Phil Hay: Warrington beats Selby at his own game to claim historic title glory

A few days before Josh Warrington and Lee Selby put their money where their mouths had been for almost two years, a member of Warrington's camp promised that last night would be the night when they 'unleashed the b*****d'.

Sunday, 20th May 2018, 11:02 am
Updated Sunday, 20th May 2018, 12:01 pm
Josh Warrington and his team celebrate after the fight last night.

So much was said publicly as the fight loomed but that candid comment, made privately at last Tuesday’s press conference, was the confident claim of someone who saw what was coming: a different animal at a different level of the boxing world. It found Selby and reduced him to a bloody mess, sapping his swagger and taking his IBF featherweight belt. Selby was gone from the ring before Warrington could lift it.

Selby’s four defences of that title, and his career from the start, depended on his ability to be ruthless in the absence of a knockout punch but in Warrington he crossed an opponent who beat him at his own game. Warrington is an uncompromising sort but he has rarely overturned odds so steep and never in this class.

Cold and emotionless, he came onto Selby as a machine crushes metal until Selby, with nothing left to throw, gave him a respectful tap on the chest at the final bell. One judge at ringside lost the plot and gave the Welshman the nod but both boxers knew how the fight had gone. Selby had been in trouble since the early part of the second round.

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This, as the beaten champion should have realised, is how it goes with Warrington. Each step up produces a higher calibre of performance in him, defying the widely-held belief that he will hit the ceiling eventually. Leeds’ first boxing world champion has been on his trajectory since he won the English title in 2012 and each belt inspires another. The featherweight division is wide open for him now and Elland Road, the stadium and it ferocious atmosphere, has earned itself another night like last night.

“I was doubted at English level, I was doubted at British level,” Warrington said. “I wasn’t meant to go any further than that. But number one in the world. No-one would ever have thought I’d got the speed, the punching power or the boxing intelligence but I outboxed, outfought and outsmarted a brilliant champion in Lee Selby.”

The glory was his but the victory involved a cast of 20,000. Selby came close to mocking the hype around the bout, saying that the only significance of the huge crowd would be him “taking their money”, but Elland Road drove tingling, positive energy into Warrington from the day Frank Warren made the fight.

Warrington was awash with adrenaline and nervous excitement as he and Selby promoted the fight, and never moreso than in the final week. Selby lacked the same fervour and his performance at Tuesday’s press conference was that of a man on sedatives, uninspired by what he dismissively described as “just another defence”.

Josh Warrington sinks to his knees after being Lee Selby on points last night at Elland Roa.

Warrington ran the risk of taking too much on his shoulders and admitted that at lunchtime yesterday he was “hit by a wave of nerves”. But Elland Road – the crowd, the pre-fight set from the Kaiser Chiefs which whipped up the atmosphere beautifully and the presence of Lucas Radebe on his ringwalk – settled him down.

Where Warrington had the inspiration of a ground ready to take on the world, Selby had nothing. “As soon as I got into the venue, it all lifted,” Warrington said. “As soon as I got in the ring I thought ‘there’s no way I’m losing this fight.’” It was his Ricky Hatton-Kostya Tszyu moment and he will not regret his pre-fight chats with Hatton’s former trainer, Billy Graham. From the first bell his composure was serene.

Like Hatton on that famous Sunday morning in 2005, Warrington got the fight he wanted. It took two rounds for a clash of heads to open up a nasty cut beside Selby’s left eye, spewing blood onto the canvas. Selby was cut again in the sixth, a smaller nick under his other eye, and sniped at Warrington and referee Michael Alexander about the use of the head and punches to the back of his own. Warrington barely engaged, keeping on top of Selby who betrayed his height and reach by trying to trade punches.

Warrington knocked him around in the second and more viciously in the sixth, by which point Selby’s left eye had been checked by a doctor. Selby managed to step back and land cleanly in round four but dropped points at a costly rate as the bout moved beyond halfway. In the standing exchanges,

Josh Warrington celebrates beating Lee Selby.

Warrington came off best, stronger on his feet and impossible to move. “I never felt hurt,” he said. “He’s a cute fighter but I built him up to be a big monster in my head. When he came out, everything we’d worked on worked to plan. He was a lot easier to read.”

It was apparent long before the closing rounds that Selby would need a knockout punch, a punch he has never possessed. Slick and elusive at his best, Warrington had pushed him to a point of desperation. Selby tried to throw but Warrington clubbed him away in the last two rounds.

There was disbelief when Andrew Davis, a judge from Toronto, scored 115-113 in favour of Selby. There was euphoria when Frank Lombardi tipped a split decision in favour of Warrington. “I don’t know how that judge gave it in any shape or form to Selby,” Warren said. The Kaiser Chiefs’ prediction of a riot would have been realised had the belt gone back to Wales.

Elland Road will not see another night quite like it, or not with this sport. Warrington could appear there again but his first world title, the crowning of Leeds’ first boxing world champion, was a unique moment with a unique spirit which might never be truly replicated by him or anyone else. After two years of feuding, Warrington settled his differences with Selby and said he hoped the pair would “leave it at that.” Selby will have no choice for a while, sat at home in Barry while his wounds heal.

Former Leeds United captain Lucas Radebe in the ring with Josh Warrington last night.

Overnight, Warrington became a player at nine stone. Carl Frampton was ringside on Saturday and, minus a world title of his own, needs Warrington as much as Warrington needs him. Warrington-Frampton, though, is a stadium fight and as Warren said afterwards, the football season would stop Elland Road or Windsor Park in Belfast staging it until next summer.

A lower-key defence will come next but Leo Santa Cruz defends his WBA belt next month and Gary Russell Jr retained the WBC title this morning. Warrington, for the first time, has negotiating power and big pay days in front of him, and it will take a genuine puncher to take him out.

He harked his mind back to the time when he fought in empty arenas long after the main event had finished, building up his record while staff around him were “sweeping up”.

Selby, whose credibility is not diminished and who stuck his neck out by giving Warrington cart blanche to shape their bout, promised himself cheesecake and “a latte with five sugars” if he won, sick of black coffee after weeks of training.

It will all taste the same to him. Warrington, whose wife gave birth to twins in February, said he wanted a fry-up, a pint of Guinness and would start taking his turn at “changing sh***y nappies.” Even those will smell sweet.