tct exclusive: josh warrington, billy sharp, emma bentley & danny mcguire – leeds sport unitedBack
Josh Warrington still has Davide Dieli’s blood on his shorts.
If he needed any other reminders this week of what he achieved on Saturday night, he only had to look around him in the dressing room at Leeds United’s training ground on Wednesday lunchtime.
Leeds United’s Billy Sharp, Leeds Ladies’ captain Emma Bentley, and Leeds Rhinos’ Danny McGuire were all at Leeds First Direct Arena on Saturday night to support Josh, and came together at Thorp Arch on Wednesday to see the latest in his collection of belts, and hear about how the European title was won.
“It’s special, having this kind of support from the rugby and the football sides,” said Josh. "And having all the previous players coming out to support us on Saturday, it’s unbelievable. I’ve been saying for years and years that I’d love big time boxing to come back to Leeds. I’ve been jealous of other cities like Sheffield and Manchester having big boxing shows and thinking, why has Leeds never had it?
“Now it seems like we are the flagbearers of Leeds for boxing and it’s just a massive honour. I’m absolutely loving it, I’m proud.”
The support of Josh’s sporting peers inspired him, but it was the incredible support of the sold-out crowd that drove him forward in the ring.
"Eddie Hearn was talking massively beforehand about how big the atmosphere was going to be and how big the crowd was going to be, and I kept saying to people when I dropped tickets off – listen, when you come, make sure you tell all your pals to be lively. Have a good night, and make sure you’re singing.
“I never see what the crowd looks like before a fight, so when I came out of the doors that was the first time I’d seen it. When I looked up I thought – they have not disappointed me. Then I thought, bloody hell, I’ve got to put a performance in here.”
Billy Sharp had a taste of the kind of support the city is capable of when he scored the winner for United on a dream debut at Elland Road in August. But the passionate atmosphere at the Arena on Saturday showed Billy what’s possible with the Leeds crowd united behind you.
“The crowd surprised me actually,” he said. "I’d not been to the Arena before, and it was weird because you had to walk all the way to the bottom to the ring, but you could hear it while you were upstairs. I was getting a drink upstairs first and I was excited just to get down there.
“From ringside I was looking up to the stand and it felt as though at any point they were all going to be in the ring, so god knows what it must have felt like for Josh stood in the ring. Like he says, he felt like he needed to put in a performance, and I know that it definitely helps you in any sport – I think fans are vital, it does help your performance, and even when you’re not quite on your game fans do get you through. I don’t think Josh needed it on Saturday though.”
Amid the chants and the fervour that were ringing around the Arena all night, the ring was actually the one place where calm could be found – for one of the fighters, at least. As Emma Bentley says: “I wouldn’t have wanted to be Davide Dieli in that ring. The atmosphere was incredible – every single person was supporting Josh, and every single person was there for a party as well.”
“It was weird because I would normally be really tensed up before a fight,” said Josh. "My legs get stiff, like these guys must get before they walk out to a game. But this time they weren’t, I was just relaxed. Sky came in and Eddie Hearn came in, and my trainers and Jamie Peacock and Dominic Matteo and a few of my pals, everyone was getting right fired up for it – and even then, before I walked out into the ring, I was just so calm.
"I started walking to the ring and trying to soak it all up and take it all in. I had tunnel vision walking to the ring but when I was in there it still wasn’t hitting me. I was thinking, bloody hell, what’s up with me? I wasn’t getting that nervous feeling that I know is good, because I work with that nervous energy.
“Then everybody went out of the ring and it was seconds out. If you watch it back on Sky you can see I’m talking to myself, I’m saying, ‘This is it now! This is it! It’s all come down to this now, you’d better put a performance in!’ And as soon as that bell rang I was just switched on.”
