It looked like 2021 was going to kick off in spectacular fashion for Josh Warrington. 

A featherweight unification against WBA ‘Regular’ champion Can Xu appeared to be done and dusted with just an announcement to confirm a potential punch stat record-breaker. However, unlike last year when Warrington rejoined Matchroom Boxing only to see the fight disappear because of the Coronavirus, this time around the breakdown has been because of matters far less serious.

The two title-holders had been respectful of one another with barely a bitter word crossing the waters. But the landscape has changed and the mutual appreciation society is now two members short.

“And for good reason as well,” Warrington told Boxing Social.

His response to, ‘It seems like there is needle between you both now,’ continued to build.

“I’ve always gone about my business without the drama of boxing,” said Warrington. “I understand why people want to chuck tables at each other and do what they’ve got to do to build the audience of the fight, but I’ve always let my punches and my performances do it and take care of that.”

And build.

“My disappointment was we’ve had this fight [with Xu] in the pipeline for a long, long time and he has wanted the fight seemingly as well. Before Christmas we were more or less ready to announce it. I’ve got the artwork on my phone for the poster and was ready to put it on my social media. It’s there: Can Xu vs Josh Warrington. The date, the details and I’m telling some of my pals there’s an announcement coming so stand by your phones and get ready for it. Then it goes quiet and all of a sudden, it’s not happening.

“Normally, you hear a whisper and from that whisper you get an idea and you half prepare yourself but this all of a sudden came from nowhere and then next minute I’m not fighting him and it’s like why? My frustration was his reasoning that he wanted to wait for a crowd. There was a little bit of bad Covid but money’s [the] main factor and he wants to wait for a crowd.”

Warrington has already been vocal about his new disdain for Xu, which has seen the seemingly mild-mannered man from Beijing fight verbal fire with fire. In a video broadcast last month, Xu said it was “insane” to fight in the UK at the moment during such precarious times. Xu went on to call the Leeds warrior a “30-year-old baby who only wants to fight at home”. 

“You’ve got an opportunity to fight the world’s No.1 ranked featherweight, [potentially for the] Ring magazine belt, IBF belt, his belt, career best payday for him. Why do you not want to fight?” Warrington said.

“To talk about no crowds, too, is ridiculous. There is talk of the likes of the Olympics getting closed down, we’re fortunate to still be able to compete. For the life of me, I couldn’t get my head round it. I let my feelings known. I was abrupt and a bit nasty with him, but I don’t hold anything back. He calls himself a fighter wanting to be the best, well you go through thick and thin to make that happen. If I had to fight him in his back garden I would do it with the neighbours hanging over the fence! It seems like it weren’t a perfect scenario for him. I’m a little bit disappointed and I think that’s why I said a few things and he responded. That’s where we’re at. Maybe he’ll realise it’s a potential opportunity missed when it comes to renegotiating. Maybe he’ll take the fight straight away, we’ll see.”

Warrington hopes a long-trailed fight with Xu still takes place in 2021.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

For the here and now, Warrington is just a few days away from fighting Xu’s replacement Mauricio Lara (21-2, 14 KOs). A 22-year-old Mexican who is making all the right “war” noises but who many know little about. The fight itself will be Warrington’s first non-title affair for over three years. His vacating of the IBF title hit the headlines as much if not more than his column inches spat with Xu. Two-and-a-half years, three defences including wins over Lee Selby and Carl Frampton are now for the history books. Warrington wants to create more history. He wants to be remembered for being more than the IBF featherweight champion.

“People say it’s a step back. No, it’s not a step back it’s a different route, I keep repeating that,” said Warrington whose frustrations were being kept for his sparring partners and training regimes.

“Lots can happen in 12 months and I’m not going to be dictated by that one belt. By the end of my career what do you want to say? ‘Oh yeah, Josh Warrington were IBF champ and had a few defences’ or do you say, ‘Yeah, Josh Warrington a multiple belt winner. Two-time, three-time champion and fought the big names’. I’ve done so much in my career that I never thought I would be able to achieve but I still feel like I’ve got more to bring. I still feel like I beat any of the other names in the division. Why am I going to be dictated by that one belt?

