SOMETIMES a rematch is required to right a wrong, sometimes a rematch is required to show progress, and sometimes a rematch represents the greatest risk a fighter will take in his or her career.
In the case of Leeds featherweight Josh Warrington, Saturday’s (September 4) rematch with Mexico’s Mauricio Lara falls into the latter category, coming as it does after a convincing stoppage victory for Lara in the pair’s first fight in February. It is a rematch some were surprised to hear Warrington choose to pursue. It is a rematch some would advise him not to pursue. It is a rematch, ultimately, twice as fascinating as its predecessor.
What gives Lara vs. Warrington II its intrigue has much to do with the risk factor involved and the speed with which Warrington has gone about seeking to erase the sole defeat on his pro record. It was, after all, less than seven months ago he was knocked down twice by Lara and left flat on his back, the result of his aggression for once having been used against him.
Since then, Warrington, 30-1 (7), has licked his wounds, got back on the horse, and decided the best thing for both his mind and career is to immediately reconnect with his nemesis and eradicate what previously happened between them from his memory, if not his record.
Stripped bare, he will have improved only so much in the seven months that have passed since their last meeting but will believe either that these improvements, though minor, will be enough to achieve a better result on Saturday or that the result of fight number one had more to do with him underperforming than not being good enough. Either way, Warrington will have resigned himself to finding out the answers when the first bell rings and will be only too aware that the last time he was in Lara’s presence he was delivered both questions and answers he hadn’t anticipated. Round after round, in fact, he watched helplessly as a supposedly routine fight turned into the defining moment of his 31-fight professional career and experienced, for the first time, the unusual and unnerving feeling of being only the second most aggressive and industrious fighter in a boxing ring.
Beaten at his own game, Warrington has, for better or worse, decided not to reassert his dominance against someone else in the seven months that have passed since his boxing world fell apart. A bold move, many, if given the choice, would have taken a different approach. They would have waived the option of rematching their truth-teller, the man who exposed their flaws, in favour of fighting other opponents – lesser opponents – in tune-up fights. The emphasis then would not have been on revenge but instead been focused more on restoring shattered confidence and rebuilding the illusion of superiority all young fighters hold dear when crafting an undefeated record. They would have steered away from the danger zone, this place of trauma and pain, and sought solace in the comfort zone, this place from which most never escape.
That Warrington has chosen not to walk this path says a lot about not only his self-belief but also his ambition and desire to be recognised as the best featherweight in the world. Apparently, like the rest of us, the Leeds man wants answers and he wants them now. He wants to know if the first Lara fight was a hiccup, an anomaly, or was instead simply a case of him having met his match and therefore an indication of his ceiling.
To discover the answer, and receive it as soon as possible, Warrington knows he has to do it all over again and indeed risk the answer being one he won’t necessarily like. But it is a risk, to his credit, he is willing to take and, moreover, this willingness, though it won’t be enough to win him the fight, tells us plenty about his mental fortitude.
Beyond that, one of the key differences between fight one and two could be the fight’s backdrop. Usually, it is true, moving from Wembley to Leeds would not be considered a change worthy of discussion, at least not in the context of a result being reversed. But here, with Warrington, it is a point of note for a couple of reasons. First, few fighters are as synonymous with a city as Warrington is with Leeds, this city whose football fans emerge in their droves each and every time he fights. Second, and just as important, Warrington, in going from fight one to fight two, moves from boxing in an empty arena, which he did against Lara first time around (Wembley Arena, due to a global pandemic), to boxing in front of his home fans in a packed Leeds-based rugby stadium.
Again, for some fighters, the difference between performing in an empty arena and performing in front of a packed-out audience would be minimal, perhaps inconsequential, with some even benefitting from being spared the pressure of a crowd. With Warrington, though, a boxer fuelled by a crowd’s energy, this particular shift could be huge. Historically, if he produces the punches, they, the crowd, set the tone. If he takes the punches, they help to lessen the impact. If he struggles or feels tired, they provide his second wind.
Take the crowd from Warrington and you’re left with a comedian without an audience; their smiles, their laughter; their validation. The mechanics of the performance may remain the same but all the other essential ingredients are conspicuous by their absence, making the finished product watered-down fare. He is still hitting all the right keys, all the keys of old, but no music is being played.
On Saturday, the volume is back. The noise of the crowd is back, likely with a vengeance, and one suspects the volume of Warrington’s punches will return, too. For it is this, volume, which has so far defined the former IBF titleholder’s career and made him the nine-stone force he has become. The volume of his support; the volume of punches. They tend to work in tandem, these things, and, when they do, Warrington invariably flourishes.
