Features

Lee Selby: Second Nature

It was a tiny social club in the Welsh Valleys. He stood at the entrance soaking up the scene in front of him. This was his first fight. His opponent was wearing shorts belonging to his father. A cloud of smoke hovered over the ring. He was 10 years old. 

“I thought to myself I can beat him.”

Lee Selby is now 34 and believes that there are more victories out there for him that can once again decorate a career which has already brought a world title at featherweight. The birth certificate will tell you he is reaching the veteran stage in his life as a fighter. Selby would dispute that, it’s only a number after all, and these last two years have proved to be an interruption where the miles on the clock have been minimal.

“When I turned pro, I said 35 would be a nice age to retire,” he told Boxing Social.

“But with the pandemic we lost two years basically. Two years of less sparring, less fights. It will depend on the fights and the opportunities I suppose.”

Retirement sounds like a conversation that is still some time off. Selby informed Boxing Social that he had been offered a big fight in America recently. He has agreed his side of the bargain. That was a few weeks ago. 

The Welsh lightweight says he will fight this year regardless of the stature of his 32nd bout. It’s been nearly a year since we watched Selby in a boxing ring. An IBF world title eliminator against Australia’s George Kambosos Jr on October 31 last year. Wembley Arena, no crowd and the eerie atmosphere we had all become accustomed to. Selby lost for the third time in his career. Kambosos joining Samir Mouneimne (in 2009) and Josh Warrington nine years later to own a win over him. 

The split decision victory has Kambosos waiting around for a shot at undisputed champion Teofimo Lopez. It’s become one of boxing’s on/off sagas. As for Selby, he hasn’t watched the fight back. Doesn’t tend to anyway, especially the ones he loses.

His recollections though are of little difficulty on the night and a touch of regret.

“When I was in the fight, I thought this is the easiest fight I’ve had. I thought I was winning behind the jab, I didn’t really get caught with nothing. I just kept it basic. I thought it was easy. To be honest, it was one of the easiest fights I’ve had in years. Usually after a fight you’re aching, I struggle to get out of bed sometimes. Every muscle aches, there’s black eyes but I was fresh as a daisy the next day. And at the time I thought I was winning, my corner thought I was winning so I just kept it basic, kept it simple. Looking back, because I found it so easy, I should have stepped on the gas and dug in. I should have went flat out and steamed into him and just beat him up.”

Does he give Kambosos a chance at beating Lopez if and when they meet?

“He doesn’t punch hard enough to keep Lopez off. If Lopez lands, it’s dangerous,” he answered.

The result was a Halloween nightmare. Cheddar commentary aside Selby isn’t one for dwelling on what might have been. Life moved on, the pandemic remained, and normality was not normal, but he enjoyed the peace nonetheless

“Early on, during the lockdowns when I was in the house, I quite enjoyed it,” he said. “I was training in my house. I was going on countryside walks with the family, spent loads of time with the family and the kids. Nobody calling my house, it was nice, I enjoyed it. Out with the dogs, too. I didn’t have to go shopping in the supermarket with my missus, got it delivered to the house!”

While Selby waits for news on his next fight, he can draw relief and satisfaction knowing his stock is still high, particularly with the IBF. Winning a world title with an organisation in a different division carries its own weight and can sometimes assure you a healthy rating whether you move up or down a few pounds. As things stand, Selby sits at No.4 in the IBF Top Ten. Above him sit Gustavo Lemos, Isaac Cruz and George Kambosos respectively. The former featherweight champion is keeping an eye on all things tied to the red belt.

“When I’d seen they put me down to No.7 [which Selby appealed] I thought it’s going to be hard to get back up into title contention but now they’ve got me No.4 I’d be next in line for an eliminator. I know I can beat those names above me like Lamos. I think I beat Kambosos in a rematch and I’d have a good chance against Cruz as well.”

The hunger and appetite remain. It’s been his life since his childhood went into double digits. Boxing is second nature to Lee Selby. He’s never been tagged as the Welsh Gatti, but has been labelled the Welsh Mayweather in the past, so he feels fresh after 32 fights where his fast hands and ability to get out of trouble have ensured no heavy punishment.

“I’m still very fit. Fitter than all the youngsters coming through in the gym, like all the new pros who are nice and fearless,” he says. “I feel fresh. Haven’t really had hard fights. I’ve had fights where I’ve been cut, loads of blood but I haven’t really took massive shots and I haven’t been on the ropes under fire, sustained attacks.”

Life in the gym seems to have taken Selby’s mind to the future. He finds himself passing on advice to the kids coming through the doors. There may be a coach inside him ready to teach when the time is right. Would he do it?