“Ultimately, in a year’s time, people could be saying Josh Warrington has got the WBA, WBC and he’s talking about moving up in weight and then all of a sudden it’s forgot about. Ultimately, some fighters get to a stage where belts don’t matter no more. It’s about the big fights. I know the path I want to be on, and my team knows where we want to be and where we’re going. There’s no worry for me and I’m fully focused, and I believe I’ll go on and win another world title. Two-time champion sounds even better on your résumé.”

Warrington’s father and trainer Sean O’Hagan has been bluntly reminding him of the short-term future should he lose to Lara on Saturday night. ‘Listen, you need to keep yourself sharp because if you get beat by this fella you’re back down to European level’. The unbeaten Warrington is well aware of the disasters just around the corner. Experience counts for a lot in any walk of life and any world-class fighter would be a fool to think they cannot be beaten. Warrington doesn’t talk like someone who thinks he can just breeze by Lara. Training has not slackened, if anything his eye is on the ball far more. There is one worry, however, and it is of giving a flat performance. Warrington reminded himself of what is now his final IBF defence against Sofiane Takoucht.

“People are going to expect a big performance. People are going to expect me to blast him [Lara] out of there. I feel like I was in this position against Takoucht. I delivered with a big performance but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel pressure beforehand. It doesn’t mean I didn’t think about what if this guy upsets you and something happens. I don’t mind that pressure because I think it’s needed to keep you sharp. I’ve heard a few people say it’s going to be an easy fight for Josh [against Lara]. I don’t want to hear that.”

What he wants to hear is what his Dad warned him about.

“That’s what I want to hear because that keeps me firing and keeps me sharp,” said Warrington. “There’s no pressure on this guy’s shoulders. For all we know, he could come out running at me from the first bell wailing punches willy-nilly. There’s no pressure, it doesn’t matter, he’s expected to get beat. For me, I’ve still got to deliver. What keeps me sharp is keeping the dream alive, getting the Ring magazine [belt] fight, getting the big fights with the other champions but I gotta beat this guy. It don’t matter who is in front of you. There’s a man with two arms and two gloves trying to punch your head in. You get beat you go back down the ladder. I’ve been about the sport long enough to have seen people cause an upset in big fights to know that there’s too much going on to even take your eye off the ball for a split second. We’ve stayed massively focused, massively switched on and that’s what’s going to be needed to make sure I give a devastating performance.”

So, 2021 hasn’t given the start that Warrington wanted. Ten months in the year to go, so much can still happen. Even a week is a long time in boxing. He has his path; his team know what they want to achieve, and nothing has really changed except there is no belt to carry to the ring or raise aloft. The Xu fight will likely happen, and the anticipation will be even greater because of the verbal shots. Another world title, a unification and for Warrington that much sought-after Ring magazine belt. That would mark the perfect year. 

“Being a world champion is lovely,” he began before the lid on his love for the ‘Rocky belt’ was lifted off. 

“I’ve got an IBF ring downstairs [in my house]; I’ve had three successful world title defences of that belt. But the Ring magazine belt? Nobody can argue with your position then. I’m ranked number one now by their rankings but to have that belt cements it. You can go get knocked out by Joe Bloggs in the next fight, it don’t matter I’ve got a Ring magazine belt. There’s not many fighters that get to that kind of level throughout the world and then that Ring magazine belt. It doesn’t take someone who is top three with a governing body and who has an international belt, it takes the very, very best. To have something like that can never be taken away from you. It’s the Rocky belt!

“We’ve had world champions but not many get to fight for that and have one of them and get to display it in their house. It’s like a footballer winning a Champion’s League medal or a World Cup medal. It’s the ultimate. It’s the crème de la crème. I’d probably be wearing it round the supermarket!” 

A focused Warrington isn’t taking Lara for granted.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

Main image and all photos: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.