IT is a rainy Sunday in the hills above Manchester and Josh Warrington finds himself neck deep in a lake. Open to anything that may expand or strengthen the mind, the afternoon has been spent practising breathing and focus techniques.
The shock of cold water can suck the life from the lungs of the most experienced swimmer so a quick dip is the ideal opportunity to put some of the methods into practice. Relax. Concentrate. Focus. The keys to survival sound simple but the urge to panic and thrash around for something to hold on to is involuntary and comes much more naturally. It is also the fastest route to the bottom.
The techniques are nothing new to the former IBF featherweight belt-holder but today is about getting back to basics. A reminder of just how important a one track mind was in creating his impregnable self-belief.
In February, a trojan horse called Mauricio Lara marched almost unnoticed through those previously impenetrable defences and knocked Warrington out, dousing his dreams of Las Vegas and worldwide recognition.
The shock was sudden and unexpected and took a long time to wear off but Warrington hasn’t panicked and grasped for excuses. He knows exactly what he needs to do to beat Lara in this weekend’s crucial rematch and get solid ground back under his feet.
“You could call it complacency but a little bit of relaxation kicked in last time, just because we were overlooking things,” Warrington told Boxing News. “Bad habits were creeping in and you don’t want them to stick but, because I’d got away with them previously, they were starting to. The camp was a good one, I had good sparring but I think the way I approached the fight, the stuff happening outside the gym, the whole [fight] week and how I was preparing myself in the bubble and then even how I approached the fight on the night. It was whole different set of scenarios. If I were to do it again…”
Back in the lake, the session draws to a close. The guide suggests swimming around to get the blood pumping back to the extremities. Warrington remains stock still for the duration.
“I didn’t want to take away from what we were here for,” he said. “I wanted to keep my focus.”
As a whole, boxing coped remarkably well with the unique issues posed by the coronavirus pandemic but it is hard to think of an individual fighter who had their career damaged as badly as Warrington.
In October 2019, a demolition of Sofiane Takoucht was a raucous, rowdy goodbye to the Leeds Arena. In two destructive rounds, Warrington rebuilt the momentum he lost during a stale title defence against Kid Galahad and set himself up for an all-out assault on the featherweight division’s biggest names.
Shelved in the prime of his life, it would be almost 500 days before Warrington reappeared but when he did, it seemed like his constant campaigning, cajoling and pleading for a big fight had paid off. Yes, he had given up his beloved IBF belt to make it happen but dates had been agreed, venue applications submitted and promotional video shoots pencilled in. Warrington would face Xu Can outdoors at Headingley Rugby Stadium in a career-defining fight. It would be officially announced after he had beaten Mauricio Lara.
Everybody involved should take some share of the responsibility for overlooking the unknown Mexican but Warrington paid the highest price. He had spent his career craving the type of fight that would push him to the very limit but expected it to happen eight weeks later. When the war he had waited his entire life for found him in a sterile, cold Wembley Arena he was mentally unprepared for it.
“Ear drum, cuts, fractured jaw, fucked shoulder, damaged elbow, ribs.” Listening to Warrington matter-of-factly reel off a list of the injuries he left the ring with that night is a chastening reminder of the world boxers inhabit. It is a world where pain is an occupational hazard and where cuts and cracked bones heal much faster than the unseen, internal damage a defeat causes.
“I’d go shopping with Tash but I’d stay in the car. You don’t want to keep bumping into people and putting them in that awkward situation where they don’t really know what to say so they feel they have to say certain things or ask certain questions,” he said.
“I went to the Derek Chisora and Joseph Parker fight. I was driving home and that’s when it really hit me. That should have been my night. The night I became the unified, [i]Ring magazine[i] champion.
“The injuries had given me a bit of a blanket. By the time I’d healed up five or six weeks had passed. You don’t feel as bad then. I’d spoken to a few people by that point and responded to a few messages and bumped into people on the street – not as many as normal because I was avoiding it – and I started thinking, ‘This isn’t too bad. I’m getting over it.’ but when I got back from there it hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t depressed but I was really affected by it. It’s not a nice feeling. I don’t want to feel like that again.
“I could either mope or do something about it. I had people talking about other greats who had been beaten and come back and I know all that but I’d got into the mindset that it wasn’t going to happen to me. I was hearing things like, ‘It’ll take pressure off you now, Josh’. Well, no it won’t. I don’t want two defeats on my record. Every time you step into the ring your career is on the line because it doesn’t matter what level you’re at, a loss will delay you for future fights. Boxing isn’t like other sports where you get a chance to come back quickly. You never know when you’re gonna get another chance. Sometimes you can fall on your feet and a loss opens doors. It can also slam a lot of doors shut on you.”
