When everything changed for Josh Warrington

After six minutes of action with Lara and a dropped kebab, Josh Warrington is feeling brand new, writes John Evans

IT is seven months since we left Josh Warrington neck deep in a cold, tranquil lake, practising breathing techniques and repairing the bulletproof mindset that Mauricio Lara had punched holes in.

We find him, once again, lost in thought. This time, however, he is wrestling with an issue most of us have faced.

Doner or seekh? Naan or pitta? Hot sauce or mild?

It was 10.30pm on a Saturday night and at the very moment Kid Galahad and Kiko Martínez were fighting for his old featherweight title, Warrington found himself staring at the board in a Leeds kebab shop.

The thought of two of his past victims contesting a belt he never lost in the ring hadn’t driven Warrington to a day on the drink. He didn’t end the night swaying around a taxi rank reminding everybody within earshot that he used to be a champion.

He had managed to get himself into a fight earlier in the evening though.

A raft of late withdrawals left his manager, Steve Wood, with tickets sold but a threadbare small hall show, so Warrington volunteered himself back into action on the circuit that made him. Decked out in a Sports Direct starter kit, Warrington pitched up and boxed four exhibition rounds with gym mate Maxi Hughes.

“I’m a former [IBF] world champion and Maxi is a [IBO] world champion and we’re there on a small hall show in 16oz gloves knocking seven bells out of each other for the sake of a few debutants and fans who’ve turned out,” Warrington told Boxing News. “When we lived close to the city center we were able to get deliveries from this takeaway place and they do bang on kebabs so on the way home I decided I was gonna treat myself and my wife, Tasha.

“I get my phone out and look on Twitter and see Alex Arthur put something about Martinez looking shaky early. That was it. I decided I wasn’t gonna listen to it in the car.”

Kebabs – “Mixed. Doner and chicken. Hot sauce and that yoghurt sauce” in case you were wondering – safely on the passenger seat, Warrington set off home. He had plenty to think about. A couple of months had passed since Mauricio Lara’s cut ended their rematch after just two rounds and events taking place just 30 miles away nagged away at him.

Curiosity takes over but my radio isn’t working. Anyway, about half a mile away from home I’m at some traffic lights and somethings niggling me. I get my phone out of my pocket and there’s 30-odd messages.

“I must have got home in 10 seconds after that. I open the door and first thing I hear is Tasha shouting, ‘Kiko’s world champion!’ I look at the TV and there’s the replay of Barry going down and the kebab’s all over the carpet.

“A few hours later I’m hearing from people who were there that Kiko was on his way back to the dressing room screaming, ‘I want Warrington.’ It’s funny how it works.”

Terms for an IBF title rematch were agreed a couple of days before Christmas. Already dealing with twin girls old enough to know Santa Claus was on his way, Tasha suddenly had another excited body around the house.

“Good old Kiko,” were Warrington’s very first words at the time. “My ribs and hands are aching already.”

One of the strange things about glory is that the brain has a habit of forgetting the discomfort it took to accomplish it. It’s one of the reasons why adventurers return to the Antarctic after losing digits to frostbite and why amateur runners sign up for 26.2 miles of torture around the London Marathon circuit every spring. It is also an extremely useful tool for boxers.

It is almost five years since Warrington ground out a rough, tough decision over Martinez. It was a meaningful victory at the time but his towering victories over Lee Selby, Carl Frampton and Kid Galahad cast a huge shadow over it. There had been no glory to disguise the pain Lara inflicted but it would have been very easy – almost natural – for the years of success to cloud Warrington’s memory of the Martínez fight.

“I remember winning the fight and landing punches but there’s one moment stands out more than any to me,” Warrington said. “It was when I came down off the adrenaline. I was sat in the changing rooms and I think Radio Leeds plonked a microphone under my nose. The adrenaline was wearing off quick, I didn’t wanna speak to anybody. I cut my bandages off and my hands had been hurting anyway but they really started to hurt bad. My ribs started to hurt, my ear had been perforated and that was starting. I remember that feeling. I went away to Mexico about three days after the fight and kept reminding Natasha about it for most of the holiday if I’m honest with you.

Mark Robinson

“I can even go back to a certain memory when I was boxing amateur against a lad called Toby. I think I was about 11 and he was 12. I just couldn’t get past his jab and when I did, he hit me with a right hand. I can still feel the frustration of getting hit constantly on the nose and he bust my lip. I remember leaving the gym crying my eyes out and I knew I’d be sparring him again in a few days. Time can move really slowly and for a good 48 hours I was thinking that I had to do something different. I didn’t wanna feel like that again. I didn’t wanna leave the gym crying and upset. I was thinking all that in a younger mindset obviously but I made myself different. I was in my bedroom slipping. A few days later it was him in tears. I did get past that jab and it was my landing punches when I did get past them long arms. Getting ready for fights with people like Hisashi Amagasa years later, I still remembered how I felt after sparring Toby.

