“I’m not happy, don’t you believe that shit. I’ll fight every day,” he says with a punctuating chuckle. He’s joking, at least partially so. Nate Campbell is certainly happy, his easy conversation carried by the confidence happy people possess. But would he fight every day? You get the sense he would; that this is the grain of truth that confirms the joke, perhaps even that confirms the happiness. His perpetual readiness to fight might well be what has delivered the “Galaxxy Warrior” that very happiness, secured and preserved that worth fighting for.
For a time, he stopped fighting (which is not the same as being unready to fight). He did it to please his mother. She’d overheard Campbell discussing his induction credentials with Bob Alexander, the Vice President of the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame. “You’re still young,” she told him. “But I wanna see my baby go into the Hall of Fame, I wanna see my baby celebrated for what he’s done.”
“Me bein’ a jerk, I was like, ‘Mom, I got some fights left in me,’” says Campbell. And so Ann Jones altered her approach. “Fuck them fights!” she told him, “I wanna see you go in the Hall of Fame, and after you’re in the Hall of Fame, you’re good, you can do whatever the fuck you want.”
He relented, retiring in 2014. His mother died two years later, too soon to see her son inducted. Campbell was in Thailand at the time, training fighters at Senson Peñón Muay Thai gym. Not that he’d intended to train anyone. Ann’s wishes aside, Campbell had other reasons for leaving boxing. “I was mad at boxing. I was mad I didn’t get my chance―I didn’t get Pacquiao, I didn’t get Mayweather,” he recalls. “For a while, I would take jobs to stay busy so I wouldn’t go anywhere near a gym.”
The hunt for a particular Christmas present brought Campbell back, and Giles Wiley made him stay. Campbell was looking for a free-standing-man punching bag, the rubber torso mounted as if by Vlad the Impaler. He found one at Jax Muay Thai in Jacksonville. That’s where Campbell met Wiley, the gym’s proprietor and where Wiley “got me to do something I didn’t want to do,” remembers Campbell. Wiley instilled in Campbell an appreciation for the value, the importance of passing on what he’d learned about boxing.
So he was in Thailand doing what he loved when Ann died, which must have served as some consolation to her in her final hours. Her son was special, she knew it, and he was surrounded by people who, in their agony’s reward, celebrated him.
Their relationship had not been an easy one. When Campbell was ten, he lost his father to pneumonia and septic shock, and Ann was left to navigate her son through the perils of Jacksonville’s malignant streets alone. But over the years, the two developed a relationship predicated on friendship, one that would influence his own parenting.
“The day I got on the plane to come back, my mother died. I’ll never forget: before I left we were talking and she finally validated me. She told me: ‘You know, I’m so proud of you.’ Now, my mother was never one to tell you she was proud of you―she wanted you to keep working. But she told me, ‘You’ve made me a proud mother because at the end of the day, my son did something that nobody else’s son could do: He didn’t just win one title, he didn’t just win two, he won three.’” At the end of that day, her last day, Ann had ensured Campbell knew how she felt; a parental settling of accounts, uncannily, lovingly, beautifully timed.
“Pastor, you can go home.”
Those three titles, the WBA, IBF, and WBO lightweight belts, Campbell took by force on March 8, 2008. His opponent was Juan Diaz, an indefatigable phenom from Houston, Texas, who compiled his sparkling 33-0 record via withering attrition. Campbell was a day removed from his thirty-sixth birthday the night he fought Diaz. He was a grandfather. What he was not was expected to win. But to hear him tell it, something almost mystic was at work.
He’d come to training camp early, but something was pulling at Campbell. Given the weekend by trainer John David Jackson, Campbell drove home. He visited the House of Faith Church of God in Christ in Jacksonville to see Pastor Willie Frank Robinson, a father figure to Campbell, and his uncle by marriage. But Robinson wasn’t preaching that day or any day of late. He was in the hospital, something he requested Campbell be kept ignorant of during training camp.
“So I come to the hospital, I said, ‘Get up, old man!’ you know, joking with him, and he smiled. And I realized how much I loved this man. This was the closest thing to a father in my life. I hugged him, and I looked him in the eye and said ‘I love you,’ and he said ‘I love you too, son.’ There was something in that moment, man, where I knew I would never see him again. That was him on his death bed giving me a mandate. If you ever talk to John David Jackson, he’ll tell you: that was the turning point for me because I was given a mandate. Pastor Robinson willed me to become a champion.”
