AT SOME point, somebody somewhere will have carried out a study into the number one cause of anxiety dreams.
Apologies to that person for not seeking out the results of their research but it’s safe to assume that the fear of getting into a fight would be pretty high on any list. Vying for top spot would be the thought of walking out in front of an audience to play an instrument or sing for them.
The idea of actually volunteering for either would cause most people to book an appointment with a therapist.
Late on a Thursday evening, Josh Warrington is perched on the side of the ring in his gym, picking away at his guitar and quietly singing his way through the Oasis back catalogue.
This isn’t one of those cringeworthy moments where somebody decides to “treat” their unsuspecting guests to an impromptu acoustic guitar set.
The IBF featherweight belt-holder has spent the evening recounting the tale of his first ever public performance. Live. On stage at the O2 Academy in Leeds. In front of around 2,000 people.
“I’ve been walking to the ring for 13 years. There’s a bit of a moment where you walk from the dressing room down the corridor and to the arena doors. Before they open and your music comes on you have a little minute to yourself,” Warrington told BN. “Everything’s going through your head. ‘Have I done enough? Am I prepared? Am I ready? Has he done enough? Do I want it as much as he does?’ All these thoughts and emotions go through your head. You play all these scenarios out in your mind and it all happens in the space of 10 or 15 footsteps. There might be 20 or 30 seconds where you’re on your own but it feels like hours. The doors open and the TV guy or floor manager will say ‘Right, Come through.” Everything gets left.
“All of a sudden you’re pumped. Put Mike Tyson in front of me. You’ve got that much energy. Your entrance music comes on and you walk. It’s like you’re having an out of body experience.
Whatever happens then, you’re in the zone.
“That moment when I was stood at the door at the O2 Academy. I’d gone for a little nervous last minute piss – which I do on fight night by the way – and they told me I was on in two minutes. I was just thinking, ‘This feels just like walking to the ring.’ My heart started going a bit, I even started shadow boxing.”
Given Warrington’s popularity in his hometown he probably could knock out a decent number of tickets for a personal recital but he had been given a guest spot by Skylights, an indie band made up of Leeds United fans who began watching him when he beat Samir Mouniemne for the Commonwealth title and became fully fledged members of the bandwagon that has filled arenas and stadiums.
The band’s guitarist and de facto spokesman, Turnbull Smith, paid a visit as Warrington recovered from his crushing defeat to Mauricio Lara and the idea of allowing him to enter their world took root.
“They wanted me to play the chorus to a song called Enemies but I asked him for the chords for the full song just to learn it for myself,” Warrington said. “He sent them over and I picked it up. I sent him video of me playing it and he said I might as well do the full song with them. Then we started doing the house up and getting the kitchen done and I suddenly realised, ‘Shit. It’s next week.’
“I got there and I’d not rehearsed once with the band. I’d not ever even played with another pal on guitar. I went along to the sound check and the next thing we’re all plugged in, the amps are going and I’m on a stage in front of an empty auditorium practicing away.
“We started playing a bit and I lost myself a couple of times but Turn’s amp were a lot louder than mine so nobody really heard my balls ups. The buzz I had walking off stage was just like the buzz of a fight getting stopped early.
“Johnny Kebab [otherwise known as his dad and trainer, Sean O’Hagan] used to play a bit of guitar and play in a band back in the day. I was late getting into it. Over the last few years my love for music and wanting to play has grown.
“It was certainly up there with the things I’ve done outside of boxing that’s given me a rush. I don’t think there’s been anything like it to be honest.”
Nerves never disappear but experience means they do become easier to manage.
There may not have been a hardened fighter waiting for Warrington on the other side of that stage door but the alternative was still pretty daunting. A large crowd had paid their hard-earned money to see their favourite band play, they hadn’t turned up to watch some boxer play out his own fantasies. After all, even one of the band joked, “Are you gonna ask Frank Bruno to play the triangle?” when told Warrington would be joining them on their biggest night.
He may not have had to contend with the worry of getting hurt but the root causes of nervousness – embarrassment, the unknown, failure and the fear of letting yourself and everybody else down – are universal.
Warrington has become a master of not letting his thoughts overwhelm him. It wasn’t always that way.
