Las Vegas Sun

February 28, 2024

Exchanging a hoop for a ring

Former Rebels basketball star Kaspars Kambala turns pro in boxing

Rebel turned boxer

Sam Morris

Former UNLV basketball player Kaspars Kambala, right, spars with Michael Hunter, an Olympic heavyweight hopeful, in preparation for his debut pro bout Friday. “He’s so big,” Hunter said of the 6-foot-9 Latvian. “If he catches somebody, they’re not going to be there.”

Click to enlarge photo

Trainer Richard Steele, right, gives some pointers to former UNLV basketball player Kaspars Kambala, center, after a sparring session. Noe Quintero looks on at left. Kambala is training for his upcoming debut as a professional boxer

If you go

  • Who: Willy Chapman vs. Carlos Barnett (heavyweight); Layla McCarter vs. Cindy Serrano (lightweight); Kaspars Kambala vs. Alvaro Morales (heavyweight); Cesar Grajeda vs. Daniel Quevedo (flyweight); Brian Battease vs. Tomas Bernal (featherweight); DeMark Scott vs. Calvin Rooks (cruiserweight)
  • When: 7 p.m. Friday
  • Where: Mardi Gras Ballroom, the Orleans
  • Tickets: $25-$50; 365-7075
  • Info: Orleans Casino, Crown Boxing

Only when his foes multiplied did Kaspars Kambala sprint through the cobblestone alleyways of Riga, Latvia.

Most often, the former UNLV basketball player pushed his peers around the hardscrabble neighborhood in which he was raised.

“Sometimes you have to defend yourself,” he says. “You don’t think about it.”

He stares at his gloves as a trainer tightens them for a sparring session with Olympic heavyweight hopeful Michael Hunter.

On Friday night, Kambala, 29, will try to employ everything trainer Richard Steele has taught him in his professional boxing debut.

He might even use a trick or two he learned on those cobblestones in Riga. Kambala, 2-0 as an amateur, will battle Alvaro Morales (1-0-2) in a four-round bout in the Mardi Gras Ballroom at the Orleans.

At Steele’s immaculate North Las Vegas gym near a sanitation company, a rock quarry, and tractor-trailer truck washes and rest stops, Kambala says he’s ready.

“If Mr. Steele says I’m ready,” he says, “that means I’m ready.”

Kambala has no idea what he will earn for his first pro effort. If you put in the time, the effort and your heart, he says, everything else will follow.

He doesn’t dream of greatness.

“Can’t cloud your vision with dreams,” Kambala says.

Hunter, at 6 feet 2 inches and 215 pounds, had never boxed someone 7 inches taller and 55 pounds heavier before sparring with Kambala last week.

He crouches for effect, staying out of Kambala’s exceptional reach. Hunter picks his spots wisely, tattooing Kambala with assorted hooks, jabs and uppercuts.

“Don’t rush in,” Steele tells Kambala. “Walk in.”

Both fighters are exhausted after the four-round workout.

Hunter likes how Kambala listens and learns quickly. He just needs to relax, Hunter says, and not try to put everything into every punch he throws. Combinations of four or five punches from Kambala will do enough damage.

“He’s so big,” Hunter says. “If he catches somebody, they’re not going to be there.”

To the untrained eye, Kambala appears flat-footed, lumbering and mechanical, and some of his punches resemble paw swipes by a bear.

But Steele, the expert, likes what he sees in Kambala, especially his protege’s meanness, developed from years of low-post jousting at UNLV and on professional courts in Europe.

You could do something special, Steele told Kambala.

“He’s the one,” Steele says. “In six months, they will not be able to stand in front of this guy. He’ll be something.”

Morales, 24, is jiggly around the middle. The Las Vegas resident stands about 6 feet, but he averaged 271 pounds in his first three fights. He wears a loose shirt to cover his flab as decisions are announced. He’s not Butterbean, but he could be kin.

Don’t recognize Nicolay Valuev, Matt Skelton, Calvin Brock or Samuel Peter either?

Each is a top-five heavyweight contender in one of the federations. This doesn’t come close to the golden era for the big boys, so maybe Kambala can carve a niche.

“It’s not like it used to be years ago,” he says. “But who am I to say there are no fighters out there? I’m just starting.”

Kambala’s father, Guntars, steeled him at a young age after a pipsqueak guard ripped a basketball from his hands. Guntars, a contractor, told him to never let that happen again.

From then on, Kaspars clamped down on the ball with his elbows out.

He sports a colorful tattoo of the name of his brother, Kristars who lost a battle with testicular cancer two years ago on his right forearm.

A “D” is etched on his left calf, for DeAndre the boy, now 15, he and his wife, Jessica, adopted while he was playing for the Rebels and an “A” on his right calf is a tribute to their 3-year-old son, Angelo.

Pro ball in Europe has been very good to Kambala.

His family lives in a 6,400-square-foot Henderson home with seven bedrooms and five bathrooms.

He peels away from Steele’s gym in a black, late-model Mercedes-Benz G500, heading for a meeting with the boxing commission.

The start of his new career is close, but Jessica won’t go to the Orleans. Kaspars took her to see fights at the Hard Rock a few weeks ago.

“She didn’t like it,” he says, rolling his eyes. “She doesn’t want to see me get hurt.”

Kaspars Kambala File

  • Age: 29
  • Height: 6-foot-9
  • Weight: 270 pounds
  • Hometown: Riga, Latvia
  • Residence: Henderson
  • Family: Parents Elita and Guntars; wife Jessica; sons DeAndre, 15, and Angelo, 3.
  • Basketball: Scored 98 points in a youth league game in Riga ... a Rebel from 1998 to 2001; his 921 rebounds are fourth on UNLV’s career list ... his .645 touch from the field in 1998-99 is fourth on the school’s single-season shooting list ... led the team in scoring in 1999-2000 (18.5 average) and 2000-01 (16.9) ... member of the Latvian national team in EuroBasket tournaments in 2001 (finished eighth) and 2003 (finished 13th) ... after UNLV, played for Efes Pilsen, Real Madrid, UNICS Kazan and Fenerbahce in Europe ... did not want to talk about being suspended by the International Basketball Federation for 24 months after testing positive for metabolites of cocaine in December 2006.
  • Boxing: Remembers watching Larry Holmes as a kid. “I liked how he moved,” Kambala says, “how he got that jab in and out.” He also liked Ernie Shavers. “And Ali, obviously, was the best,” Kambala says. He is devoting his attention to boxing and has no plans to return to basketball.

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