Josh Warrington is now a ‘former world champion’ after giving up the IBF title. It’s not a tag he wanted or expected at this stage of his career but he hopes the move will grant him the freedom to become the champion he deserves to be, writes John Evans
WHEN you carry the boxing hopes of an entire city the questions never stop and even in the midst of a pandemic they never really change. For the past 15 months they have been almost impossible to answer.
‘When are you fighting, Josh?’
‘When are we going to Vegas, Josh?’
‘When are we unifying, Josh?’
“I think some people think I have a boxing glove inside my head,” Josh Warrington told BN with a laugh.
The unexpected and the unknown don’t sit well with the unbeaten 30 year old. Numbers and reps are logged and recorded, tactics are perfected and even his ring walks are visualised. Warrington likes to leave as little to chance of possible. There is method behind the marauding.
“I’m a deep thinker at times. If I miss the first 10 minutes of a football match and we lose I’ll turn that over in my head afterwards. If I’d been there 10 minutes earlier what could have been? I’m terrible like that. Or if I didn’t go to that thing with the boys I’ll play out different scenarios about what it might have been like and what might have happened,” said Warrington, who faces Mexican Mauricio Lara on February 13. “I’m bad enough with day-to-day s**t so God knows what it would be like if I had to deal with that after I’ve retired and years down the line I’m still wondering what I could have done or achieved.
“Curiosity definitely kills the cat with me. I’m always searching for the answer. I always need to know what, if and why.”
Warrington’s beloved IBF featherweight title – thought to be the key to unification clashes and American trips – didn’t open any locks and is gone. Beating Carl Frampton in one of the most exciting fights of 2018 should have kicked down the door to super-fights but instead, Warrington has been kept outside hoping to be let in. Almost three years after winning his world title, he is still wondering just how good he is.
Can Xu, Kid Galahad, Gary Russell Jnr, Leo Santa Cruz, the IBF, Eddie Hearn, the WBA, Golden Boy Promotions, Al Haymon, Mauricio Lara. Boxing should be a simple sport but the sheer number of moving parts that have been in motion since Warrington blitzed Sofiane Takoucht 15 months ago could fill a Haynes’ manual. The more complicated a mechanism the more likely it is to seize up and relinquishing his belt is Warrington’s last ditch attempt at oiling the wheels.
In the grand scheme of things those three letters – IBF – mean little. Warrington will forever be known as a world champion and is currently rated the number one featherweight in the world, but the piece of red leather he had to voluntarily hand over was the symbol of 20 years of hard work.
“I’m a former world champ now. It’s a weird feeling. I didn’t wanna lose my title like this. I’d rather have gone out on my back but in order to win the Ring Magazine belt and fight against the other names it’s the only way I could do it,” he said. “I was sat up in bed talking with Tasha [his wife] the other week. This year could have been my last full year in the sport if 2020 had gone to plan. Nobody could have predicted what’s gone on but I’m one of the only British fighters that hasn’t been out, let alone world champions.
“To get to where I wanna be in my career and financially, I might have to take a longer route. What I might have been able to achieve in two fights might now take four in the current climate. You have to change directions and plans. You can have a perfect road mapped out in your mind but it just doesn’t happen. My original plan was three or four fights and then see where I go. I’m at the pinnacle of the sport and love being in this position. The talk of a big fight in front of me very much excites me. It’s what you wanna be a part of the sport for.
“I’m excited to be competing again but I’m not happy. This [Lara] isn’t the fight I want. I’m number one in the world. It’s not about me making any kind of statement, I did that when I won the world title and defended it. It’s all about whether these other fellas wanna fight.”
Not every fighter who turns professional can become a world champion but each and every one of them dreams of reaching the summit of their own particular mountain. Warrington has been disappointed by the view from the top. He expected the fighters at the highest level to be as desperate to prove themselves as those who he scrapped and fought with for pennies and regional titles.
Warrington wants the fight that gives him butterflies when it is agreed and that promises to test not only a lifetime’s worth of training but the qualities that are impossible to learn or hone. He knows that those are the nights which change fighting lives forever.
However the fights eventually play out and however the boxers involved chose to deal with the results, in their private moments they can take pride in knowing they tested their ability at the highest level they could. Some will spend the rest of their days reveling in famous victories. Some will gracefully accept defeat. Others will resort to thinking up excuses or apportioning blame. At least the long days after boxing aren’t spent wondering.
If it really is the not knowing that kills you, retiring with unanswered questions must be an agonising death, the type of cruel gnawing ache that can lead to ill advised comebacks.
“It’s the ‘what if’s’ that are hard to deal with and it’s the unknown that would pick away at me. I’ve lived the life. I’ve been dedicated and very patient. I haven’t gone about shouting for fights on twitter. I’ve left it to my management team. I’ve been the underdog many times. I was only supposed to get to English title level. After that I wouldn’t have the punch power or boxing ability to go on.
