josh warrington: “has it been that long since we’ve had someone to follow?”Back
When you’re a boxing champion, the game changes. You’re no longer one of a group of hopefuls trying to get the belt from somebody else – everybody else is trying to get that belt away from you.
From having nothing to lose, now every time you step into the ring you risk losing something you worked so hard to get. As Josh Warrington says, “One punch can change everything. You can’t afford to put a step wrong.”
As a champ, you have to be careful about how you stay a champ. You need to watch for the challenges from below while you work out a way to climb higher and leave them all behind.
Having won and then defended the Commonwealth featherweight title, Josh Warrington found himself at the point where he could start looking toward European titles, to challenges that would take him on to the world stage; the Commonwealth title is already a world stage of its own, fought for by boxers from Commonwealth nations across the world.
But when Josh Warrington stepped into the ring at Leeds First Direct Arena in April, he wasn’t there for a European title or a world chance; he was putting the Commonwealth title on the line for a different reason. He was already the featherweight champion of the old British Empire; now it was time to be featherweight champion of Britain itself, and more importantly, to win the Lonsdale Belt.
“When I started boxing, I set out to be British champion, and to win the Lonsdale Belt,” says Josh. “That was always my goal, and I never looked past that. The Commonwealth is regarded as a higher level, but I still had the British title to get. Winning that has been my dream.”
He won it like a dream, too. Roared on by a hometown crowd in Leeds’ newly-built Arena, Josh had one hand on the title from the very first round, and he didn’t let it slip. Twelve rounds later, a unanimous judges’ decision meant the Lonsdale Belt was his.
“I knew I’d won it,” says Josh. “But it was different when I finally got that belt. I think even if I’d knocked him out and he’d been lying on the mat, I still wouldn’t have believed it until they said my name and gave me that belt.”
Watching the video of the moment when the result was read out, for a second or two it doesn’t look as though Josh is going to react. Then the realisation comes. His right fist punches the air as the referee lifts his left arm, then Josh sinks to his knees, his head flung back as he yells – Yes!
“I can’t describe that moment when I sank to my knees. I was getting quite emotional – then I remembered. I thought, hang on, I’m on TV here, so I had to get back up.
“In the changing rooms afterwards the guy from the BBBofC [British Boxing Board of Control] came in and he gave me the whole speech – about how it’s a new belt, its worth £15,000, I could keep it for two weeks and then they’ll take it back. They’ll engrave my name on it and then when I go for a defence, I get it back.”
The Lonsdale Belt is like Wimbledon, the FA Cup or the Ryder Cup; there are more lucrative prizes out there, but they don’t have the prestige, the history, or the quality that makes someone like Josh want to lay a Commonwealth title on the line so he can take it home with him. “It’s all gold,” he says. “The porcelain insets are all hand painted. There’s so much history behind it – it goes back to 1909, and it’s the oldest belt in boxing. If you defend it twice you get to keep it, and that…”
Josh’s voice trails off whenever he talks about the chance of keeping his belt forever. Although he nearly lost both it and the Commonwealth belt within a week of the fight.
“I was walking over to my mate’s house with them through Gipton. They weren’t even in their cases and I stopped myself and just thought – what are you doing! I wasn’t in any condition – my hands were sore, my body was aching – any little kid could have come and taken them off me!”
Josh is entitled to be in a bit of a daze. He became English featherweight champion in November 2012, and in the eighteen months since he defended that title twice, won the Commonwealth title and defended it twice, and is now both Commonwealth and British champion. He has gone from fighting in leisure centres to winning and defending titles in arenas in Hull and Manchester, as well as Leeds’ own arena and Town Hall. The momentum has driven Josh forwards, with his support team – and his dad in his corner – always having the next goal in sight.
“Straight after I defended my English title for the second time at the Pavilion at Elland Road, as I was coming out of the ring they said, ‘You’ve got a shot at the Commonwealth in five weeks.’ So I said, right, well that’s Sunday dinner out the window.”
They did it to him again after Josh defended that Commonwealth title in Manchester against Rendall Monroe – just four weeks later Josh was in the ring at Leeds Arena adding the British championship to his honours.
“I’ve matured mentally over the last few fights,” he says. “Winning the Commonwealth in Hull was good because I’d been written off – Samir Mouneimne was unbeaten and a lot of people thought I wasn’t going to win. But going there and winning away in the twelfth round – that was a real highlight.
“Defending it was superb, against a big name in Rendall Munroe, in a massive arena in Manchester – you would think walking in there might throw me a little bit, because of the size of it, but it didn’t bother me a bit. I thrived off it, I really did.
“They really looked after me that night. I got chauffeured down to the venue, I had my own changing room – normally you share a room with three or four other lads. There was a big walk out to the ring, and I thrived off it, I really loved it. And I think that’s a bit of mental maturity, of me getting used to it.”
