The fighting began early for Josh Warrington, who was born prematurely with a bout of pneumonia.
He laughs about the midwives who told his parents to take him home and wrap him in cotton wool. Warrington’s father, Sean O’Hagan, had him in a boxing ring by the middle of primary school. “The training was exercise for the asthma in his lungs,” O’Hagan says. “That’s how it all started.”
Last month Amazon released Fighting for a City, a documentary charting Warrington’s rise to the rank of IBF world champion, and there is a moment in it where O’Hagan – his sharp-witted trainer and devil’s advocate from day one – talks about Warrington’s earliest amateur bouts and his failure to edge any of them. What do we have to do to get a win, O’Hagan would ask. Get him a different trainer, he was told. A trainer who is not his dad.
They have both heard comments to that effect over the years, directly and indirectly. O’Hagan says Kellie Maloney, the boxing promoter, was one of the people who questioned whether Warrington’s career would be better off in the hands of someone else. Occasionally O’Hagan asked himself the same.
“In the past, when we’ve been clashing a bit, I’ve said to Josh ‘if you’re not happy or if you’re not confident in how I’m teaching you, you can go’,” O’Hagan says. “‘I won’t fall out with you, I’ll still back you.’
“I don’t want to be his trainer just because I’m his dad and he knows that but I always warned him: if it isn’t you I get a world title with, it’ll be somebody else. People have a lot to say for themselves best but I know what I’m doing.”
It’s Monday morning at Dicky’s in Batley, a spit-and-sawdust gym on the first floor of an old factory building in the backyard of the Bulldogs. Raining tipping down outside, sweat dripping off Warrington inside. It’s quiet; just Warrington, O’Hagan and Mark Hurley, the gym’s owner and Warrington’s strength and conditioning coach. Hurley has a huge Rottweiler for company but otherwise, they are in their own world.
Fighting for a City is a local-hero story which has Leeds at its heart and shines a light on Warrington’s unique, often comical, relationship with O’Hagan. It also delves deep into the psyche of professional boxing: the isolation of training, the paranoia caused by the risk of big fights going begging and the constant battle against the biological clock. Warrington is less than three weeks away from the first defence of his IBF title against Carl Frampton – as good a featherweight as he will find in the UK – and is sharpening his technique with O’Hagan’s call-a-spade-a-spade guidance.
O’Hagan is a self-taught trainer who worked as a doorman and still has a doorman’s physique. He and Warrington learned the game together. “I’ve winged it,” O’Hagan jokes. “British, Commonwealth, European, IBF world title. All of that. We’ve winged it, haven’t we?” Disdain no longer follows him and Warrington has never been close to replacing him, even in the weeks when they bang heads and stop speaking.
“There’ve been many, many times when I’ve gone home to Tash (Warrington’s wife, Natasha) and said ‘you know what? I could f****** hit him,” Warrington says. “Just once. A right good shot.
“It pains me to say it but even after we have arguments I have to put my hands up and say ‘I do want you as my trainer.’ Over the years people have said to me ‘yeah, but for the next level you need someone else. Your dad doesn’t have the experience’. No-one expected us to get this far but how can you fault what we’ve done?
“What he says to me has always made sense. He simplifies things. Some trainers I listen to don’t make sense. They get too technical. It’s like that one minute between rounds when you’re on the stool and you need something clear, a simple instruction and that’s it. The boxing I can’t argue with but his fashion tips are different. When I turned up at school with a flying jacket on, I had the p*** taken out of me for two years.”
Warrington thinks back to his 19th professional fight, a European title contest against Davide Dieli in 2014. After going through several sparring sessions with his mind elsewhere, O’Hagan had words. “We were in the car and out of nowhere he says ‘what’s wrong with you? You’re going through the motions but you need to switch on because I’m telling you, these big fights will disappear if you don’t.’ From then on I was perfect. I stopped (Dieli) in four rounds when four weeks earlier I was dogs***. One sentence from him and that’s what it does. It’s easy for him to speak like that because he’s my old fella.”
It is a feather in O’Hagan’s cap that of the two fighters who have beaten Selby – the Welshman and former IBF holder who Warrington outpointed brilliantly during an epic night at Elland Road in May – he trained one and did the sparring sessions for the other. Fighting For a City paints him as the observational brain behind a gutsy, all-or-nothing boxer and the pair like the fact that they were never supposed to get this far.
“We’re not smug about it but proud, definitely,” Warrington says. “At the end of the day, and I say this all the time, I’m off the LS9 estate. I could have ended up as a glue sniffer. People doubted me and I’ve heard many saying through the grapevine ‘he’ll be lucky to get the British title, and not with his dad behind him’. It’s gone like that all the way to a world title. Same old, same old. We just plod away, doing what we’ve always done.”
O’Hagan’s pastoral care goes far beyond the ring, even though it is most evident in that setting (he wants Warrington to retire at 30 and Warrington says he will probably listen to him). When Warrington was in his teens, about to sit his GCSEs, his parents split up and his sister, who is autistic, left to live with his mother. Warrington and his two brothers, Tom and Marcus, remained with O’Hagan. Both of the younger boys had special needs. “There was a lot of arguing,” O’Hagan says and he means it.
“I don’t want to get the violins out but it was tough,” Warrington says. “It was GCSE time and everyone was knuckling down. I just didn’t want to be at home. As a family you think ‘how the f*** will we go on’ and that period seemed to last forever. The thing is, my dad was my hero. To see him down and breaking in front of you was horrible. For two years he had one of his pals in the house, acting as my mum. We kind of giggle about it these days.” The whole family remain in touch, though Warrington says his mother takes boxing “with a pinch of salt.”
I ask O’Hagan if he worries about Warrington and what boxing might do to him. He and Selby finished their 12-round bout drenched in blood and Warrington trains on the canvas used that night. A few days before this interview, Adonis Stevenson, the 41-year-old light heavyweight, was badly injured in a fight in Canada. He is still in a coma.
“It can happen,” O’Hagan says, “but there’s a time to pack in: when you’ve got enough money. I wouldn’t want Josh to go on.” Warrington is in his prime, a defending world champion for the first time when he and Belfast’s Frampton meet at Manchester Arena in two weeks’ time, but the 28-year-old is the father of twin girls these days and sharp enough to understand what O’Hagan is telling him.
“It’s the brutal honestly I won’t want to hear but it’s what I’ll need,” Warrington says. “Kids change your way of thinking and I don’t want them to be pushing me down to the park. It should be the other way round.”
Warrington has been through this routine many times, if not as a reigning world champion. He is unbeaten in 27 fights and is at the stage now where the Frampton bout is real. “Dipping under four weeks to go is when I feel it,” he says. “That’s when the fight comes into your head properly. We’re ready to go.”
To finish his session, Warrington attacks a black punch bag while a timer counts down a three-minute round. When the buzzer sounds, he spins away and leaves the bag swinging. “And still…” he shouts with a wide smile. The words he wants to hear on December 22.
IBF world featherweight champion Josh Warrington takes on former two-weight world champion Carl Frampton at the Manchester Arena on December 22nd live on BT Sport Box Office.
Guarantee your tickets: Tickets are priced at £50 Upper Tier, £80 Tier, £100 Tier, £150 Tier, £200 Floor/Tier, £300 Floor, £400 Floor, £600 Inner Ring VIP Hospitality and are available.
Tickets available via Manchester Arena