George Kambosos Jr., the Australian lightweight closing in on boxing stardom

George Kambosos Jr. celebrates at the end of his lightweight bout with Rodynie Rafol during the Footy Show Fight Night at Allphones Arena on Jan. 31, 2015, in Sydney. Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

George Kambosos Jr. can still taste the cigarette smoke swirling around the air of the Croatian Club in Punchbowl, Sydney, Australia.

The music of the poker machines and smell of the bistro on fight night are also ever-present, though a long way from where he finds himself today.

Kambosos is back home in Sydney amid the coronavirus pandemic, but it's only a short-term stop on a journey that has taken him from that humble Punchbowl auditorium to Las Vegas' MGM Grand and New York City's famed Madison Square Garden as part of an 18-0 professional run.

"It just as raw as it gets," Kambosos told ESPN. "A local club where you walk in and you smell the smoke of cigarettes and you've got the punters on the pokie machines; the families there at the bistro; and then you've got us there, a young 18-year-old with so much belief in himself and can one day see the vision of himself getting to the mega arenas and fighting for a world title and becoming a world champion.

"You walk in, all your friends are there, and your family who've supported you along the way, and they've come to watch you have your pro debut. It was exciting, it was something new, but it was just so raw; stepping out, taking the shirt off, no headgear, and it was the start of a very long and hard journey to get to where we are today."

One win short of a potential world title shot against Vasiliy Lomachenko, the No. 1-rated pound-for-pound boxer on the planet no less, is where Kambosos finds himself.

A win over Welshman Lee Selby on Oct. 3 in Cardiff this year could secure such a showdown, one that Top Rank promoter Bob Arum says he would consider bringing Down Under. But more on that later.

Kambosos' journey to near boxing stardom is both atypical and typical of any Australian pugilist.

Like many others, his first taste of fisticuffs was borne out of a desire to stay fit during his junior rugby league offseason. Faced with the option of the fresh sea air and spray of "nippers" -- junior surf lifesavers for the uninitiated -- or the sweat and heat of an indoor boxing gym, it didn't take long for Kambosos to discover he'd made the right call.

"My old man suggested doing nippers down at the beach and I said you're never going to see this big 60kg kid running down the beach, chasing flags," Kambosos says.

"So he said, 'Look, you like the "Rocky" films, why don't we head down to the local [Police Citizens Youth Club].' And as soon as I walked up those stairs to that smelly boxing gym and these other young kids were hitting the boxing bags -- they were looking fit, rough and tough -- and for some reason I fell in love with the sport."

Twelve months later, Kambosos said he had dropped between 12 and 14 kilograms and had taken to the sport so well his trainer recommended a maiden amateur bout. The training had helped his rugby league too, the weight loss resulting in a move to the hooker position, but it wasn't long before the two sports could no longer coexist and a choice had to be made.

"I had to put my whole heart into one [sport] and my heart was with boxing," Kambosos said. "I fell in love with that one-on-one aspect where you fight another man; you have a team and some great people behind you, but at the end of the day it's you that ultimately changes your destiny and can change your fight.

"And you look back now, almost 100 amateur fights and now 18-0 [professionally], and on the cusp of fighting for a world title, it's been a crazy journey, a massive ride. And I love looking back at those early days because they're the days who made me who I am today."

Having turned pro midway through 2013, Kambosos reeled off his first three victories at the Croatian Club. Then came opportunities in Newcastle, Brisbane and at Sydney's Allphones Arena, which hosted the basketball competition during the 2000 Olympics, a first international trip to New Zealand and then to Melbourne.

But it was the opportunity to spar with Manny Pacquiao that really helped put Kambosos on the map. Those moments in the ring with Pacquiao led to a spot on the former world champion's undercard for his fight with Lucas Matthysse in Kuala Lumpur.

A TKO victory over Krai Setthaphon that day earned Kambosos the WBA Oceania and IBA Pan Pacific lightweight titles, and confirmed his decision to head offshore and chase fights against some of the biggest names of his division.

While some Australian fighters have stayed at home, polishing their records against lesser opposition, Kambosos said it was always his plan to head overseas and really prove himself. Almost four years later, it's a decision he doesn't regret.

"We said we're not going to cheat ourselves, we're not going to bring guys here and wipe them out, build an audience in Australia and make them think that we're something that we're not," he said. "We wanted to test ourselves. I've always been the same throughout my whole career. I've always wanted to see where I am and put the belief in myself.

