Josh Warrington interview: Leeds Warrior on Alberto Lopez, one last headline act in Leeds, and putting smiles on faces
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For someone who routinely fought twice a year and never had too much cause to get out of the training camp-fight-recover routine, three bouts in 38 months is not enough.
Especially given that where he was at the end of 2019, a world champion ready to unify the featherweight division, is exactly where he is three years later.
“One thing that’s always been in my favour is momentum, throughout my career I’ve taken fights, had a little break, gone back in the gym, and that’s what I was doing for seven, eight years, apart from this last couple of years,” Warrington tells The Yorkshire Post.
“These last three years have been the most frustrating of my career.”
To recap, Warrington - who prides himself on proving people wrong - had come off a stellar 2018 in which he beat favourite Lee Selby to win the IBF featherweight title in front of his adoring Leeds public at Elland Road, then bettered that by battering Carl Frampton in Manchester.
An uncomfortable win over Sheffield’s Kid Galahad and a knockout of Sofiane Takoucht followed in a lower-key 2019 but there was no question the career of the undefeated Leeds Warrior was on an upward trajectory.
“I ended the year no 1 in the world, I’ve beaten everyone I had to beat over here, I’m world champion, I’ve just re-signed with Matchroom, the world was my oyster,” says Warrington, taking up the story.
“I’m looking at America, unification fights, stuff I never dreamed were possible.
“Then the pandemic happens, I’m out of the ring for 15 months, I get knocked out (in front of an empty arena against Mauricio Lara), I have a shot at redemption that ends in a draw (again with Lara), then I win my world title back (this March against Kiko Martinez) and then I’m out for the year with a broken jaw.”
Nearly a year, for Warrington is back headlining a bill in Leeds for the 12th and possibly final time next Saturday when he defends his title against the IBF’s mandatory challenger Alberto Lopez – but you get the frustration.
“It was probably upstairs where I suffered most,” he says of the time spent inactive this year, as his broken jaw and three torn ligaments in his hand healed.
“I found myself procrastinating, I became a bit of a recluse.
"I was feeling a bit flat, a bit sorry for myself.
“It’s nice to be home with the missus and the kids, doing bits of housework, but I’m a boxer and I’ve got fire in my belly.
“So I just want to get through this fight and be able to get back into the gym and start looking ahead.
“Getting a win is the most important thing next weekend, but I want to be back in the gym by Boxing Day, and start building up for unification fights in 2023.
“This is my sixth world title fight,” he continues, almost impatiently.
“I haven’t even had a taste of fighting a world champion, I don’t know what else I’ve got to do.
“If I get through my mandatory challenger I want to be fighting for another belt against a fellow world champion.
“I think I’m in the peak years of my career. My boxing brain is more focused than ever.
“Destiny is in my hands now, it’s up to me to win the fights.”
Seven thousand tickets have already been sold for the fight at the first direct Arena next Saturday, an occasion Warrington hopes, with the greatest of respect to his beloved home city, is the last time he fights in Leeds.
“I’ve done Headingley, Elland Road, I’m ready to take my career to the next chapter. If I don’t do it I’ll regret it,” says the 32-year-old.
“Growing up I watched Lennox Lewis, Ricky Hatton, Nazeem Hamed, Joe Calzaghe they seemed to be the boxers who made it and then went to the States.
“Boxing is booming over here, we’ve become the flagship around the world with stadium fights and heavyweight champions, but there’s still something magical about fighting in the States.
“There’s a lot of people have teased it about me fighting over there - Frank Warren and Eddie Hearn - and I’ve envisaged it as well.”
Warrington then gets animated as he mimics his friends: “‘Josh took a credit card out pal, let me know before they announce it so I can book some flights, I don’t want to be paying ridiculous prices’.
“There’s guys who come up to me and say: ‘I’ve seen you in town halls, I’ve been with you at leisure centres, we never thought we’d see your name on the billboards’.
“Some of them have been on that journey with me. One of my mates first took his lad when he was eight to see me fight, now he’s 18 and going with his own set of mates.
“It would be the cherry on the top for me. I’m not the most talented, people thought I would be lucky to win a British title, but I won a world title, I’m now a two-time world champion.
“I never boxed for England, I’m not a big heavyweight, I don’t flash watches in people’s faces, I’m just a normal man you’ll find in Tescos getting his shopping, I’m easily approachable, I’ll go and watch Leeds United at Elland Road.
“But we’ve gone to some dizzy heights.”
Not the most talented, he reckons, despite a 31-1 win-loss record suggesting otherwise, so what has got him as far as he has?
“That,” he says, tapping his head.
“Throughout the years people have been saying not good enough, not strong enough, so I’ve wanted to prove people wrong. You think I can’t do something, I’ll make sure you know that I can.
“From me being in the limelight, people have always said he’ll only go so far, but I’ve taken pride in going further.”
He also takes enormous pride in being an ambassador for his home city, wearing Leeds on his chest like a badge of honour.
Nine days before his title defence against Lopez he was at Leeds General Infirmary giving out chocolates and boxing gloves to children on the wards of the Clarendon Wing.
To most sports stars, the annual trip to the hospital can be a nuisance.
Warrington was actually badgering his PR people to get him onto the ward in time for Christmas.
“It doesn’t even matter that half of them don’t know who I am because I walk in with the shiny belt and it puts a smile on their face,” beams Warrington.
“Yeah I’ve done some great things in my career, winning belts and fighting in stadiums, but being able to inspire kids, or even just making their day better, that’s right up there for me.
“And it’s nice for me to have a distraction. You’ve done your training now, you’ve done loads of rounds of sparring, miles of running, thousands of punches thrown at the bag, I’ve listened to me dad (trainer Sean O’Hagan) talk about the game plan over and over again, I close my eyes now and I can hear him saying ‘keep that right hand up, step to the side’.
“So yeah, you become boxing mad. I’m at the stage where training has come to an end, I’m making the weight, the days seem to drag on a bit longer.
“So coming here is great. I was walking from the car to the hospital thinking I’m a bit tired today, but you come here and see the kids, listen to the stories of what they’ve been through already, makes you realise what am I on about, what am I moaning about?
“All I am is tired compared to what these kids are going through. They should be at home getting ready for Christmas, writing their lists, opening their advent calendars and they’re in hospital.
“Some of them might only be having minor operations but it’s still a big thing to a young child.
“You come here and start putting things into perspective.
“I’m an ambassador for loads of different charities, I find it inspiring. It’s important to puts things in perspective.
“I leave here looking at things in a different light. Just be fortunate of where you are.”
Where he goes in 2023, whether he gets the unification fights he craves, depends on the outcome of the Lopez fight next Saturday night.
The Mexican is a tricky customer, boasting a record of 26-2.
“He’s a wild, wild puncher - he brings them from last week,” jokes Warrington.
But at least Warrington is back in the ring, back where he belongs.
For more information about Leeds Hospitals Charity wish list click here.