What Josh did next didn’t only earn him the European featherweight title, but demonstrated to his biggest audience yet that Josh Warrington is ready to meet and exceed every expectation. The main event followed an undercard of gruelling bouts, and in his career so far Josh has been known for going deep into a battle on the way to victory. But any questions about his power were answered in style on Saturday, and Josh turned them around when he spoke to Sky straight after the fight: “Let me ask you a question – what am I doing getting a knockout? I’m feather-fisted!”
“After the first round I knew it wasn’t going twelve rounds,” he told us. "I was so confident. It was like something from the Matrix, I felt like I could see his punches coming, and I felt like the punches I was landing were going to get to him, and get to him sooner rather than later.
"After the first round I came back to the corner and my dad said, ‘Settle down, you’re going too quickly, there’s another eleven rounds to go – don’t get carried away with yourself.’ But every time I stepped from the stool I wasn’t feeling like I was even getting warm, I felt like there was a lot more to come and that with one good shot he would go.
“In the end it was that combination and that right hand that did it, and after that he was gone.”
The explosion of power in the fourth round took a lot of observers by surprise, but Josh – a multiple champion at only 23 years old – puts it down to the fact that he hasn’t stopped learning or improving.
"I trained very hard for this fight. I’d been sparring the likes of Scott Quigg, Stephen Smith, Jamie McDonnell – lads who have been fighting for world titles. I was doing strength conditioning and all my records were through the roof. We were ready to fight about four weeks ago, but mentally you tell yourself – I’ll be ready on the night, I’ll be ready on the night. It’s all about progression, to keep learning and keep improving after each fight.
"I always train as hard as I can and I’m always trying to learn. For this one we worked on body shots a lot, and I’d been watching old tapes of Hatton and how he knocked so many people out with body shots and used to slow people down. In the fight before against Martin Lindsay body shots were key in the second half of the fight because they slowed him down.
"We were trying to work on picking punches a little bit more instead of blasting away in areas where they’re tucked up, to try and create openings. There were a couple of times I was tapping away at Dieli’s head with the jab and he’d come up and it’d make an opening for the body; a couple of chances where I went forward with a couple of straight shots and sunk a big left into the body.
“Now that’s in the armoury I can take that along to the next fight, and now I can work on something else.”
The progress of Josh’s career has been rapid so far – less than two years have passed since he won the English featherweight title, and since then he has won the Commonwealth, British and European belts. People like Danny McGuire, who with Leeds Rhinos has brought countless honours to the city over the last decade as part of one of rugby league’s greatest ever sides, is looking forward to seeing where Josh can go next.
“Josh is a flag bearer for Leeds now,” he said. "Boxing in Leeds has been very quiet – you watch Sheffield with Kell Brook and Manchester with Ricky Hatton, and now Josh is the one that’s going to set the sail for Leeds.
“I’m a big boxing fan as well, so it’s good to know somebody who has been so successful in the sport. I’m looking forward to following his journey – hopefully to world titles in the not too distant future.”
For Leeds Ladies captain Emma Bentley, it’s just as important to know that her team have Josh’s backing as patron of the phoenix club.
"It’s great that Josh has given that support to us. It’s massive to have somebody like Josh who is now winning European titles saying, ‘Don’t forget, there’s Leeds Ladies as well’ – and publicly supporting us. We need all the help we can get because women’s sport is not big at all, but it’s things like Josh doing that for us that is going to help us become known around the city.
“I don’t want to say it’s a small thing for Josh to do because he’s obviously got to think carefully about who he supports and who he backs, because he’s not going to put his name to just anything. But he is obviously happy to support us and that’s a massive compliment for Leeds Ladies FC.”
“For me, Leeds is the best city in the world,” said Josh. "After winning the British title, something else that I’ve always wanted to do is win the European title and bring a bit of European glory back to Leeds.
“I’ve dreamt of that – of being stood there, singing ‘We are the Champions, Champions of Europe’ – I’ve thought about it many a time. It sounds daft but it was like a living dream on Saturday with all those fans coming out for me, all these Leeds legends around us. It was something special.”