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Josh Warrington: The painful rebuild

It was the most painful lesson that you could possibly learn. 

One night before Valentine’s Day Josh Warrington embarked on a journey through hell inside an empty Wembley Arena against Mauricio Lara. The respective training teams, TV crew, personalities, and officials were the only ones in attendance to witness a 2021 ‘upset of the year’ candidate.

Lara left Mexico City with an arsenal that never needed to be reloaded as his ammunition rained down on Warrington before a left hook sent the overwhelming favourite down for a third time. Referee Howard Foster had seen enough. Nine rounds of punishment were enough, too much in fact. Medical assistance was needed, a painful sight for loved ones watching back home on television. 

The Mexican was supposed to be a stopgap before Warrington would go on to fight Xu Can in a world title unification that would have also had the Ring magazine belt on the line. The ‘Rocky belt’ as Warrington always refers to it and his dream as well.

“I’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster,” said Warrington via Zoom while carrying out another round of media duties, which included speaking to Boxing Social.

It has been nearly nine months since that disaster in London and in over 24 hours the Leeds Warrior will have the chance to avenge his loss. A shot at redemption, a chance to prove the doubters wrong and an evening outdoors at Headingley Stadium where we will discover whether Warrington’s 12-year career carries on or not.

Back to February though.

“For six weeks after [the Lara fight] I was in a neutral head space, I wasn’t thinking about I had been beat or anything like that,” he said. 

“It’s happened, so what, that was my mentality at the time. And then when I went to the Chisora-Parker night [in May], that should have been my night. They weren’t meant to fight; it was scheduled in the Sky calendar that it was going to be my night against Xu. It was going to be announced after I beat Lara and when I went to Manchester to watch the fight I come away and it hit me, and it hit me bad. For about a week or two I was full on sulking. Moping about, head up my arse then it was a case of keep on sulking or I can do something about it. The only way is up because I was at rock bottom. I’m not the only fighter to have had a loss so do something about it. I gave myself a reality check. This rematch is doing something about it.”

Warrington is fully aware of what is on the line tomorrow night. No more slip-ups, no more complacency, everything has to be 100%. He doesn’t believe Lara is a Mexican superstar in the making but in February he made the former IBF featherweight champion look like easy meat. Credit goes to Lara, but Warrington admits the attitude was all wrong. So, what will be different when the first bell goes this time around?

“The approach, the mentality,” he answers.

“They’re two of the biggest things. I’m always fit, I’m always strong, I’m always good for 12 rounds. I’ve got boxing attributes that I can display but it’s the mentality and the approach, the game plan. Can’t be making silly mistakes, can’t go in there and think it’s a given and think I’ll just go in there and break him down within six rounds even though I’ve broken other people who are a higher level than him.”

Warrington is animated throughout the interview. Hands emphasise his points, he taps his head to remind us and himself the mind has to be switched on. He then mimes the fundamentals that were ignored in the first fight.

“I can’t approach it thinking it yeah hold my chin up in the air and throw my shots from here.

“I can’t do that. I need to approach like I do with everyone else. Always think they’re dangerous and you could be hurt if you don’t have the hands high and you don’t catch what’s coming back. Don’t be greedy, don’t think you can throw 20 punches without getting something back. The approach will be the key for this one.”

Pressure is a pivotal word surrounding this make-or-break moment in Josh Warrington’s career. The dial has been turned up with each passing year such has been his achievements. English, Commonwealth and European title fight nights were joyous for his vocal following but the transformation to world level took the noisy nights to a whole new level. Leeds expected the world and Warrington gave it to them until a violent Mexican crushed it all for one night.

“I’ve grown to love it,” Warrington says of the expectations placed on him.

“There were times when I used to feel it as pressure, all these people expect me to win they think it’s a given. Throughout the years I’ve learned to turn that into energy, to a positive to feed off.”

A near 20,000 crowd at Headingley in Leeds may be needed in part two of Lara vs Warrington. You heard the thumping damage that Lara did back in February on TV, the voices of support a bare minimum but the Leeds roar will be back in abundance and in British boxing such an atmosphere can produce powerful and uplifting moments for the home fighter.

“Hearing that roar, the shouting, the screaming, it spills into the ring especially when you get into the second half of the fight. You’ll be on to your second wind and what’s left in the tank, and you think you don’t have anything more, that roar of the crowd carries you over the line. It’s going to be a bonus. I’m not too bothered if he’s scared of it or not, it doesn’t matter, it’s what it can do for me is the difference.”

“It’s absolutely crazy the support I’ve had,” he adds. “My own personal ticket orders, I thought I’d only do a few for the lads that normally get tickets off me, but it’s been off the scale. The support is there in numbers, and it just goes to show that no matter what happens we’re marching on together. Ups and downs they’re there with me through thick and thin and that gives me massive motivation.”

Warrington’s belief he can achieve further world honours is evident in his words. Who knows if it’s the heart or head speaking, the proof will be in the pudding. Time spent talking to him certainly showed displayed a fighter who has learned his lesson. It was a ‘kick up the backside’ in his own words. 

“I need to make sure to polish things up going into the last stages of my career,” he says.

The rebuild is complete but there was a moment of ‘what if’ which came in July when Leigh Wood thoroughly dismantled Xu Can at Matchroom’s Fight Camp. The Chinese whirlwind was a mild breeze as Wood turned down the volume and picked him off with power and precision. Warrington was kicking himself. Not only did the defeat to Lara hurt physically and mentally but watching Wood vs Xu was a case of what might have been.

“I was disappointed with Xu,” Warrington said. “I was expecting a monster. I was expecting a 100 punches a round, 1,000 punches in the fight. I’d looked at his record, but I went back to it, and I looked at the opponents he’d boxed, and I started looking down their records and his best win was against Manny Robles [III] and Manny Robles was made for him for the way he approached the fight. All the other fighters he boxed over in China, were made for him really. He had the height for them, and they just approached him in a straight line, and he beat them with volume. When you break it down from there, I’m not surprised at what Wood did because Xu was in with a real boxer and someone who packs a bit of a punch. He’s taken a bit of leather and he’s not liked it. It’s been as simple as that. He’s been hurt and that’s just stopped him. Wood nullified him with his approach, and I think he boxed a perfect game plan. But, yeah, disappointed with Xu and I was thinking to myself I was meant to fight him for a Ring magazine belt! That’s crazy. A world title is Premier League, but that belt is Champion’s League.”

Dreams of more titles are only that at this stage for Warrington. His run as IBF featherweight champion brought out the very best in him against the likes of Lee Selby and Carl Frampton. Warrington was too much for them on the night just like Lara was for him nine months ago. Aspirations will turn to dust if history repeats itself tomorrow. Warrington reminds us of what he needs to do and what he must not do as well. The Leeds crowd will have to be patient with him throughout. If it’s thunder and lightning they want, then a replay of the first few rounds of Warrington vs Frampton might be a better idea to watch.

“I have to stick to the game plan,” Warrington stresses. “I can impress these fans not by going drastically silly but by winning. I’ve learned to try and not go out and be so exciting and entertaining. It’s about going out there and winning. Everyone remembers the arm getting raised. People are coming to the fight and paying their hard-earned money. I’ve got to make sure I deliver a win for them.”

Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.