As well as getting used to the new scale of his surroundings, Josh has had to adapt to the higher profile of his opponents in the last eighteen months. As a fan of Rendall Munroe, defending his title against him in a fight that marked the end of Munroe’s career was a big moment for Josh, and a moment that was about composure rather than glory.
“For weeks before that fight I’d been playing an image over and over in my head, of being in a fight with Rendall Munroe and winning it – and thinking to myself, ‘Bloody hell, I’m beating Rendall Munroe here.’ I had played that scenario over and over again. And then in the fight I had that scenario.
“A lot of people were saying, he’s going to come at you, he’s going to give you the hardest fight, but after the first round – you could hear it on Sky – I said to my dad in the corner, ‘He’s got nowt!’ It was a bit cocky, but I was so fired up because I’d been expecting this big wave to come. And my dad said, ‘I don’t want to hear that! Just keep yourself composed!’”
There was no sign of cockiness six rounds later after Munroe had retired in his corner with an injured mouth. After taking the congratulations of his team, Josh went to speak to Munroe as he sat with his head covered by a bloodied towel, facing the end of his career; when the referee announced the result, Josh immediately led the crowd in showing appreciation for his opponent.
“I was a fan of Munroe before the fight. And I got the win against a very big name, which was the most important thing for me. So there was no need to rub it in or be arrogant about it – I just wanted to show my respect for him.”
Josh’s corner’s influence, with his dad at the heart of it, was also vital to the British title win at the Arena. It was the biggest fight of Josh’s career, against another experienced opponent in Martin Lindsay, at home in front of a passionate crowd, with two titles at stake – but from the first bell it was clear that the Lonsdale Belt was there for Josh if he wanted it.
“I knew he had a big left hand, and he’s got a big right hand as well, but I knew I could get around faster than him so that’s what I tried to do. He’s an experienced guy and he tried to slow things down, but I wasn’t going to go down to his pace – I wanted to keep doing what I wanted to do.
“After about the sixth or seventh round, I knew I was well ahead, but I just had to keep concentrating. I was telling my corner I was going to win it, and they were telling me not to get carried away, to take it easy, not to lose it. I remember my dad saying, ‘Do you want to be British champion or not?’ It didn’t stop me having a bit of a flurry at him in the 11th and 12th though – with the crowd going I couldn’t help myself, and I wanted them to enjoy it. But I knew I had to keep concentrating, and not do anything stupid.”
Josh’s level-headed attitude, and his eye-catching last eighteen months, have brought him a lot of respect from his peers, and support from across the city. Josh’s nickname is The Leeds Warrior, and he’s aware of the responsibility that comes with representing the city.
“Fighting at the Town Hall was a massive landmark for me. When I was stood outside promoting the fight, and walking around and thinking about it, I was just buzzing. But the Arena was something else.
“I didn’t think it was going to come so soon. When it was being built I drove past it every day, and I’d think that one day, one day I’d be there. When they first announced it there was an animated video of what it would look like inside when it was full, and part of that video showed boxing in there, with posters all over the city. I remember thinking, that could be me.
“I’d pictured it many times when I sat and thought about my future in boxing – of driving to the Arena and seeing all the people coming to see me. That it would be great to be doing it for the people of Leeds.
“I am very proud to be from Leeds and I want to be at the front line of getting Leeds back on the map for boxing. We have got some really good pros coming through, we had the success at the Olympics with Nicola Adams, and there are some good amateurs like Jack Bateson, and we’re all coming through together. But a lot of people are putting me at the front of that pack, leading the way, which is an honour but it sometimes doesn’t feel real.
“It’s a responsibility as well, so that I have to keep winning. I say to my pals that if I win, it’s not just me who benefits, but other boxers will benefit as well. There’s Damo Jones coming through from Armley, and young Terry Broadbent, he’s a good pro who has been a prizefighter. If I’m fighting on these big shows, they’re going to have the opportunity to fight on the undercard and get their own exposure on Sky Sports. People will come and say, Josh Warrington’s on from Leeds, Damo’s on from Leeds, they’ll come and support their own. We all get behind each other because if we all keep winning, then we’re all winners.”
Respect and support in the city has also come from the sporting fraternity outside boxing. Before his second English title defence in September Josh was invited to meet the Leeds United squad at Thorp Arch, and then United captain Ross McCormack has been a vocal supporter. The Rhinos have been getting behind Josh too, with a big contingent of players attending the Arena fight, where Jamie Peacock carried Josh’s Commonwealth belt into the ring.
“He’s a friend of a friend, and after I beat Munroe he got in contact with my pal and said, ‘Ask him if he wouldn’t mind me bringing the belt into the ring.’
“I rang him and we talked about it, and then fifteen minutes later he rang me back. ‘Josh, I’ve just been speaking to the press, they’re all over it. Can you get down here tomorrow?’