On the drive back to camp, Campbell pulled over on the 95 to Miami and cried himself hoarse, a cathartic eruption that left peace in its wake.
The prefight narrative was one of a foregone conclusion, a predestined coronation, which rankled Campbell. “Ya’ll keep putting God in smaller packages,” he told HBO analyst Max Kellerman, who favored Diaz in the fight. Everyone was overlooking Campbell, which he knew meant nothing once the bell rang. “If you watch me walk around the ring,” says Campbell, “it wasn’t just the training camp, it wasn’t just that John [David Jackson] and I were of one accord, it’s the fact that I knew deep down that my pastor was there with me and I had something to do.”
Campbell had something to do. And Diaz paid the price for it. “I made my mind up that Diaz wasn’t gonna beat me at nothin’: he wasn’t gonna outthrow me, outpunch me, out-heart me.,” says Campbell, who fought Diaz with a nastiness that seemed to unnerved the champion. “I’ll never forget looking over at Kellerman when I cut Diaz, Juan’s holding onto me and I pull back and give him two uppercuts, and look at Kellerman like, ‘There’s your God! There’s your God!'”
Robinson, unbeknownst to Campbell, had died the night before. That same day Robinson promised Campbell he would be with him during the fight. “That’s how I knew he was gone: there was no other way he could have been with me.” As Campbell awaits his post-fight interview you can hear him say, “Pastor, you can go home.”
Campbell went home the unified lightweight champion. It wasn’t the first time he was cast as the opponent and dismissed accordingly. And it wasn’t the first time that was a mistake.
OCTOBER 2005. It bothers him, needles at his consciousness when he tries to sleep, finds him on the threshold of the evening’s peace, and yanks him back.
For himself? Perhaps. About what they think of him, what that estimation means about him, about who he is, about what remains.
There was that loss to Francisco Lorenzo in his last fight, but that was because of the weight. And sure, he took this fight on short notice, but that was nothing new. He was ready. That’s why the guys started calling him “Gym Rat”; he’d been in the gym, been ready since he lost to Lorenzo.
They’d blown him off at the final press conference too. Not a single question―not one. He was old news. That must be it. What did that guy say? “Nate Campbell’s got one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel, and he’s getting pushed?”
“They’re tryin’ to get me outta here,” he thinks. “They really think I’m comin’ to lay down. I’ve never come to lay down in any fight, and they think I”m comin’ to lay down.”
He’s accompanied to the weigh-in by his roommate from the amateurs. Jeff is his name, but he goes by “Left Hook.” “You know, this boy can fight,” Jeff tells him.
“I’m gon’ beat his ass. He’s the star, and I’m just here for a beatin’. I’m fuckin’ him up, Jeff. I’m fuckin’ him up. I’m fuckin’… him…up…”
As he strides to the counter in Simply Good, a soul food restaurant in St. Petersburg, the owner, Sharrone, extends him an enthusiastic greeting:
“Champ, you got a fight tonight!”
“Yup, I’m gon’ have my last meal. They think I’m gon’ lose and every man should have his last meal before he goes up the gallows.”
“Man, stop talkin’ like that.”
“I’m talkin’ like that because they don’t know me, they don’t understand my drive. I want collard greens, rice, chitlins, red velvet cake―the whole nine.”
Back in his hotel room, he works through his last meal―all of it, every goddamn bite, every bit of everything―and writes three letters, one to each of his three daughters. He writes his will too and seals all four documents in an envelope.
“Big Jim,” he says, motioning to his cutman, Jim Waldrop, “If I don’t come out the ring tomorrow, I want my daughters to get all the money I’m fightin’ for. And you make sure they get these letters, man!”
“Good God, I don’t want these letters man!” Jim tells him. “It ain’t gon’ be that kind of party. You gon’ kick his butt!”
“Well, just in case I don’t. Because he’s gonna have to kill me.”
They make for the venue, Dru Hill playing on the car stereo. “I don’t want no ring walk music,” he says. “I don’t want no music ‘cause I’m goin’ to the gallows, and I don’t want no song while I’m being marched to my death.”