"So once we got to 10-0, we headed to Los Angeles, started sparring and moving around a lot of guys. They eventually brought in -- once I was taking out guys who weren't really at my level -- some solid hitters, some guys that were in the top three in the world, some former world champions, to be really tested, to see what this kid's about. And we exceeded expectations. A lot of the coaches there in the U.S. couldn't believe this talent, pretty much a hidden gem.

"And we never looked back since we went over to the U.S. I've had my last eight camps over there, my team's in Miami and my facility's in Miami. And that's the difference between myself and these other fighters that are here [in Australia]. We don't sit down and wait and chase a record and make our fans believe we're something that we're not. We've gone out there and chased the best and it's showing in our fights and where we're at right now."

While Kambosos' decision to head overseas was the best move for his boxing career, it did little to raise his profile in a sport that can struggle for coverage in Australia.

Sure, Jeff Horn's victory over Pacquiao in Brisbane created headlines, and interest was building for a fight between the Queenslander and Tim Tszyu -- a fight that was confirmed and then postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic -- but the spotlight has otherwise been recently reserved for exhibition fights or charity matches involving current and former footballers -- see Paul Gallen vs. Barry Hall.

Kambosos said the lack of promotion and recognition has been a frustration early on, but once people started taking notice stateside, the lack of a profile back home in Australia suddenly didn't seem to be such an issue.

"Not really now because we know what we're doing and the world is talking," Kambosos said of the lack of attention in Australia. "Especially in America where it really matters, they know who Kambosos is, even in Britain and Europe. The major promoters; I've sat there with Bob Arum; I've video-called with Eddie Hearn; I've had interviews and meetings with both these guys and that's where it matters.

"The media really didn't get behind me [at the start] and they were giving the footy players and guys who were on their way out the exposure, which was a little bit frustrating at times. But things change and when you keep focusing on that dream, that goal, the public start to realize who the top dog in Australia is, who the guy who's been out there making serious noise and who's on the cusp of a world title against not just anyone, on the cusp of fighting one of the all-time pound-for-pound greats in Lomachenko."

After cutting his teeth in front of no more than 200 fans in western Sydney, Kambosos' past three fights have taken him from Las Vegas to Athens and then New York City. In December, inside Madison Square Garden, a venue that has hosted some of boxing's biggest stars, Kambosos took out former IBF lightweight world champion Mickey Bey.

"It was a very good fight," Kambosos said. "The guy is a class act, he's a former world champion and one of [Floyd] Mayweather's world champions; he was with Floyd for 15 years and was trained by Floyd Mayweather Sr.

"Just walking out to Madison Square Garden, I had goosebumps, and knowing that we're here now and knowing that we've got to take this guy out, which we did, it was a good fight. I truly believe that it was a unanimous decision and two judges got it correct.

"But you've got to expect that when you're fighting in these former world champion's hometowns, you've got to take them out."

Kambosos' next assignment is to take out Selby in his own Cardiff backyard later this year. Defeat the Welshman and a megafight with Lomachenko could potentially be in the offing for Kambosos, so long as the undefeated Ukrainian beats Teofimo Lopez in a lightweight unification bout that is tentatively planned for September.

Having watched Horn and Pacquiao trade blows for 12 memorable rounds in front of 45,000 fans beneath the Brisbane sun, Kambosos said a showdown with Lomachenko would eclipse that spectacle, particularly if it was done under the roof at Melbourne's Marvel Stadium.

"This fight is bigger than Horn vs. Pacquiao; I know it did around 45,000 people, but if you take this fight to Marvel Stadium, with the Australian sporting fans, and there's such a massive Greek population in Melbourne -- I'm a very proud Greek Australian -- so that is huge, against the pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter, the man who'll have four world titles if he takes out Lopez in a unified title fight, that does 60,000.

"I know Arum is very very interested, he's stated it a couple of times, it's there on a platter. But we are fully focused on Lee Selby, we know what he's about. But I truly believe that I am going to knock him out and take the win in impressive fashion. I'm meant to shock the world, I truly believe that I can beat Lomachenko, and do it here in Australia."

Should that day come, the cigarettes, schnitzels and poker machines of the Croatian Club in Punchbowl will be nowhere to be seen. But they won't be forgotten either.

"Stepping in there for the pro debut, it's where it all began: that local, humble Croatian Club. I wouldn't want it any other way," Kambosos said. "Seeing myself come from those small arenas, small local shows, to getting all the way to Madison Square Garden, and to be ready for that world title fight eventually here in Australia, possibly in front of 60,000 people, it would be massive.

"And I don't take it for granted because I know at the end of the day if I stuff it up or I don't put in that hard work, like I always do, then I'm going to end up back to those days in those lower venues."