LAS VEGAS staged the incomparable, all-out war between Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler in 1985 and it was the only fight Frank Warren could think of as Manchester Arena emptied on Saturday.
Josh Warrington is ready for Vegas and Vegas is ready for him; ready for the all-or-nothing state of mind which brings crowds and cash to the city that never sleeps.
Warrington suspects deep down that few in America know him or appreciate him enough to pay attention to him but his fight with Carl Frampton, a bout so electric that even a man as good at selling as Warren struggled to find the words, will stir the nine-stone division across the Atlantic.
After years trying to position himself with the elite at his weight, he is something close to the biggest draw. “I have to be honest, I think he’s the best featherweight in the world,” Warren said. “That work rate - who could keep up with it?”
The transition from local ticket-seller who trains in an old factory building in Batley and puts himself through hard, repetitive 800m sprints at Temple Newsam to the possibility of top-billing in front of an American audience has transpired in only seven months and those who doubted Warrington’s calibre, even after his IBF title win against Lee Selby in May, have no ammunition to shoot him with.
Britain’s featherweight ranks have been savaged, the old order routed, and an attempt by Sheffield’s Kid Galahad, the IBF’s mandatory challenger, to force his way into the ring at the end of Warrington’s victory over Frampton on Saturday was a vain attempt to look relevant. Warrington did not leap into a big pond in order to fry small fish. “I want to fight the best,” he said, surveying the other major title holders. “Just bring them on. They’re all brilliant fighters, so any one of them.”
Warrington’s defeat of Selby at Elland Road, dethorning a champion who had retained the IBF title through four defences, was so seminal and perfectly-constructed in Warrington’s home city that it threatened to leave the 28-year-old with no higher peak to find but in years to come it is Saturday’s defence against Frampton which will define him, capturing the brilliant ferocity which ended the era of Belfast’s finest.
Frampton has fought in Vegas and won in America, a former two-weight world champion whose courage and class made his reputation and saved him from a knockout in Manchester, but his treatment by Warrington will age him as a fighter. Selby has already moved up from the featherweight division and that, or retirement, is Frampton’s obvious move at the age of almost 32. Warrington started 2018 with the reputation of an upstart. He ends it as the last man standing, the only show in town.
Three weeks ago, when he and his father-trainer Sean O’Hagan carried out an interview with the YEP at the gym they use in Batley, there were minor worries about Warrington’s timing. O’Hagan saw in sparring an inability on Warrington’s part to let his punches go as he normally does.
“It’s down to one of two things,” O’Hagan said at the time. “Either you’re scared of getting hit - and Josh isn’t scared of getting hit, so it’s not that - or your technique isn’t right.” Together they worked patiently on Warrington’s positioning, allowing him throw with all his force. It was, when it mattered, time well spent.
In the days before the fight there was talk about the difference in “level” between Warrington and Frampton, though O’Hagan remarked dismissively that levels were for “bricklayers and lift engineers”.
There was talk about power too and the question of whether Warrington had it in him to hurt Frampton. The answer came in rounds one and two as Frampton sustained the most severe assault anyone could remember him taking.
Frampton gambled in the same way as Selby, choosing to trade with Warrington and trusting himself to inflict more punishment than he received. The very first exchange, ending with a right hook from Warrington sending Frampton wobbling back across the ring, shocked everyone. In round two, Warrington’s close-up battering of the Northern Irishman on the ropes and in the middle of the canvas had him on the verge of a knockout, with Frampton visibly ready to go.
“I said in the build-up that I’ve got the power to hurt him,” Warrington said. “I’m not a Naseem Hamed but I’ve got the power to get respect off any of the world champions. There were times when I hit him with some corking shots.” Frampton’s resistance in taking them was as astonishing as Warrington staring into Frampton’s soul so early on.
Josh Warrington is ready for Vegas and Vegas is ready for him; ready for the all-or-nothing state of mind which brings crowds and cash to the city that never sleeps.Phil Hay
Was that genuinely Warrington’s plan; to seek a first career stoppage of Frampton before the second round was over? “Was it f***,” said O’Hagan. “He never bloody listens. What I asked him to do early on was to get Carl’s respect. Make him know that he was having 12 hard rounds. But I can’t pretend that it (Warrington’s onslaught) didn’t set the tone. There’s no doubt about that.”
The bout was down as fight-of-the-year within six minutes. Warren, the veteran promoter, admitted he could not remember a better world title contest on British soil in four decades of making and selling bouts. It was, he said, reminiscent of the 1995 bout between Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan, a night which saw McClellan suffer terrible brain injuries and which the renowned journalist, Hugh McIlvaney, called “one of the most brutal fights any of us at ringside had witnessed.”
There was no pleasure to be taken from that comparison but in boxing terms it was a good one, a battle which had no business reaching the final bell. “In round two I thought ‘I’m going to get him on the Guinness in a minute’,” Warrington said. “I felt like like it could be one more shot. But he’s a tough, tough man.”
Frampton sustained a nick under his left eye in round three and was repeatedly on the end of clubbing combinations. He rallied through the middle rounds, closing the scorecards slightly, but found Warrington’s work-rate to be as high as he feared and lacked the lateral movement to stop himself getting caught. Frampton stood in front of Warrington and Warrington went for him.
“Whoever said Josh can’t punch, I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Frampton said after a unanimous verdict was given in Warrington’s favour. “He’s even better than I thought. He’s clever, he’s strong, he’s tough and he can punch hard. I got beat fair and square.”
Warrington appeared at his press conference with a bandage around his right hand, revealing that he had fractured it midway through. Aside from rounds eight and nine, when his pace slowed and gave Frampton a sniff, there was no hint of an injury. Frampton was not aware of it either. “I was hurt a number of times,” he conceded.
Warrington departed with the IBF belt back in its box and with the WBO’s interim title to his name, making a unification fight with WBO champion and Mexican Oscar Valdez a natural step. Whenever his career is discussed, Warrington tends to joke about an upbringing in inner-city Leeds which might have turned him into a “glue-sniffer”, and the stateside riches presented by his first world title defence are unlikely to knock the run-of-the-mill ethos out of him.
On Sunday he was on a promise to build flat-pack furniture for his wife Natasha. Monday was set aside for last-minute Christmas shopping. But with what Warren described as “Britain’s version of Hagler and Hearns” behind him, America is open for business.