With barely thirty seconds left in the tenth and final round, he watches “Kid Diamond” Almazbek Raiymkulov teeter on the brink of capitulation. The referee administers his count. Raiymkulov turns ever so slightly, his subtle but undeniable request for mercy is granted. He is stopped on his feet instead of his back.
Those letters to his daughters never find their eyes. The will is destroyed.
“People are lucky if they get to do what they love and are good at it.”
—Phillip Roth, American Pastoral
He is still training Muay Thai fighters, terrorizing them for their good. “I want a dog,” says Campbell, the “g” delivered with glottal aggression. “Now, a lot of my guys aren’t dogs, they don’t need to do this. My guys have two parents; those parents have well-paying jobs. So I have to look for something different: respect and discipline. And I’m okay with that. I have a couple of kids considered on the spectrum, and I love being around them. I wouldn’t trade that for anything else in the world.” Though given his approach, they might not know he feels this way.
“My boxing training was old school. I had a trainer named ‘Doc’ Charley Williams, he beat Charley Burley, he fought Archie Moore three times, Arthur Johnson, he fought the Black Murderers Row. I was never babied in there―and so I don’t baby. You get guys coming into the gym, they say ‘I’m tired Coach.’ I tell ‘em ‘Tired is for rich people, water is for rich people. Quit your bitchin’ and moanin’; you don’t get somethin’ for nothin’.’”
There may be more at work here than a work ethic instilled by old-school trainers. Campbell reflects on his bloody education in Florida gyms with relish. “You got a bunch of guys in the gym on the same day knocking the hell out of each other. I watched Jeff Lacy get rocked in the gym one time by a guy who was like 2or 3 and 0. It was that kinda party any day in the gym in Tampa. You go into Fourth Street Boxing, Carlton’s on Kennedy, St. Pete Boxing, you was gonna get that work.”
“I knocked out a cruiserweight one day, with a single right hand,” Campbell laughs. “Everybody got mad at me. They got even madder when I busted this girl Brenda Vicker’s nose. I was always in some shit. I believe that if you got in the ring, you were there for whatever. So I didn’t take it easy on anybody and I didn’t ask anybody to take it easy on me: it was every man for himself and God for us all.”
There is pride in his voice, the kind of pride born of distance, elevation: you had to be the genuine article distinguish yourself alongside Roy Jones Jr., Antonio Tarver, Jeff Lacy, Randall Bailey, Winky Wright, Edner Cherry, and others. And Campbell’s membership in this fraternity is something he treasures. “You had to have the right temperament for the Florida gyms back then,” says Campbell. Florida fighters believed in themselves, and that self-belief took on an edge because for so long “you came to Florida to get wins.”
But Roy Jones changed that. Campbell remembers how Jones made Florida fighters believe they could be more than the best fighter in the state: he showed that were you good enough, tough enough, skilled enough, the world would come to recognize as much. For Campbell, Jones made that possibility explicit. “You’ll see another Roy Jones,” the Pensacola fighter once told him. “But you’ll never see another Nate Campbell.” Campbell dismissed him, maybe he thought Jones was being more kind than truthful. And what might Campbell have to achieve if Jones was right? “When did you start boxing, when you were twenty-five?” Jones asked him rhetorically. “Yeah, there’ll never be another Nate Campbell.” Perhaps Pastor Robinson wasn’t the only man to issue Campbell a mandate. You can tell it validates him, the compliment from Jones, the membership in the Floridian fighting fraternity, but as it would anyone wired with the necessary arrogance to thrive in a blood sport. It only confirms what he always knew about himself.
Where does that fire come from, the self-sustaining heat? Are fighters born or are they made? There seems to be a sort of constitutional iron amongst a few that cannot be taught. We call these men natural fighters, born fighters. And we love them for it. Others are not so predisposed to answer the harrowing call, though they are, without exception, more willing to answer it than us. These men are fighters in spite of themselves. And we love them for it.
What fighter would have the confidence to profess to be the latter? Indeed, what fighter could risk identifying themselves as such? So whether Campbell is a fighter born or bred is perhaps not a question for him. At least not so directly put. And that’s fine. Because Campbell has been answering it since he was a child.