A few weeks later in the warmer environment of Warrington’s gym in Garforth, focus remains the watchword. Oblivious to the constant jokes and shop talk, Warrington and Maxi Hughes spend their Friday evening moving almost silently through a conditioning circuit.
The obligatory shadow boxing is intense. Warrington has Lara in front of him. Every block, feint and step is tailored to the Mexican’s bruising attacks. The tactics may be the result of hours of video study but, in truth, the events of the night are seared into the minds of Warrington and his father and trainer, Sean O’Hagan.
In February, Warrington could have been forgiven for walking straight past Lara had it not been for the oversized banners and posters plastered over every spare inch of the fight week hotel. Now, he can summon him whenever he needs him.
“Over the last few weeks I’ve started to see his face again. When I think deeply enough, I can see his face from February 13th and for a lot of that time it was a tired, hurt face. That’s what I want to remember.
“The instant image that comes into my mind when I hear his name is from about round six or seven. He’s got a little welt under this eye and a little welt under that eye and he’s looking at me breathing heavy. His hands are out here,” Warrington holds up a loose, wide guard. “His hair’s a bit all over the place. That’s the image I get when you say his name.”
Visualising the future has been a crucial part of Warrington’s success. Never one to live day-to-day, he has always had the big picture in mind. The thought of losing to Lara for a second time simply doesn’t make the frame. As much as Warrington likes to be prepared for every possible outcome the ramifications of a second defeat will remain a mystery.
“No. I haven’t allowed myself to think about that. Stay positive. You have to stay positive. I’m 30 years old and I’ve achieved a lot and I still believe I can be a world champion. People ask why I haven’t taken a warm-up fight. I dropped levels to fight Mauricio Lara. How far do you want me to drop? I wanted to get out at the top and I do believe that if I get a world title again I’ll be back in a position to do whatever I want.”
Warrington willed himself to the top of the featherweight division. His underrated boxing ability and power came to the fore as he moved into world class but he always knew that as his career reached a crescendo there would come a time when he would need to lean on his determination and self-belief. Maybe that is the part of the whole Lara situation that privately bothers Warrington the most. That something he spent years mastering let him down.
He now needs that resolve more than ever. It’s easy to formulate a plan when you are oblivious to the consequences of getting it wrong. Stepping back into the ring with the fighter who inflicted so much damage creates a whole new set of potential problems, including some that Warrington alone can solve. It doesn’t matter how well the tactics are working in training or how easily the weight is melting away, there is no way of controlling the first thought that enters your head when you open your eyes in the morning. Dealing with those thoughts will be a new experience for Warrington but there are few fighters better placed to pick through them and extract the positives.
“I think my mentality has been a big attribute to my game,” he said. “Being obsessed and constantly wanting to do more. I get b******kings off my dad all the time for wanting to do more but that’s what’s pushed me and made me a better, fitter, stronger fighter. I’m constantly thinking about getting my arm raised. Some people might think that’s absolute b*****ks but it just gives me a better sense of confidence when I’m thinking about winning, winning, winning.
“If you’re walking around and people keep saying, ‘You don’t look well’ you start to feel unwell don’t you? I’ve seen things where people like Derren Brown have given people this so called special medication that can cure them or whatever. They’re giving it all, ‘I feel fantastic’ when in reality all that’s in it is a bit of sugar. It’s a placebo effect. It’s like when you tell a lad in the gym that they’re looking sharp. They get a little shot of adrenaline and their arms start going. If people are telling them, ‘You’re shit, you’ll never do it.’ Then they will be shit. It’s all in the grey matter.
“I tell myself that I’m good enough and strong enough to do things because although I might have my dad in the corner and my wife, my best pals and so many other people in the crowd behind me, ultimately when you’re in the latter stages of a fight and you’re hurting and have gone beyond your second wind, what else is pushing you to keep on throwing them arms? It has to come from here,” he exclaims, pointing to his heart. “It has to be inside you. It only comes in when you’re telling yourself that you can do it and you’ve been there before.
“I stick to the positives. I did hurt him. He was tired. F**king hell, I could have been in front on the cards. Maybe he was just ahead but it was close and I was concussed from round four. I was still battling on.”
On September 4, a whip will knock on Warrington’s dressing room door to give him his five-minute warning. Warrington will find a quiet part of the dressing room, sit down and close his eyes. He will take a deep breath and focus, searching around for that feeling he couldn’t find in February. Then, with a bang of his gloves, he will plunge right back into that cold water.
“This time around I’m completely switched on,” he said. “I know how dangerous he is, I know it’s not going to be a walk in the park and he isn’t a complete step over. I have to be giving Mauricio Lara my full attention and be switched on like I was against Lee Selby, Carl Frampton and Kid Galahad. When I bring Josh Warrington at 100 per cent, you’re going to see a different fighter.”