“I’m not saying I’ll go out there and destroy every single featherweight on the planet. I know they’re all tough fights. Every time I walk to the ring I get this adrenaline rush and I prepare myself for a physical and mental war. I’m yet to have one of those fights where I get off my stool and I’m barely able to stand up. I’ve yet to be pushed right to the limit. Maybe that’s a good thing but that’s always been the satisfaction that I’m looking for. That’s the craving I’ve got. I want a fight that drags everything out of me. I’d be satisfied then. You’ve had a war of a fight and unified the division. You’ve drained the tank and maybe then you start looking at what’s more important. That might never happen and I’m gonna have to live with that.”
There is hope. The featherweight division might have lost a bit of star power but maybe a hefty lump of ego left along with it. WBA champion, Xu, at least made his way to the negotiating table and it is hoped he will eventually make it to the ring in April. WBO champion Emanuel Navarette actually called Warrington’s name out after he won his title.
The worry remains that if the thought of a high paying, high octane unification fight with the only featherweight in the world capable of selling out a stadium didn’t tempt his rivals then a hard fight in a curtained off arena becomes an even less appealing prospect.
As next week’s fight with Lara draws closer, expect to hear time and time again that the pressure is on Warrington to perform and ensure that his career-defining fights don’t slip away. In reality, the pressure should be on everybody but Warrington. “When I won the world title I was part of the most exciting division in world boxing. Obviously it’s lightweight now. Those guys are all exciting and looking to fight each other. When I became world champion, it was my division,” he said with more than hint of frustration. “Gary Russell, Leo Santa Cruz and Oscar Valdez. All that needed to be done was make unification fights. I went straight into a fight with Carl Frampton and thought other big ones would follow after that. I had my mandatory with Galahad but then the cracks began showing. The demands for money and purses that were getting thrown about were off the scale.
“Navarette is probably the most realistic one but he doesn’t have the same kind of fire as me against Russell. Or me against Valdez. Or me against Santa Cruz. Any combination of us was always going to be exciting. It’s not as big as it should have been. It’s only the fault of themselves and the people they have around them.
“Fighters make fights. Santa Cruz has just bought a Lamborghini off Mayweather. He hasn’t bought that on PCP has he? He’s not short of a few quid but they’re still demanding 3 million plus. They all want to be Floyd but none of them are him. Floyd went through his hardship fights early in his career. They aren’t generating billions of pounds for the local economy. They want to be fast tracked. It’s the millennial mindset. In and out, bank job.”
Get rich quick schemes have never really appealed to Warrington. There is an old Yorkshire saying, ‘Where there’s muck there’s brass’ and Warrington spent years doing the dirty work, knowing – assuming – it would pay off in the long run.
Twenty-twenty should have been the year he secured a legacy and earned enough money to ensure his daughters can live any life they want. Those plans have been screwed up and thrown in the same bin as the posters that were drawn up for a proposed fight with Xu, but giving up his IBF belt is Warrington’s attempt at cutting through reams of boxing red tape and making up for lost time. It is a gamble, but free of any obligations he is able to take the biggest and most lucrative fights available.
There was another alternative. He could have accepted the situation, kept his title and settled in for the long haul, racking up the wins against mandatory challengers and hand-picked opponents. After all, even a lifer who clocks in day after day for years gets a gold clock when they finally decide to retire.
“No,” he cut in. “I don’t wanna accept that. I want to still think that we can fight the champions that are around.
“That whole mentality has changed. Life goes on outside boxing and I’ve realised that it’s only a chapter. You’re a long time retired. I’ve got kids and I want to extend my family and you want to be healthy. When me and Tasha weren’t married and didn’t have kids, I used to think that I’d try and win at as high a level as I could and when I lost, I’d come back down and try and win that Lord Lonsdale belt outright. I always wanted to do that. I thought I’d retire around 36 or 37. That’s changed. I wanna retire at the top and finish the sport strong and go from there. I don’t wanna be chasing it.
“I might have to add a year onto my career but it won’t go any further than that. The sad reality of that is that I might never achieve what
I wanted to – or what I thought I was capable of – purely because of the business side of the sport.”
The fact that Warrington is already preparing himself for the possibility of retiring with unanswered questions could be seen as a downside to his overthinking or it could be seen as a positive. After all, too many fighters wake up on their first day in retirement without any idea what their future will hold. What it shouldn’t be seen as is a sign that the fire inside is dying. However his career pans out, when the moment does come to call time, Warrington will have to douse the flames, the fire isn’t going to peter out itself.
“I know I said there’s more to life than boxing and there is but the people around me have all shaped their own lives to help me achieve my dream and thats the frustrating thing. It’s time I wont get back. My childhood and my teenage years are all coming down to these moments now. I can be satisfied with what I’ve achieved. Financially I’ve gone beyond what I thought I could do. It’s that unknown that can drive you mad though.
“I absolutely love the sport. If anything, watching from the sofa has made me itch badly. In the first part of lockdown I read a memoir of Mike Tyson and Cus D’Amato and a book about Jack Dempsey. It’s only when you sit back and reflect on where you actually are in the sport and what you’ve achieved. I’m a world champion and made three defence. That’s not bad is it? Thousands come through the gate to watch me perform.
I want to relish and enjoy what’s left because I know it won’t last forever.
“In another two years’ time I’ll be done. I want it but it’s not happening and it’s out of my hands.”