“One time this kid slapped me and ran me home,” remembers Campbell. He’d hoped the incident would simply pass, but his Uncle Jimmy caught wind of it and told Nathaniel Sr. “I got an ass-whuppin’ he says, recalling the disappointment on his father’s face. “We don’t run from no fight,” Nathaniel Sr. told him, “And your last name is Campbell, you got a reputation to uphold.” That reputation, one for “solving problems,” Nathaniel Sr. earned at the expense of those who crossed him. It was sacrosanct―the family had a duty to protect it. It meant safety in a world looking for weakness. “You’re from the ghetto,” Campbell remembers his father telling him, “and if you run, you’ll be running the rest of your life.”
Campbell took that message to heart. Some years later, he was jumped by the kids of a family new to the neighborhood. This time he ran home not to hide but for backup. “My grandma and my auntie sent all of us. I got grown, big cousins that showed up. My dad showed up. He knew the kids’ father.” Campbell didn’t yet understand how hard a man his father was, but he came to understand that day.
“Send them kids out here,” Nathaniel Sr. calmly demanded. “They jumped my boy. We gotta straighten that. This got to happen.” And it did. “We went and squared off in the street,” says Campbell. When they jumped him, every kid in the household hit him except for one: Florence, who Campbell made a point of sparing. “I thought she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.” The families squared off in the street. Eventually, Campbell helped them move. And Florence? She’s enshrined in his memory as the first girl he ever kissed.
These stories have a charm to them because, however difficult it may be to recognize it, they are motivated by love, a family protecting its own. But there were exceptions.
When Campbell was five, Ann did a stint in the “County Farm,” as it was known in Jacksonville; she’d gotten into some trouble because of her heroin addiction. (This was before she kicked heroin cold turkey while in jail, a feat that awed the correctional officers and did much to heal her relationship with her son.) The plan was for Campbell to stay with his father while she was gone. Campbell remembers being excited about spending time with Nathaniel Sr, the sort of innocent excitement little boys feel. At the time, Ann was seeing a man named Willie, and she tasked Wille with delivering the boy to his father’s house across the street.
Campbell never made it. Willie brought Campbell back to Ann’s house. “Later that evening, he tried to take advantage of me,” says Campbell, delving into specifics that correspond with where a reader’s mind cannot help but go. “And I wasn’t goin’ out like that. So he beat me and locked me in a closet and went on with his day. He took me out, down the street to get some fish, I choked on a bone and he beat me again. But I wasn’t goin’ out like that.”
Who knows what might have come of Campbell had Willie not committed other crimes. “Willie was sellin’ heroin,” says Campbell, “he got caught sellin’ heroin to the cops. The police kicked in the door and found me in the closet. The whuppin’ they put on him… ”
So was Campbell the fighter born or bred? The question might be flawed, an either/or fallacy that excludes too many viable explanations. But Campbell knows this much: “What made me the fighter that I was was the fact that I fought off a male molester.” He was in therapy for years after, unpacking his trauma, rewiring his brain the better to heal. “You perceive yourself as weak,” his therapist told him. Is it any wonder then, that Campbell fought with an almost pathological animosity toward weakness? Weakness shown in his opponents, but more important, the weakness their very presence supposed in him? Every fight was a test of toughness for him, of heart, of the capacity to suffer, as though he were trying to silence an inner critic still somehow upset about what almost happened the day he was supposed to go to his father’s house.
If experiences like these, too numerous to include here, are the formative moments in Campbell’s etiology, so much of what followed them makes sense. Why did he, with three girls to feed, give up a stable job working in a Winn-Dixie warehouse to become a professional boxer, as perilous a career choice as a twenty-eight-year-old could make? “I just wanted to fight. I believed I could do it,” says Campbell, “and I got out the warehouse.” Why did he enter the ring against Robbie Peden in 2004 despite blacking out in sparring while training for the fight? “Fuck my brain, I had kids to feed,” he says. And sure, he did, but what if that fight would have been his last?
“If you’re going to gamble, why not gamble on yourself?” he asks, reflecting on his unlikely career, and maybe too on the life that preceded it. There are myriad reasons not to gamble on ourselves, of course, or we all would. But then, not everyone is wired to fight every day.
Nate Campbell is. Believe that shit.