Josh Warrington is in the most precarious territory of his career and his opponent tomorrow, Kiko Martinez, barely cracked a smile as they sat together at their pre-fight press conference in Leeds. It was left to Warrington to entertain the audience and lighten the mood before the fireworks start.
Martinez, at the end of a hard 10-week training camp, sat with sunken eyes below the peak of a cap as Warrington brushed off questions about his power, teased his father and trainer, Sean, and joked about taking the “Leeds lot to smash up casinos in Las Vegas” if a win at the First Direct Arena this weekend results in a run of world-title fights. Yet Martinez, a combustive Spaniard who knows the featherweight division inside out, held his respect. “He’s had more knockouts than I’ve had fights,” Warrington said.
Warrington defends his WBC International title tomorrow but it is Martinez’s scalp on his record which matters; a victory over a fighter who once held the IBF belt and has shared a ring with Carl Frampton, Scott Quigg and Leo Santa Cruz.
Martinez, now 31, announced himself in 2007 by annihilating Bernard Dunne – an Irishman with a perfect 24-fight record – inside one minute and 30 seconds, but his last three shots at a world title have ended in defeat.
“He’ll be thinking himself that this is a fight he can’t afford to lose,” said Frank Warren, promoting Warrington for the first time since the featherweight’s split with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing. Martinez agreed. Warrington, like Dunne, is 24 bouts into his professional career and impatient for his own chance to win a major belt. He has been out of the picture for 10 months after undergoing keyhole surgery on his right elbow, repairing the damage done by years of hyper-extension, and wanted to return against a puncher of Martinez’s ilk.
“No fighter goes through a camp 100 per cent but this camp’s been brilliant,” Warrington said. “I’ve been able to fully concentrate on the job in hand.”
He and Martinez were cordial in their analysis of each other. Martinez, speaking through a translator, described Warrington as a “super athlete” and said fights between him and Frampton or Quigg would “be close because he’s very good”.
“But I don’t think he’s ready,” Martinez admitted. “I think he can be a better fighter but not yet. I’ll make sure I win the fight, then on Sunday Josh wakes up with a loss on his record.”
Warrington was equally complimentary: “He knows how to hunt people down and put them away. I respect that. When I was an amateur he was fighting at the top level.
“Kiko’s got a lot of pressure on him.
“People will think he’s seen better days but this is a massive opportunity for him. He knows what it’s like to be a world champion and he’ll want to get back there.”
In the build up to the contest, Martinez questioned Warrington’s punching power, pointing to a perfect record which shows only five stoppages.
“The opponents who’ve stepped into the ring with me, they don’t get out with a big smile on their face,” Warrington said in response. “They always come out marked and bruised. If it’s all about who hits the hardest, you’d get down the boozer and hit the punch machines. I’ve reserved a bit in the tank for when it matters.”
Warrington’s father, Sean O’Hagan, looked on from the audience, hoping that Warrington’s next press conference will promote a full-blown world title fight. O’Hagan has been with Warrington as his trainer from the very beginning.
“He’s a pain in the a***,” Warrington quipped, in response to a question about his father’s influence. “I’d like to punch him, just the once. But we’ve been together since the early days. It makes things a little bit sweeter because we’re family. Hopefully we’ll go all the way together.”
Warrington has benefited from similar loyalty from his home crowd; the only Leeds-based fighter capable of selling enough tickets to fill the First Direct Arena. He was compared yesterday to Ricky Hatton and Naseem Hamed, two of Warren’s former protégés who boasted immense local appeal.
Martinez, in everyone’s estimation, is an examination on a different level to previous opponents. “This is what it’s about – taking fights like this to see yourself if you’ve got what it takes to be world champion,” Warrington said. “Me and my team believe that we do.”