with fellow 135-pound titleholder Devin Haney. A move up in weight for a crack at undisputed 140-pound champion Josh Taylor. Kambosos wasn’t there to win. He was there to help López shake off the rust.
Only he wasn’t. For weeks Kambosos told anyone who would listen: I will beat him. López is a good boxer. I’m better. López has power. So do I. Those who scoffed at split-decision wins over Bey and Selby overlooked, Kambosos said, that both were slick boxers who rarely presented hittable targets. López, Kambosos insisted, would.
And he did. In the closing seconds of the first round, López and Kambosos squared off in the center of the ring. López dropped his left hand. Kambosos pounced, landing an overhand right that clipped López on the tumble and dropped him to the canvas. It was the punch Kambosos envisioned. He recalled a story from the buildup of the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Ali asked legendary trainer Cus D’Amato: How do I fight this guy? D’Amato’s response: Your first punch, you have to hit him with everything. “I had that in my head,” Kambosos told me. “I’m going to hit this kid hard and I’m going to put him down. The fight changed after that.”
Suddenly, a walkover fight became a war. Round after round, Kambosos didn’t just hang in with López—he was beating him. Stiff jabs. Crisp counterpunches to the body. Overhand rights heavy enough to keep López from rushing in. He bruised López’s nose. He opened a cut over López’s left eye. He tucked his chin and traded punches with one of the heaviest hitters in the division.
Like López, Kambosos waited months for this. A fight booked in February and originally scheduled for June took nine months, eight date changes and five proposed venues to finally happen. Kambosos didn’t want the delays. But he used them. He recalled the words of Bernard Hopkins, who Kambosos encountered in a Miami hotel weeks before the first scheduled date. “He told me to use every day to get better,” Kambosos said. And he did. He returned to Australia. And he trained. He celebrated the birth of his third child … and he trained. He mourned the death of his grandfather … and he kept training. At a pre-fight press conference he looked at López, a 24-year old just beginning his rise, and declared he was the hungrier fighter. And he meant it.
López appeared equally confident, though underneath the surface, there was conflict. Much had changed since his career defining win over Lomachenko 13 months earlier. Key members of his team, from Perfecting Athletes, the nutritionists responsible for López making weight his last two fights, to Joey Gamache, a valued strategist who had worked his corner, were gone. He celebrated the birth of his son while his well-publicized marriage was in flux. He says he spent $250,000 on his training camp for Kambosos, at one point having only $20,000 to his name.
Physically, perhaps, he was ready.
Mentally, though, he was not.
Still, López had an opening in the 10th round, when a chopping right hand sent Kambosos down. “I was trying to entertain too much,” Kambosos said. With Kambosos wobbly and referee Harvey Dock looking on closely, López had an opportunity. A flurry of punches could have been enough to end it. Instead, López loaded up, looking for the one-punch knockout. The decision gave Kambosos time to recover. And with Kambosos’s sweep of the last two rounds, it likely cost López the fight.
It was a split decision win for Kambosos—Sports Illustrated scored the fight 114–112 in his favor—and just like that the lightweight division has a new king. Suddenly it’s Kambosos staring down a shot at Haney, who will defend his title Saturday. It’s Kambosos in the mix for fights against Gervonta Davis and Ryan Garcia.
“I guess I’m now the hunted,” Kambosos said. Indeed. A little known fighter from Australia proved an ages-old axiom in boxing: In the ring, anything can happen.
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