“Remembering can give you a psychological advantage. I don’t wanna feel like I did after fighting Kiko the first time. I wouldn’t mind ending it quickly if I can.”

If Warrington’s memories of one dressing room are helping his mental preparation for Martínez, revelations from another will have just as big a bearing on the rematch.

Headingley Stadium was empty and Mauricio Lara was getting stitched up a few yards away. Less than an hour before, Warrington was at the center of 20,000 people, most of them throwing every punch with him and bracing for every impact, unmarked and bemused, he stayed perched on his bench with only his close friends for company, not wanting to take off his kit and make the switch back to normal life.

Disappointed that months of hard physical and mental work had gone to waste, baffled as to how Lara had caused so much damage seven months earlier and elated about the reception he had received, there was also an underlying feeling of relief. The six minutes of action had at least provided him with some answers.

For months, every training session, every interview and every waking moment had revolved around Lara’s power. Warrington prepared meticulously but knew that there were crucial boxes he just couldn’t tick. There was no way he could be sure how his body would react when Lara inevitably landed but he certainly wasn’t going to shy away from finding out.

“Some of my pals who were at ringside were saying they were watching through their fingers, ‘Why did you have to go in there and have it out? I thought you were gonna box a bit.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They were saying, “Well in that second round you went forward and he caught you. I couldn’t watch.’ “And? Did you turn you back when I went storming in against Selby or Frampton?

“I was battling a lot of stuff mentally. I’d gone through it a lot at home. I’d be lay awake in bed thinking or sat watching telly with Tasha and I’d drift off into thought. ‘What happens if he clocks you? Is that desire still gonna be there in the eighth, ninth and 10th? When you sit down on your stool and your dad takes your gum shield out and asks if you’re ok, am I gonna look him in the eye and say yes or will my head go down?’ I kept telling myself that I’d be ok but those thoughts came back about 20 minutes before the fight. I had to sit down and reassure myself. In the fight itself, everything got restored.

“Listen, now I can reassure you. The shots weren’t having the same sting. He hit me in the first round of the first fight it shock me to my boots at times. This time, I can truly say I wasn’t feeling them. I ticked a lot of boxes. It was an off night, I haven’t lost my chin. I am still there. He didn’t knock me out with one punch did he? He gave me nine rounds of a beating.

“This time around I’ve not had to go through that. I know I’m not done yet. I don’t wanna get to the stage where I realise I’m done in the gym. I wouldn’t entertain the fight. I have a family to come home to and I know how dangerous the sport is.”

The Lara saga has woken him up to his own vulnerability but he is also acutely aware that he got to the top of the mountain by committing fully to every aspect of the sport. If he is going to scale those heights again he knows it won’t happen if he has one hand on the guide rail.

It is why those six minutes spent trading punches with Lara are so important. He has never forgotten how tough Martinez is but now he knows exactly what he can expect from himself. For the first time in over two years, he finds himself in a fight with very few unknowns.

Warrington has always been a fighter with definite targets and an exit route in mind. The pandemic, boxing politics and a Mexican’s fists changed all of that but Warrington isn’t dangerously walking aimlessly into the future without a plan. The same goals that have always driven him but seemed out of reach just months ago have suddenly come back into focus.

As he said, it’s funny how it all works.

“This is me chasing Lee Selby all over again,” he said. “There was fire in the tank before the fight with Lara but there were a lot of mental barriers to get over too. People can say, ‘Kiko’s this’ or ‘Kiko’s that’ but Kiko’s coming to knock me out. I’ve got the bit between my teeth for this.

“I think the pandemic has added a couple of years on for me. I didn’t think I’d go past 33 but there’s the potential that might happen. I’ve set myself a target of how many fights I wanna get to and that’s why I wanna go straight into big fights.

“I liked being at the top. When people call you ‘Champ’ you realise that they’re not just saying it like they say to some boxers, you are a champion. You’ve earned that title. Yeah, I like it. I worked hard to get there and when you’re there you think, ‘I’m not letting this go. I’m gonna keep on conquering every single opponent they put in front of me.’

“After I beat Martinez for the second time I’m going right into big fights. There will be no f**king about having a safe defence. F**k that. I’m a competitive fighter and I still wanna beat the best.”

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