Feature Highlight 2 Issue Premium

How Josh Warrington became a real people’s champion

Josh Warrington
Action Images/Reuters/Ed Sykes
'The stories will become folk tales, my dreams have become their dreams and we’ve all lived it together. That’s what it’s about.' Josh Warrington speaks to John Evans

“I CAN play I Predict a Riot too, you know,” Josh Warrington says as he picks away at his guitar. “I just struggle a bit with the chorus.” And with that, the IBF featherweight champion launches into an instantly recognisable version of the song that has become his trademark.

The Kaiser Chiefs’ anthem brings an end to an impromptu living room concert featuring a perfectly passable tour through the Oasis back catalogue. 

“For my debut I walked out to a Benny Benassi Remix of that Red Hot Chilli Peppers track Otherside but I think the CD was scratched so it started part way through,” Warrington told Boxing News. “My second fight was on one of Steve Wood’s ‘Jolly Boys’ Christmas shows and my Dad [and trainer, Sean O’Hagan] said I needed to come out to Ebeneezer Goode by The Shamen because they all used to rave to it back in the day. If I’m honest, it didn’t really get much of an ovation.

“My dad were right against me coming out to [the Leeds United football song] Marching on Together but I’d fought in Manchester the time before and used I Wanna Be Adored by the Stone Roses. That worked well and with the next fight being at the arena in Leeds, I thought Marching on Together going into I Predict a Riot would be good. I didn’t tell my Dad what I was gonna come out to. I remember looking at him when it started and saying, ‘Sorry, Dad.’

“It makes for a bit of an atmosphere doesn’t it? I don’t think I can change it now.”

Josh Warrington
Action Images/Ed Sykes

As Warrington waits for Sofiane Takoucht to enter the furnace of the First Direct Arena in Leeds next Saturday night (October 12), he may allow himself a quick glance away from the ring at the backdrop he has created. A few seconds later, the opening bars of his music will hit and for the 10th time he will enter the bedlam himself.

For most young fighters, selling tickets is a series of peaks and troughs. Seats will always be much easier to fill for their debut or a local derby but for the non-boxing fans in their circle, the jarring experience of spending a Saturday night in a leisure centre watching their friend being shown the ropes by a grizzled journeyman might not quite live up to the mysterious, glitz and glamour-filled fantasy they had of the sport. In truth, even the most ardent fan might have to steel themselves before handing over their hard earned money for another six-rounder against ‘T.B.A.’

Warrington has perfected an inexact science by remaining connected to his fanbase. Football fans who stood with him at Leeds United games before he found fame can still celebrate alongside him. Families who first bought a ticket to watch a teenage dental technician throw punches in the local town hall now get them hand delivered by a reigning world champion. 

A music fan who once shouted out requests to an unknown band in a local pub has their voice drowned out once the act moves to a bigger venue but Warrington has managed to keep his supporters feeling involved as his profile has grown.

 “I don’t see it as business or see them as just people who buy tickets off me. I see them as friends,” he says. “I’ve become very close to a lot of folk that I’ve met through boxing. Some of them have become best friends. I’ve got some folk who will go to the other side of the country for me at the drop of a hat. Not because of who I am – it’s gone beyond that – but because they know me as pals. It’s just loyalty and friendship these days and I’d do the same for them.

“It’s always nice to hear about what they’re up to. Whether it’s a younger family member doing their GCSEs or somebody older who’s started a new job or something. It’s good to hear about their lives because they know all about yours because you’re in the public eye.

Josh Warrington
Action Images/Peter Cziborra

“We’ve been going to the arena for five years now. We’re 10 fights deep into it. There are probably lads who were 13 or 14 when they started watching and now they’re 18 or 19. They used to hear stories about when their dads went to the fights and now they’re going themselves. It’s almost like the next wave. That makes me sound old but those lads are living the stories themselves now.”

This weekend’s title defence against Takoucht had the potential to be Warrington’s most difficult sell since the early days. His mandatory defence against Kid Galahad in June was touted as a farewell to the FD Arena. The next fight was the one which would sell itself. 

With the fans saving up – and in one case taking out a credit card specifically for – an overdue trip to America for a unification fight, Oscar Valdez’s decision to move up in weight and relinquish his WBO title and Leo Santa Cruz’s financial demands meant that rather than checking Trip Advisor for the best bars in New York or Las Vegas, the fans would once again be meeting up on a dark, more than likely damp, autumn evening in pubs like The St Leger in Wakefield.

