THERE are 303 – yes, three hundred and three – unopened and unread text messages on Josh Kelly’s phone. He shows me. Proves it. It’s excessive, I think, the lengths to which he’ll go to ignore human contact, but, for Kelly, the number 303 is indicative of how he copes rather than a mark of rudeness. “I put everyone on mute,” he explains. “Only Adam [Booth, coach], my fiancée and my dad are left unmuted. But sometimes I’ll mute my fiancée and my dad as well.”
Looks can be deceiving. Josh Kelly, known as “Pretty Boy”, pretty enough to appear in a JD Sports advert, doesn’t care for interviews, doesn’t want to become a celebrity, and doesn’t like having to deal with anybody outside the confines of his gym or family home. Perceived perks of a flourishing boxing career are, in Kelly’s complicated mind, riddled only with pitfalls. It’s why he intends to avoid them altogether: the fame, the social media posts, the outside world.
“He’s got the look, fighting style and aspirations of an attention-seeker but he doesn’t want any attention,” says Booth. “After a fight, he just wants to go and see his dad and get home as soon as possible.”
“I love it in the gym, and love showing off in the ring, but when it comes to interviews and all the stuff outside the ring, I prefer to keep myself quiet,” Kelly adds. “The good thing about me is I seem to be building a profile and getting a lot of hype just because of my boxing. That’s what I’m happy about.”
If it isn’t clear already, here goes: the toughest opponent Josh Kelly will face in the formative stages of his professional career is Josh Kelly. It won’t be a durable Mexican or a Frenchman on skates. It might not even be a domestic champion. What, instead, threatens to scupper the Sunderland man’s progress is the ease with which he is able to transition from warrior to worrier and the extent to which he overthinks every aspect of an intricate art he is capable of making look ever so simple.
Unbeknown to most, you see, the Pretty Boy with the world at his feet is, in actual fact, an unsure and sensitive soul who’d rather go about his work unnoticed, someone who, in spite of his cocksure ring demeanour, stresses over tiny details and studies each opponent as if they have been specifically designed to bring about his downfall.
Which is why his biggest fight is this: Josh Kelly vs. Josh Kelly. And it starts, as they all do, with the hype.
“He’s the most gifted and complete fighter I’ve ever started training,” says Adam Booth. “And that shocked me.”
Kelly, too, by all accounts. “Adam said something like that in an interview and I had to rewind it,” he says. “I thought, no way, he’s just saying that. He doesn’t really mean it. I try not to think about it too much.”
I sense he’s uncomfortable, on the ropes, fidgeting. So I hit him with more.
“In the ring he’s already more emotionally composed than [David] Haye ever was,” says Booth. “David was fine if he thought he could hurt someone. But if he thought he couldn’t hurt them, or they had something about them, he would get anxious. Josh doesn’t seem to have that.”
Kelly is now trapped. His low-key alter-ego wants to take a knee, hide.
“I told Eddie Hearn [promoter] I believe Josh Kelly is worth more, financially, as a pay-per-view fighter than David Haye,” adds Booth.
Kelly, rising from the canvas in a daze, shakes his head. He repeats a lesson he learnt from his coach. “If you feel a boost from the good comments,” he says, “you’ll be hurt by the bad comments. So I just ignore them all.” Easier said than done. Such is the rate of Kelly’s progress, and such is his panache, some have started hyping him in a way that makes the 23-year-old not only blush but struggle to breathe.
“It’s mad,” he says, when comparisons to Vasyl Lomachenko are brought up. “Although I try to copy elements of his style, I’m nowhere near that level. There’s only one Lomachenko and he has proven it time and time again.”
Kelly, 5-0 (4), admits he’s a hybrid, though, a pastiche prizefighter, and concedes, therefore, his style will bring to mind those of others.
“I loved watching Roy Jones,” he says. “When I won the ABAs, people said, ‘You box like Roy Jones.’ That was the best feeling because I walked to the ring and thought I was Roy Jones. I used to try and walk like him, move like him and box like him.
“I also watched Sugar Ray [Leonard] and Wilfred Benitez. I wasn’t interested in the new school. Everyone focuses on [Floyd] Mayweather but I think the old school is the best school.”
The obsession started at the age of seven when a punch bag was hung up in the wash house of his family home. Used by Kelly every day, he’d practice the jab for hours, at his father’s behest, and then do the same with his right cross.
“I remember I got a top and bottom ball and was out there for three hours one night, when I was 10 or 11, trying to work out how to do it,” he says. “It was the same with skipping. I couldn’t skip. I was out there for hours, sweating.
“I always used to get ill because I’d be out in the cold so much.”
At 14, Kelly would return home from school, watch fights on YouTube for hours on end, and then, depending on who he’d been studying, show up at the boxing gym doing his best Ricky Hatton, Pernell Whittaker, Gerald McClellan or Edwin Valero impression. One day he’d be ripping hooks to the body, the next he’d be a southpaw who couldn’t stand still. “I was a bit of a puzzle,” he says. “The coaches didn’t know what to do with me.”
