ONLY a couple of flights of stairs and a short walk separate the Elland Road Banqueting Suite, where Josh Warrington boxed an early-career four-rounder, and the centre spot of the famous old stadium where he was eventually crowned world champion. But the journey was a precarious, nine-year-long tightrope walk for the 28-year-old Yorkshireman.
The 12-month anniversary of his coronation as IBF featherweight king passed less than a month ago and now Warrington finds himself about to navigate the most difficult and dangerous part of any high-wire act. The rope sags and sways and, suddenly, the finishing point is closer than the start. At the moment at which concentration and focus need to be at their highest, it is only natural that the welcome sight of the target drawing closer dominates thoughts rather than the next important step.
Get past Kid Galahad this weekend and Warrington’s dream of finishing his career with a string of transatlantic trips and unification fights will loom large. A stumble would be fatal to those hopes.
The recent sight of Samir Mouneimne moving around with Warrington at a Doncaster gym provided a stark reminder of the fine margins that separate success and failure. Back in 2013 and with Olympic hero Luke Campbell spearheading Hull’s boxing revival, Warrington faced off with Mouneimne, a talented local fighter with a win over Selby on his record.
“I remember sitting at the press conference up in Hull. Eddie Hearn is going along the top table. He introduces Luke Campbell, the Olympic gold medallist and a future world champion and then gets to Samir, ‘He’s a real talent and a potential star for the city of Hull’ and gave him a big build-up. Then he said something like: ‘On the other side of the table we have Josh Warrington, the English champion from Leeds’ and moved on,” Warrington told BN.
Warrington left the away dressing room and took his first nervous step off the platform that night knowing that a televised loss would see him return to lower-level fights at Leeds Town Hall. He won and instead took up his own Vegas style residency in the hostile amphitheatre of the First Direct Arena. Mouneimne is still fighting, still capable, and still searching for another opportunity, but more than five years after their meeting, he is now giving Warrington a few rounds of work while he prepares for another world title fight.
“I’ve seen lots of folk around me in the boxing game who’ve fallen off that tightrope. I’ve seen talented fighters who were destined for great things. They were supposed to go on to win European and world titles after the British, but they haven’t quite done so because they’ve suffered a loss along the way and then the opportunity to come back hasn’t quite gone the way that they wanted it to,” Warrington said. “Boxing does that. You have to understand that and realise that nothing is a given in this sport. You have to train like a devil and you have to stay focused.
“I was saying to my wife, Tasha, the other day that this could potentially be the last time I fight at the Arena. That isn’t because I’m trying to sell the show or anything, but if things go the way that I think they will and I get my own way about a big fight over in the States, if you do the business over there you tend to stay over there and finish your career there. If you do come back, you don’t go back to the Arena because you’ve outgrown it.
“I said to Tasha that in a way I hope it is my last fight there. I’d be gutted because it’s been my home and I’ve made so many memories there and have built so much history, but in a funny way I want it to be my last one because if I’m ever back there it’ll mean that I’m rebuilding. I don’t want to have to rebuild. I’m in this position now and I want to push on and be in constant big fights. I want constant pay-per-view events and big build-ups. I want the big pay days. When you’re at that point, you’re at the stage where everything is on your terms.”
“My career was riding on the Selby fight. I would have gone down as the nearly man and I think a lot of the belief and faith around me might have just gone away. The fire would have died down.”Josh Warrington
On Saturday (June 15) – maybe for the first time – Warrington will walk to the ring as a widely respected champion. He has been cast as the nobody, the crude trier, the protected ticket-seller and the underdog, knowing all the time that a single misstep could kill his momentum. In the lead-up to his world title final eliminator against Dennis Ceylan in 2017, Warrington allowed his focus to drift from the narrow rope he was treading and caught a glimpse of the wider picture. He suddenly became aware of the risky position he occupied and the massive fall he faced should he lose. His targets have changed, but this time his focus hasn’t wavered.
“It’s a similar situation to the fight with Ceylan but there isn’t the same tension,” Warrington said. “I think there was a lot more riding on that fight because of the obsession I had with becoming a world champion and the obsession of fighting and beating Lee Selby. To be honest, I think the majority of my career was riding on that fight. I would have gone down as the nearly man and I think a lot of the belief and faith around me might have just gone away. The fire would have died down. This fight is similar in that if I get through it, doors will unlock.