That said, there are of course no guarantees. The noise may be back, and welcome, but the circumstances are markedly different this time around. This time, with a greater degree of danger in front of him, and demons lurking at every turn, Warrington must somehow use the crowd to inspire him while, at the same time, not letting the noise and the bloodlust and other people’s emotions cause him to lose sight of the job he has to do. No matter the sounds produced around him, his head must remain silent, focused, still.
Because for as much as Warrington is a fighter enhanced by loud noises and animated faces, he is also the kind of fighter liable to come apart in the same kind of environment. A ticking time bomb, he regularly tiptoes the line between productivity and chaos, often switching between the two during the same round, and has perhaps never been more vulnerable to outside influences and peer pressure than he is going to be in his first fight back from a defeat.
Chances are, he will be desperate to please and prove people wrong and it is probable, too, that this desire will be matched and then some by the people he is desperate to both please and prove wrong, now in close proximity. Unlike before, he will, on Saturday, hear their shouts and sense their concern. No longer alone, he will feel every one of his own fears and anxieties multiplied to the tune of 20,000 people.
In light of this change, Warrington would be forgiven for viewing this rematch as the performance and reframing the previous one, in February, as the dress rehearsal. For what, in the end, is a Josh Warrington fight without a packed arena? Furthermore, what is a Josh Warrington fight without an arena packed full of Leeds supporters cheering his every punch?
In February, inside an empty arena, Lara prevailed, quite spectacularly. Yet, given that fight’s unique ambiance, it could be argued that beating Warrington with no crowd was not far off beating him up in a gym sparring session. The fight night experience, so often the deal-breaker for boxers when making the walk to the ring, was diluted beyond all recognition and Warrington, as a result, was not his usual self.
To make matters worse, Lara, 23-2 (16), someone whose career to date has been low-key and easy to ignore, was broken in gently. In what was only his second fight outside Mexico, he made the trip to Wembley, England to perform in an afternoon matinee rather than on opening night. He got a taste of what was to come, both in terms of Warrington and the journey, then proceeded to chew on the experience like a piece of gristle before unceremoniously spitting it out on the canvas.
Doubtless he will expect more this weekend. More volume. More pressure. More expectancy. It could be expectancy, too, which ends up being the biggest hurdle for Lara to overcome, what with the surprise element of before no longer a factor and the burden of entering the rematch as favourite in some people’s eyes a heavy one to bear. Right or wrong, there will be expectation on him to repeat his performance and maybe even better it, his underdog pass having long since expired.
In theory, this should make the visitor weaker and Warrington, now aware of what he is up against, stronger and wiser. But sometimes – often, in fact – it doesn’t necessarily work like that, especially when the first fight was as one-sided as Warrington vs. Lara. Now, it is just as likely Lara is emboldened on account of having done it once before and also that Warrington is stifled for still being able to remember how it felt. It is entirely possible as well that we will come to realise Josh Warrington’s demise in February was in the end triggered as much by his own shortcomings and Lara’s intensity as any lack of support or pre-fight respect.
First time around, Lara fought Warrington in a silent venue, so needed to focus only on the image in front of him, not the sounds around him. This time, however, things will be different. This time he will need to again tame the man in front him but also, in the process, silence the noise around him, each sound generated by 20,000 men backing one of their own, determined to prove their support can be the difference.
It will be difficult, a tougher fight than their first, but, based on Lara’s performance earlier this year, it is easy to believe he is a fighter capable of beating not only Josh Warrington but Josh Warrington and his army – even if he has to this time call upon the support of three judges to get the job done.
Topping the Leeds undercard is a world female lightweight title fight, scheduled for 10 rounds, between Ireland’s Katie Taylor and American Katie Han.
Han, 18-3-1 (3), has won eight fights in a row since losing a featherweight title shot against Ji Hye Woo in 2014. As good as this form seems, she has registered just one stoppage win in her career (a retirement stoppage) and is therefore unlikely to cause Taylor, 18-0 (6), a champion accustomed to tough fights and tougher opposition, too many problems.
Also booked for Leeds is the rescheduled welterweight 12-rounder between the ever-improving Conor Benn, 18-0 (12), and Mexican Adrian Granados,21-8-3 (15). The pair were supposed to meet in July only for a positive COVID-19 test to scupper that plan and both now get a second chance in Leeds, a city destined to fall in love with Benn’s all-action style.
Another 12-rounder sees Maxi Hughes fight Jovanni Straffon at lightweight, while Jack Bateson, Hopey Price, Brandon Stansfield, Mali Wright and Ebanie Bridges also see action.