When Kelly later describes himself as “bouncy bouncy” he refers not only to his fighting style but his state of mind. He initially wanted to be a footballer, for example, and had spells with Sunderland and Hartlepool, before deciding boxing was the sport for him. Yet, even then, he threatened to throw it all away before the 2016 Olympic Games when a crisis of confidence almost resulted in him giving up the sport completely. He took some time off, spoke to his dad, was delivered the no regrets speech, and eventually made it to Brazil with little hope of medalling. “I wasn’t on it,” he says.
Kelly’s a pro now. He can leave all that behind. His smooth, fluid style, better suited to the paid ranks, is one he is making his own, while his mind, a more complex beast, is being harnessed by his coach, with whom he currently lives.
“In the ring he seems to be totally dismissive of what other people can do to him, and lets them have a go just to prove they can’t hurt him,” says Booth. “Yet he’s so sensitive outside the ring. If he comes in and leaves his trainers on the floor and they’re a bit muddy and mud goes on a tile, I might just say, ‘Can you take your trainers outside and wipe that bit of mud off, Josh?’ He’ll do it but he’ll be worried that I think badly of him for making a mess. I really like that side of him.”
Kelly won’t deny it. An open book, one that shouldn’t be judged by its cover, he shuns the temptation to hide behind bravado.
“From the outside, you look at me and think I’m a show off or a certain kind of character,” he says. “I’ve got a split personality in the ring. When I’m warming up, I get this cocky thing about us. But when I go home, I’m just chilled. I’m the deepest thinker in the world.
“It can be a good thing or a bad thing. You can be good at analysing boxers and figuring them out quickly, which is good, but you can overthink things.
“Luckily, Adam knows me better than I know myself. Within a month he knew everything. He knew what I was thinking.”
Before his last fight, a sixth round stoppage of Jean Michel Hamilcaro, Kelly became unhealthily obsessed with his opponent’s jab and watched it on video ad nauseam alongside his fiancée, interrupting her dinner, as well as her favourite television programme, in the process.
“Can he beat me?” he asked her, much to her surprise. “He can’t, can he?”
He positioned his laptop closer to her. “Watch that jab.”
He hit rewind on the video and together they watched the journeyman throw his jab, over and over again.
“Look at that jab. That’s the slowest jab I’ve ever seen.”
“Josh,” his fiancée said, “just eat your dinner.”
“He’s going to get torched off that jab. If he throws that jab, I swear to God…”
Booth explains, “He’s a worrier who becomes a warrior. A worrying warrior. He is fascinating.”
Josh Kelly is certainly different. He’s different to all the boxers he tries to emulate and different to anyone Adam Booth has previously coached.
“His weird thing is his sensitivity, but that’s it,” says Booth. “He’s not a narcissist like some. I don’t think his challenges are in a fighting sense. I think it’s more to do with how well-suited his character is to this sport and this business.”
Josh Kelly finally started getting the better of Josh Kelly last year. He’d been training hard for 11 weeks, hit a wall, found himself confiding in Ryan Burnett, Booth’s world bantamweight champion, and again started questioning whether the sport was right for him. It was then Booth sat him down and helped Josh Kelly conquer the only opponent capable of derailing him.
“You need to understand something,” Booth told the worrier. “Because you have this ability to have such a high IQ in what you do [boxing], your brain is working at a level the average person can’t match. The normal brain function is this: eat dinner, watch a bit of telly, relax, brush my teeth, go to bed. But yours is different, and you need time to recover so it can act like that again.
“The way that will manifest is you will start to doubt everything because you’ll be looking for the reason in everything. When you feel like that, do one thing: don’t try and understand or think about anything. Just batten down the hatches, slow yourself down and watch some TV. Don’t question anything, because in that state you won’t find answers. Eventually, you’ll be back where you want to be.”
If Kelly was Simba, Booth was Timon and Pumbaa. Nodding along, taking it all in, the welterweight now understood it was okay to be the way he is. Hakuna Matata.
“You can’t be normal to box,” he says. “That’s why only certain people become world champions. You get normal people in the sport and when they get hit they react like a normal person would. But when I get hit I go back and want them to hit me again and give me some more. It’s sick.”
Normal people, Kelly has come to realise, walk dogs. “I’m out sometimes,” he says, “and see a man walking a dog and I think, I wonder if he watches boxing? I bet he doesn’t even know about boxing. He’s probably into golf or something. Then I think, is boxing too important to me? People go into fights so nervous and anxious, but what does it all mean really? Why should I worry?”
Although there are zero defeats on Josh Kelly’s pro record, there are 303 unread text messages on his phone and many more thoughts in his head.