“I do little things like keeping the world title belt in its case and not looking at it and forgetting that I’m the world champion. I don’t go around telling people that I’m the champion. I’ve gone about setting new goals of where I want to get to and not dwelling and thinking: ‘I’ve done it. I’m the champion. Look what I’ve achieved. I can put my feet up now.’ It’s more a case of looking forward. I’m not the unified champion yet. I don’t have the WBA belt yet. I don’t have the WBO belt or the WBC belt. I’ve also got a gobs***e of an opponent in front of me. Take all of those factors in and the fire burns, believe me.”
Galahad has consistently claimed that the deciding factor in the fight will be his desire. Given his profile, a dark episode with performance-enhancing drugs, and polarising style of fighting, Galahad will be fully aware that defeat could plunge him into relative obscurity.
Lee Selby had no intention of engaging in a toe-to-toe dogfight when he entered the Elland Road bear pit and Carl Frampton hadn’t planned on fighting a desperate battle from the opening round in December, but Warrington managed to impose himself on them both almost instantly. Galahad may not have the pedigree of Selby or Frampton but the fear of losing might just make him the most difficult of the trio to pin down. His desire might manifest itself as discipline. The Sheffield man will be walking a much finer line than those two more established names.
Galahad’s assertion is that whilst he has staked everything on grasping this opportunity, a healthy bank balance, a happy, settled family life and the knowledge that he has established himself as a world-class fighter provide Warrington with something of a safety net and make the consequences of a defeat far less severe for him than for Galahad. To those outside of Warrington’s inner circle, it may seem a reasonable conclusion to draw, but successfully negotiating a tightrope is entirely dependent on balance. Galahad may think that success has blunted Warrington’s edge but a financially secure family and the respect of boxing fans who live outside of the LS postcode have given him the stability he spent years fighting for.
“Regardless of what kind of position you’re in, if you have that fire and desire instilled in you you’re never satisfied,” Warrington said. “I’m lucky. I’m in a very, very fortunate position. He’s right, I can provide for my missus and kids but that also adds to the fire. I don’t want to stop there. I can make a difference not only to my immediate family and my friends, but other family too. I don’t know what he’s getting at to be honest. I can’t even call it an insult. I just think it’s a really poor way to try and get under my skin.
“We had to do some media together the other day and his demeanour had definitely changed. He got asked a question: ‘Why do you beat Josh Warrington?’ and he just kept saying that he wants it more and that he’s been working for 16 years for this one single day. For me to hear that was ridiculous. Does he think that when you win a world title you just get satisfied? If that was the case, I should have got chinned by Carl Frampton shouldn’t I? It doesn’t work like that for me. He’s got to come and rip this title away from me and I don’t think he wants it as badly as he’s kidding himself.”
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WARRINGTON sat down to watch the recent carnage at Madison Square Garden as a fan, but Andy Ruiz Jnr and Anthony Joshua ended up providing him with a graphic and timely example of exactly what can happen when that crucial next step is taken for granted. Unification fights would be the type of events that secure Warrington’s legacy in the sport and also ensure that his twin daughters will be able to live their own lives without financial worries. That he needs the other notable champions in his division to carry on winning in order to maximise the interest and revenue in any future fights allowed him a better insight than most into exactly how Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury must have felt as they sat on their sofas helplessly watching Ruiz carry out the heist of the century.
“I remember watching Lee Selby fight at the Copper Box Arena before our fight. I know it’s on a smaller scale but while I was watching him, every single time he looked like he was under a bit of pressure I was starting to sweat,” Warrington recalled. “I was thinking that if he got chinned it was all over. The fight at Elland Road was done with. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in.”
If the big fights and big pay days do fall by the wayside, Warrington’s father and trainer, Sean O’Hagan, has another plan in mind. O’Hagan joked in a recent interview that unless his son’s future purses secure him the camper van of his dreams he might just “throw him in a Prizefighter” for a few extra quid as his career draws to an end.
“F***’s sake, that’s him all over,” Warrington laughed. “I did used to say that because I never got the chance to win the British title outright I’d do it on my way back down when I’m 33 or 34. I’ll challenge for the British again against a young whippersnapper and create a bit of history. That idea has bitten the dust to be honest.”