INDICATIONS beforehand were that the headliner at the raucous-as-ever First Direct Arena was going to prove a lively affair, with an IBF featherweight world title contest between two boxers boasting 100 per cent records, and two proud Yorkshiremen at that.
In the home corner the darling of the crowd, champion Josh Warrington, was looking for a second successful defence of the featherweight title he won outdoors across the city at the Elland Road home of his Leeds United favourites by way of a split decision over Barry’s Lee Selby 13 months previously and then successfully defended in December with a unanimous points win over Belfast’s Carl Frampton in Manchester.
In the away corner stood Sheffield’s confident 29-year-old Qatari-born Barry Awad, the mandatory challenger and a product of the famous Ingle gym in Wincobank, given his Kid Galahad fighting name by his mentor the late Brendan Ingle MBE.
It’s fair to say there wasn’t a deal of love lost between the pair in the lead up to fight night and the head-to-head at the previous day’s weigh-in had lasted only a matter of seconds before Warrington, with a football scarf initially tied, ultra style, around his face and with his forehead pressed tight against that of Galahad, was quickly hauled away as temperatures rose after a few pleasantries had been exchanged, the assembled onlookers roaring their approval.
Whether such shenanigans do anything to help the reputation of the sport is open to question but they certainly get people talking and boost ticket sales too – as was evidenced by the fact that there was barely a spare seat in the house come fight time.
If once the ring walks had been completed, Warrington making his usual entrance with the Leeds United anthem Marching All Together making way for the ever-welcoming I Predict a Riot, the assembled full house had expected a war they were in for a disappointment; a more apt ditty might have been the 1970s David Essex hit Hold Me Close.
The challenger, in spite of the hostility faced, made the better start and, offering hopefully a glimpse of what the bout might have in store, he clattered Warrington with a solid left.
But by the time the bell sounded to end the opener the holding had already begun and I did wonder after a couple of further sessions that if a point deduction were to come that early rather than an instruction to tidy things up, it might just draw a line in the sand and so prompt a more entertaining encounter.
If Galahad, scoring from range when afforded the chance, had succeeded in nullifying the champion’s best work in those early rounds there was something of a wake-up call in the fifth when to the delight of the approving crowd Warrington hit home with a pair of decent rights.
But there were still a few falling short as Kid, scoring with single shots, remained evasive on those occasions when the pair weren’t in clutches.
Ringsiders increasingly called for referee Phil Edwards to dock the switch-hitting challenger, who was seemingly doing much better when boxing out of a southpaw stance, a point for persistent holding – and while the Preston official did see fit to admonish Galahad on several occasions and Kid was indeed guilty as charged, the offence was made to look even worse due to Warrington’s propensity to fall in and hook his arms tight underneath the challenger’s armpits.
Whatever the fact, the oft-scrappy nature of proceedings didn’t make for particularly scintillating viewing and while it was absorbing in a perverse sort of way there was precious little for the connoisseur to warm to.
With three to go in what had admittedly been a tough one to score, I had it about level and despite his being tagged by a meaty uppercut as the pace quickened I had Warrington doing enough to nick the 10th, similarly the next too when, having come out throwing plenty and connecting with a fair few, he looked to have edged ahead.
He had certainly looked stronger towards the finish but had that late work been enough to sway the judges? Neither corner looked overly confident at the finish and a subdued air pervaded before MC Thomas Treiber announced the verdict as a split decision, judges Mike Alexander and Steve Gray seeing it 116-113 and 116-112 respectively for the champion while Howard Foster scored 115-113 for the challenger.
It was an outcome that more or less mirrored the feelings on the press benches, the majority of whom had Warrington, who was promptly hoisted onto waiting shoulders to celebrate, retaining by virtue of his better work in the later rounds.
Next up for Josh could well be a unification trip Stateside with California-based Mexican Oscar Valdez, the current WBO champion, being a name already mentioned.
The Verdict Not all were in agreement at the culmination of a scrappy affair.