Boxing: Warrington aiming to turn his world-title dream into reality at Elland Road

IBF featherweight champion Lee Selby squares up to Leeds' Josh Warrington. PIC: Steve Riding
IBF featherweight champion Lee Selby squares up to Leeds' Josh Warrington. PIC: Steve Riding
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Josh Warrington was on the amateur circuit when Ricky Hatton dethroned Kostya Tszyu in the early hours of a Sunday morning in 2005. Tszyu, to the amazement of everyone, retired on his stool after 11 rounds, worn out by Hatton’s punching and an overwhelming crowd.

Warrington recently crossed paths with Billy Graham, Hatton’s former trainer, and asked him to reminisce about that night in Manchester. On Saturday, against Lee Selby, Warrington will be in the same boat: fighting for a first world title with 20,000 in his corner. His question to Graham was a simple one. How did Hatton handle the occasion?

IBF featherweight champion, Lee Selby. PIC: Steve Riding

IBF featherweight champion, Lee Selby. PIC: Steve Riding

“When Ricky Hatton boxed Kostya Tszyu he was a massive underdog,” Warrington said. “Nobody was giving him more than four rounds. Tszyu was a massive favourite worldwide, a great champion in his day.

“Ricky had a massive fanbase behind him and probably a lot of pressure. He managed to do the business and it was good to listen to Billy’s experience of it. He talked about how they dealt with the pressure and the atmosphere, how they approached their camp and how they believed on the night. It was nice to hear that.”

Selby, despite multiple IBF title defences, is not in Tszyu’s class and the biggest similarity between Warrington and Hatton at this point is their ability to sell tickets. All the same, the stakes are high and Warrington, who regularly attracted attendances of 10,000 at Leeds’ First Direct Arena, has tapped into his home town in a big way for Saturday’s bout.

Elland Road, where Warrington has a Leeds United season ticket, was confirmed as the venue in January. Lucas Radebe is flying in from South African to join the 27-year-old on his ringwalk. Kaiser Chiefs, whose song ‘I Predict a Riot’ Warrington walks out to, will play a set beforehand. Compared to Warrington’s backing, Selby’s will be a cadre.

The Lee Selby, Josh Warrington pre-fight press conference at Elland Road. PIC: Steve Riding

The Lee Selby, Josh Warrington pre-fight press conference at Elland Road. PIC: Steve Riding

“If I could write down the perfect scenario of fighting for the world title I’d have pictured it like this,” Warrington said.

The presumption is that the frenetic noise will intimidate Selby, a hard and slick featherweight who grew up in the Welsh town of Barry. There is, nonetheless, a risk that the hype surrounding the biggest fight staged by the city of Leeds in years distracts Warrington from the biggest fight of his career.

“A few people have spoken to me about that, about not getting carried away with the occasion, but I’ve been fighting at the Arena for many years now, having the pressure of being the main event and with people expecting me to go in there and win. I’ve learned from experience how to deal with that pressure and how to deal with the crowd. And in terms of Elland Road, I’ve been going down there since I was a kid. Ever since the fight was mentioned, I’ve pictured myself there and pictured it in my mind many, many times. I feel like I’ve been there already.”

Selby has held the IBF’s version of the world title since 2015. The Welshman was unimpressed by Warrington’s chats with Graham and, as a well-travelled boxer, happy to fight on the road again. Warrington secured the home dressing room at Elland Road without any objection.

“The title of being world champion means you’re champion of the world,” Selby said. “You should be willing and ready to defend your title anywhere in the world. It’s only up the road in Leeds, four hours away. It’s nothing.

“Getting advice off people, it doesn’t really come down to that. It comes down to the guy who performs best on the night. On May 19, we’ll see the better man. The winner’s going to win and the loser’s going to lose.”

There are comparisons aplenty between Selby and Warrington, despite the animosity which developed after a proposed meeting fell through two years ago (Selby accused Warrington of “bottling” the offer). Both have held the British, European, Commonwealth and WBC International titles, with Selby always a step ahead. Selby has a higher percentage of stoppages than Warrington but, with nine from 27 fights, is no knockout artist, save for a brutal takedown of Liverpool’s Stephen Smith in 2011.

Selby, though, is durable like Warrington, with good range on his punches and punishing body shots. Only Eric Hunter, an American featherweight, has ever dropped him to the canvas. Warrington’s relentless workrate will be needed to stop Selby dictating the fight and catching him at will.

“I’m 27, I’m feeling fitter than ever and punching harder than I ever have done,” Warrington said. “I feel like this fight’s been a long time coming.

“Lee’s been champion for a few years now and he’s going to want to keep on winning because when you keep on winning you get pay days. But for me the hunger’s been there ever since I started picking up titles. I wanted to go onto the next stage and the next stage.

“Sometimes it comes down to timing and you have to be patient. It didn’t happen a few years ago but it’s happening now, and this is the perfect time for me.”

Selby conceded that he had seen Warrington grow as a fighter since the pair first began exchanging words. Selby made two defences of his title last year, against Mexico’s Eduardo Ramirez and Argentina’s Jonathan Victor Barros. At the same time, Warrington beat the experienced Kike Martinez and stopped Dennis Ceylan, installing himself as the IBF’s mandatory challenger.

“When the fight was first touted, I wrote him off a bit but he’s improved and he’s earned his shot just like I did,” Selby said. “But if you look at all my opponents, they’ve been elite in their day. You can’t really put him in the same class as me.”

Selby took himself off to Los Angeles for his training camp, sparring with “former world champions and people who are due to fight for world titles.”

Warrington, as he has for all of his previous 26 fights, stayed at home for 12 weeks.

“Everything’s gone to plan up to this stage in my career,” he said. “I didn’t see any reason to change it.”

There is lingering antipathy between Warrington and Selby, a genuine dislike which has not been manufactured for the benefit of Frank Warren’s promotion or the sale of seats. A tear-up over 12 rounds might create some mutual respect.

“You see it time and again,” Selby said. “Two fighters arguing at press conference but once they’ve shared a ring together they shake hands.”

Warrington almost agreed: “I’ve always had respect for anyone who gets in the ring.

“Me and Lee have shared our words, there is a bit of needle there. But, like in the old days, when people used to settle differences on the cobbles, we’ve got 12 rounds to sort it out.”

Josh Warrington and Sean O'Hagan at Elland Road press conference. PIC: Steve Riding

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Josh Warrington and Lee Selby exchange words at today's Elland Road press conference. Picture: Steve Riding.

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