“I would say that in my own circle I was quite confident but in front of people I didn’t really know I wasn’t. If I had to stand up and speak in front of the class at school I’d be stumbling and stuttering and going red in the face,” he remembered. “Even things like sports day. Because I’m competitive and I want to do well and not embarrass myself. Doing cross country, everybody expected me to win because I was a boxer and then I’d get nervous.
“Obviously experience, age and, certainly, boxing has helped but not all the way through my career. You know what else I’d say helped? Working as a dental technician. When I started working in the lab there were only nine or ten of us but they were all a lot older than me. I was only 17. I couldn’t even speak on the phone. They used to make me stand in the middle of the room and place orders with our suppliers. They’d tell me to calm down. Just be normal and breathe. It was character building at the time. It tests you.”
It might be controlling the nerves during that final lonely walk from the dressing room, a final set of hill sprints in the January sleet or weighing out yet another portion of broccoli.
Boxing provides plenty of character building moments and not all of them take place in front of the cameras.
In March, the boxing world watched Warrington regain his beloved IBF featherweight title by stopping Kiko Martinez seconds after having his jaw broken by the Spaniard. Reacting in the moment, he never had time to think or doubt himself.
The weeks after the fight were spent recovering with his wife, Natasha, and their twin daughters, monitoring the home improvements and picking away at his guitar. When he did make his way back to the gym it didn’t take long for it to dawn on him that getting a clean bill of health from a doctor is one thing but a boxer also has to pass the kind of tests that can’t be carried out by an X-Ray machine or a physiotherapist.
“I know what I’ve signed up for. When you’re in the dressing room and they bring in a new packet of gloves, you put them and think, ‘I could do some damage with these.’ Then you realise they have the same gloves on,” Warrington said. “You might come out with a black eye or a broken nose. You might even get your jaw broke but it doesn’t matter. You’re willing to give that. It’s the unknown, when you don’t know how things are going to go. That’s what gets you anxious.
“There were moments when I’d be in the gym not doing much, just shadowing and going through the motions really. I’d be watching Maxi Hughes preparing for his fight and Reecey Mould sparring and going at it. Especially on the odd occasion when lads from other gyms come, sparring’s always a bit more tense then.
“I’ve been in it a long time but when you’re up close and you can hear the punches and the winces from the body shots from the other side of the ropes you realise it’s pretty brutal. When you’re in there yourself you don’t really realise it. I remember thinking, ‘Fucking hell. Is my jaw gonna stand up to that?’ You can be the best defensive fighter in the world but you still get caught don’t you? You do start to question things but being able to put it to the back of your head comes from that strong mindset.”
The jaw passed the test and Warrington has been able to concentrate solely on defending his title against his mandatory challenger, Luis Alberto Lopez, this weekend.
After the Mauricio Lara saga, the thought of jumping in with another unheralded Mexican could have been reason enough for a case of clammy hands but this time Warrington isn’t taking a leap into the unknown.
A year ago, he got a first-hand look at Lopez when he knocked out Isaac Lowe in London. Diminutive, aggressive sparring partners have been hired and there has been next to no talk about future opponents. Lara was overlooked and heavy handed enough to take advantage. This time, Warrington is taking nothing for granted.
He has been through this process 33 times before. He knows the feelings he will experience as the dressing room door closes behind him but he also knows they won’t overwhelm him.
“A little bit more experience has made us a bit wiser and focused on the task at hand. It’s not one of those where I’m thinking I’ll just go in there, go forward and blast him out. We’ve got gameplans and we know his strengths and weaknesses. We’ve worked on how to defend against what he does well and attack his weaknesses. It’s still the unknown because you never know how it’s gonna go on fight night but we’ve got more options about how it could play out. The odds are more in our favour.”
Skylights spent close to a decade loading amps in and out of the back of vans and playing to uninterested crowds before their appeal began to expand around the country. Warrington spent a similar amount of time grinding away in leisure centres and walkout bouts before breaking through.
Enemies has a playtime of four minutes and 12 seconds. That’s all the time it took for famed guitar manufacturers, Gibson, to get in touch and send Warrington a free gift and for him to experience the type of thrill that musicians spend years chasing.
“I’ve peaked now. It’s downhilll from here,” Warrington laughed. “You can box a bit and straight away you play in front of a couple of thousand people and get a free guitar. I’ve not exactly put the blood, sweat and tears in have I?”
Well, maybe not in the rehearsal room or studio.