Josh Warrington has been in no hurry to let his victory over Lee Selby go. His bloodstained shorts are still in his house. A promotional poster printed before the fight is pinned to his fridge. “I’ll be keeping all of it,” he said. “It’s part of what went on that night.”
But when 12 rounds with Selby were done, when Warrington had wrapped the IBF featherweight belt around his waist and completed a scheduled drugs test, he sat down in his dressing room and asked himself ‘who’s next?’ He has mementoes to remind him of his epic dismantling of Selby but at 27, and at the height of his pulling-power, he has little time to dwell on it.
Next up is the fighter who British boxing wanted Warrington to meet: Carl Frampton, the former WBA champion who punched Australian Luke Jackson to a standstill in Belfast on Saturday night. “Definitely this year,” said promoter Frank Warren in response to questions about when Warrington and Frampton would meet. A December bout, in Manchester or London, is suddenly in the pipeline.
Warrington surprised everyone outwith his own confident camp by dethroning Selby, cutting him twice and outpointing him via a split decision which deserved to be wider. Selby was the tactician and stylist, with the advantage of height, reach and a long reign as IBF champion. On May 19, in glorious weather and in front of 20,000 at Elland Road, Warrington owned him and won his first world title.
“From the first round I felt like it was under control,” Warrington said. “I could see his punches coming and what I’d been told about him, what I was told to expect, wasn’t there. The speed, the power, the reach; after one round I thought ‘I can deal with this.’
“I kept expecting my dad (Warrington’s trainer, Sean O’Hagan) to give me an earful and tell me to pick it up but at the end of each round it was just ‘keep doing what you’re doing, don’t change anything.’ The plan was to rough him up, get my head on his chest, take away his distance and make it a fight. It worked perfectly.”
There were shades in those 12 rounds of the first fight between George Groves and Carl Froch in 2013: Warrington playing Groves, the upstart, and getting into Selby’s head, and Selby, unlike Froch, lacking the punch to club his way out of trouble. Selby called his performance “diabolical” and immediately moved up from nine-stone, claiming he was struggling with the weight.
“Throughout all the build-up he never mentioned that,” Warrington said. “Any time he was asked about it he said ‘the weight’s irrelevant’. It’s common knowledge that it’s not easy for him, he’s a different body shape to me, but there was a lot of talk of Selby fighting Frampton at featherweight if he beat me. It only became an excuse afterwards.”
Hostility between them was obvious throughout, owning to Selby accusing Warrington of “bottling” a previous chance to fight him in 2016. Warrington admitted to putting on a “different face” during pre-fight press conferences, his way of claiming a psychological edge.
“To me, boxing’s mental as well as physical,” he said. “Right from the start I saw bits of self-doubt and nerves in him. You could see it in his body language - little things, like when he spoke at the media work-outs. He never sounded confident. I’ll admit that I showed people on a different side to me, a different face, but I felt I had to. It gave me ammunition to use. Yeah, I think I got into his head. And I think he underestimated me.”
At the final bell, with blood all over both fighters, Selby looked Warrington in the eye and gave him a respectful nudge in the chest. After a drugs test, Warrington went to speak with Selby in his dressing room, to draw a line under all the acrimony, but was told by Selby’s manager, Chris Sanigar, that the Welshman did not want to see him.
“That was disappointing,” Warrington said. “He always said that if he got beat, he’d take it like a man. I know he’d lost his title, I understand that, but I hoped he’d show a bit of character.
“All I wanted to say was ‘listen, we’ve had words and some of that was down to me but we’ve had a great scrap, you’ve got my respect as a fighter and what’s done is done.’ I always said he was a very good fighter. He still is a very good fighter.”
It was, in every sense, Warrington’s night: a Leeds United season ticket holder at the club’s home ground, spurred on by the most vociferous of crowds. The Kaiser Chiefs played him in and Lucas Radebe walked him to the ring. “No-one comes into our backyard and beats us,” Radebe told him.
Only in the afternoon of the fight did the size of the occasion get to him. “In the hotel I was starting to stew, burning up energy,” Warrington said. “My missus said goodbye and it dawned on me how much I was taking on. You start feeling that if you lose, you can’t show your face around Elland Road again.
“I spent a bit of time splashing cold water on my face but when we got on the bus, when we drove onto Lowfields Road, one of mates said ‘look at these crowds. It’s all for you.’ The sun was out, there were people everywhere and by the time I got to the dressing room, I couldn’t see me losing the fight. There was no way. Even with all that going on around me, when I got into the ring all I was thinking about was him (Selby).”
Warrington, for reasons of protocol, was asked to hand over his IBF belt before he left Elland Road. A replica, packed up in a steel case, arrived at his door two weeks later. There was talk initially of him defending the title against a less established opponent than WBO interim champion Frampton, of acclimatising to the feeling of carrying a world belt with a voluntary defence at the Leeds Arena. But Warren, who promotes both boxers, is already in the process of thrashing out the terms of a meeting after Frampton’s consummate stoppage of the limited Jackson.
“Carl’s the number one featherweight in Britain,” Warrington said. “I’ve got the world title but I’m behind him in the rankings. I’d like to change that. He’s one of the best around but I’m confident. A lot of people tried to tell me I’d never beat Selby.
“At the end of that fight, I sat around waiting to do a drugs test and then went back to the dressing room. As pleased as I was, my first thought was ‘who’s next? What’s my next move now?’ You can’t put your feet up or sit back. You’ve always got to have a plan. When you lose your edge, it’s game over.”