“I went to Headingley and there was Look North there, and they had us on the pitch for photos and all that stuff. We got a photo together and his hand was as big as my head! They were talking to Jamie and they asked him, ‘What can Josh bring to this city in terms of boxing?’ And he said, ‘He’s a massive ambassador for boxing, he’s flying the flag for the city, we’re all behind him, Leeds United and Leeds Rhinos…’
“I was thinking, bloody hell man! Jamie Peacock has won everything, he’s been and done it and he’s still smashing it. A legend like that, it was sending shivers up my spine.”
Josh still talks about United and Rhinos players like a fan, but it’s clear that they recognise the talent in Josh, and that his prowess as a boxer and a champion adds another dimension to the city’s sporting strength.
“You look up to them because they’re good in their sport, and they look up to you because you’re good in your sport,” says Josh. “I said to Jamie that it feels like a city united, all as one. And I think that’s how we should go about it. It’s great to have the football and rugby teams behind me, and to have people calling me a flag bearer. To have the city behind me pushing me forwards is great.”
With the city’s football team in the doldrums for so long, Rhinos have had to bear the burden of bringing sporting success to Leeds, but Josh is offering people a new hero.
“Nicola Adams is an inspiration, and she’s been an inspiration for a lot of people. I’ve known Nicola since I first started out – we trained at the same gym on York Road, and she was already really skilful back then. I wished her luck before the Olympics, and she did the business there and brought a good bit of glory to the city of Leeds. She ignited the love of sport for a lot of people around the city.
“It’s been a while – I dropped some tickets off for a fella before my fight at the Arena, and I asked if he goes to see boxing regularly. He said no, the last time was when he used to go and watch Henry Wharton in the mid-nineties. I was thinking, bloody hell, has it really been that long since we’ve had someone to follow?”
The following building behind Josh from among United and Rhinos fans is starting to resemble the support Ricky Hatton used to get from Manchester City fans, and Josh credits the crowd at the British title fight at the Arena for playing a big part in his win.
“It was like a wall of noise. I remember the ninth round was amazing – from the first bell to the last, the crowd was singing all the way through.
“It’s great to have that. Back at the Town Hall fight there were times when I felt a bit flat, but the crowd spurred me on. Every time I heard the crowd roar, it gave me a little incentive to go forward. Obviously you’ve got to control that, if you get too giddy you might get a bit wild, but it definitely gives me that energy to carry on.
“When I won the Commonwealth title in Hull all the crowd was against me, but a few Leeds had come over and I could hear that lot going berserk and screaming all sorts. It made me push forward for them.”
That intensity is a lot for a young boxer to handle; Josh gets the kind of support given to United or Rhinos, but while there are eleven or thirteen of them, Josh is in the ring on his own with nowhere to hide.
“It was funny at the Arena because Jamie Peacock was really nervous. He was asking what he should do when he got in the ring, where he should stand. I was getting ready, getting in the zone and concentrating on what I was doing, but I kept looking up and here’s Jamie Peacock, an absolute legend, heavy breathing and nervous!
“I got a text from him the next day saying, He’s done some stuff in rugby league, but that had been one of the best experiences of his life. You can imagine what that means to me.”
Right now Josh is living through some of the best experiences of his life, and you get the sense that, with the Commonwealth title won and the lifetime ambition of winning the Lonsdale belt achieved, Josh is only beginning to realise what’s possible. There was one word that kept getting used after Josh defeated Martin Lindsay at the Arena – ‘flawless’ – and achieving that British title goal could be just the end of the first chapter.
“There’s no reason to stop now,” says Josh. “I can just keep going. I looked down the list of the top boxers in the world and I’m at 27 – but all the boxers above me are 27 or 28 years old. I’m 23, I’m like a baby of boxing, and I’m gatecrashing the party. There’s a long way for me to go, so why not keep going?”
For now the furthest Josh plans to go is the seaside – immediately after winning the British title, he told Sky Sports he was off to get some fish and chips – and however far he gets in boxing, you don’t get the feeling that Josh will move far away from the people of Leeds. He still has his job as a dental technician, where he has been fully supported in pursuing his dream; and it doesn’t seem like he’ll break the habit of driving around the city delivering tickets in person, as he did before the Arena fight.
“I like doing that,” he says. “I think it surprises a few people – they don’t expect the fighter to bring their tickets round himself. But I love speaking to people and seeing the faces of the people who are coming to support me, and I picture them in the ring when I need to keep going – I know that person is out there in the crowd, and it makes me want to do it for them.”
Then there’s Josh’s dad, Sean, who definitely won’t let him get carried away.
“He just hammers me!” says Josh. “I remember doing some photos after one of the weigh-ins, and I was doing all these poses for the cameras. Suddenly he’s yelling at me across the room in front of everybody, ‘What do you think you look like?’, just taking the piss out of me. I’m like, cheers dad.
“He did send me a message after I won the British title. He doesn’t really do texts, but he sent me something that night and it meant a lot. Then next morning he got the recording out. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Let’s sit down, and I’ll show you where you could have done better.’”
That’s where Josh Warrington, boxing champion, is right now. Commonwealth champ, British champ, and holder of the Lonsdale Belt. And ready to get even better.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 14