With Valdez and Santa Cruz seemingly out of the picture, the featherweight landscape has changed. Getting WBC champion, Gary Russell Jnr, into the ring may prove as difficult as lassoing Haley’s Comet but Shakur Stevenson is calling for a unification fight before he even contests the vacant WBO title Valdez left behind and a certain Vasyl Lomachenko has been linked with a return to his old hunting grounds.

“The featherweight division’s constantly changing and its constantly red hot. There is some fantastic talent and there are never gonna be easy fights in the division, it’s always gonna be competitive. Stylistically, I think Santa Cruz and Valdez would have been fantastic fights for the fans but Valdez moving on clears the way for the next group of fighters on their way up.

“Shakur Stevenson seems to have been calling my name on social media. He’s an Olympian and a talent and somebody they are going to want to grow as a star in the States. There’s even been talk about Vasyl Lomachenko coming back down to feather or super-feather too. I got asked the other day if I’d take that fight and people might think I’m an idiot for saying ‘Yeah’ but why wouldn’t you want to test yourself against the best?

“In years to come we’ll be looking back at Lomachenko thinking what a star he was. Imagine if we pulled off the upset? I don’t think any man is completely unbeatable. It’d be a hell of an ask but I always back myself.”

The last time Warrington didn’t shoulder the responsibility of selling an arena was back in 2015 when he took an undercard assignment in Berlin. Hundreds of fans flew to Germany for an eight-round tick over against Nicaraguan journeyman, Edwin Tellez, and tales from the trip have etched themselves in local folklore. 

Josh Warrington

Boxing has already provided Warrington with a lifetime’s worth of memories. The aim now is to leave the sport with a complete set. A unification fight would provide him with the answer to any remaining professional questions and headlining in Las Vegas would be the ultimate busman’s holiday for him and the fans.  

When the October fight date was originally earmarked for a transatlantic jaunt, one fan made contingency plans for he and his wife to break up a pre-booked holiday to Barbados to get there. What his wife made of the idea is open to speculation.

“I think she was helping look for flights,” Warrington laughs.

“I always said I wanted to do something with my life. I don’t mean being the next Einstein and winning the Nobel Peace Prize or anything like that but we’ve ended up making memories for people. It isn’t bad stuff either. It’s all good stuff. One of my gymmate Reece Mould’s good mates has now got a baby with his missus. He met her at one of my fights. 

“People talk about the trip to Berlin and they have a twinkle in their eye because it got a bit cheeky or whatever or they might talk about the first night we went to the arena on that Wednesday night [when he beat Martin Lindsay for the British title in 2014].

“It’s special when people have their own stories about your fights. You think, ‘If I wasn’t here then that wouldn’t have happened.’

“That’s why I’m so desperate to have the big fights in the States. In years to come people will be saying, ‘Do you remember when we went to Vegas to watch Josh?” The stories will become folk tales and it’s purely down to something that I’ve loved doing that people have bought into. My dreams have become their dreams and we’ve all lived it together. That’s what it’s about.”

When the arena is empty and thousands more memories have been created, there is still one ritual of a Josh Warrington fight left to observe. It is much more private than the ticket run and famous ring walk but it has become every bit as important. As his friends and fans endure the morning after the night before, Warrington sits down to thumb through his phone and relive the night through the eyes of the people in the stands.

Josh Warrington
Action Images/Peter Cziborra

“I can’t take it in too much on fight night because even if you wanted to, subconsciously you’re constantly thinking of the fight but the next day when it’s quiet and I can eat what I want I’ll sit down with a brew and some chocolate and watch all the videos and clips,” Warrington says. “I find myself going back to old promo videos and my opponent’s interviews because I don’t really take much notice beforehand. It’s nice to see what folk have been up to during the day and watch whatever they’ve put up on their Facebook page or their snapchat or whatever. 

“I always like to know what people’s days are going to be like or if it’s a bit more intimate and there are only two or three of us talking I ask them their plan for the day. I kind of live it through them while they’re telling me. I can picture what they’ll be doing and I wonder what I’d be doing if I were with them. “Before you know it, it’s all over. Everything goes back to normal and you get on with your life. All of a sudden people start talking about the next one. It’s only when you get a quiet moment to look back when you think, ‘We’ve had some good nights, haven’t we?’”

Boxing news – Newsletter

Current Issue