“I don’t know about the pros because half of the time the older ones don’t want to listen, but the kids look up to you, they listen. I’d maybe coach the amateurs.”

And the best advice he can give?

“Move your head. Just basic boxing. I see stuff they don’t realise they’re doing wrong. I think I would be a good coach because I know exactly what needs to be done. I know how to box, how to set up shots. I can go through the whole fight with a plan, some boxers don’t though, and some trainers don’t. All I see sometimes is fancy pad work and fighters going forward. It’s crap.”

While Selby carries on with his life in boxing, there was a departure from the British and world lightweight scene when Luke Campell called it a day near the end of July. His career was draped in Olympic gold and then came within touching distance of a world title but Jorge Linares and Vasiliy Lomachenko proved to be too good for the lad from Hull. Ambition was given life briefly against Ryan Garcia before the new kid on the block pulled the plug on Campbell’s hopes in round seven when they fought in January.

“I wasn’t really surprised,” Selby said of Campbell’s announcement in July.

“He’s had a great career. He’s had some great fights. He was unlucky to come up against great champions when he challenged twice for the world title, but they were great fighters, there’s no shame in that. He could have went for third time lucky because on his night he can beat most guys. Great amateur, he’s big, southpaw, awkward and I don’t think he got the credit he deserved. Olympic gold medal. He fell short at the top but he don’t really get the credit. He came up short against great fighters.”

Campbell’s last opponent Garcia was one of three young men who were dubbed the new ‘Four Kings’ earlier this year. It was cringeworthy. Along with Lopez, Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney it seemed unfair and undeserved solely for one fact and one fact only: they haven’t fought each other yet! Interviewing Selby sometimes means getting answers that are straight to the point. The quotes can be short which means more questions, the benefit of that is the conversation can move on to something that lights a little fire in Selby. So, the new Four Kings?

“The Four Kings of old are different class to the new Four Kings. Of those Four Kings the only one that was lightweight anyway was Duran. So, Duran would go through the lot of them.”

He was warming up. Before…

“Duran would go through Lomachenko, too.”

And then came his thoughts after touching on the topic of Lopez beating Lomachenko and some ‘experts’ seemingly dismissing the Ukrainian genius all of a sudden. Selby took over.

“That’s the thing these days, especially with social media, you lose one fight and you’re done. Back in the older generation they lose a fight, there’s no shame in it and they’re back in another big fight. The way it should be,” said Selby. “On any given day, those top fighters if one’s off by one per cent they’ll get beat and vice versa. They shouldn’t write a fighter off once they’ve lost. That’s social media. The criticism. The people can criticise, but you didn’t hear it so much years ago. Now they can directly tell you you’re crap even though they’ve never had a fight in their life. It’s okay to have your opinion and voice your opinion but you can’t say things you wouldn’t say to their face.”

A dissection of the above means arguments can be found. ‘You didn’t hear it so much,’ for example. Fans didn’t have as much of a voice back then. A TV interviewer might have grabbed a fan while queuing up for a fight or you could put your thoughts down in black and white and send them into a magazine. Nowadays the opinions flow 24-7. Too much of a necessary evil which can turn social media into a cesspit. There are upsides to it for fighters. The ability to sell more tickets, call out fighters, make deals of their own and generally gain traction for themselves.

Selby hadn’t finished.

“And you’ve got idiots abusing heavyweight fighters and they wouldn’t say boo to a goose if they met them in the streets.” You get the feeling he would rather leave Twitter and the rest.

Selby remains thankful to his fans. He hopes to bring them more big nights, just like when he took down Stephen Smith and John Simpson with a viciousness that we have not seen in a while. The tougher the opponent though…

Then there was the classy performance to win the world title against Evgeny Gradovich. Defences took him to America against Fernando Montiel, and later Eric Hunter, Jonathan Barros and Eduardo Ramirez, before running into a Josh Warrington who would not be denied his moment of glory at Elland Road. Selby stayed too long at 126lbs. Everyone says so. Hindsight is 20/20.

“I should have moved up earlier. Maybe to super-featherweight,” he says. Something he has mentioned a few times since going to 135lbs. Still, you don’t sense regret with Selby.

“It was difficult because I’d worked my whole life to win a world title. You don’t want to just give it up. I knew I could always make the weight, but the performances weren’t to the highest standards. 

“Out of the five world title defences three of them were mandatories and I beat them pretty comfortable, unanimous decisions so I just kept doing that. Those big fights, big money fights were always looming so that’s why I stayed at the weight. One, because I didn’t want to vacate the belt because I worked hard to get it and two, because there was always big fights looming.”

From the confines of that social club as a 10-year-old boy to the sweatbox of York Hall, the world glory at the O2 Arena and realisation that his featherweight days were over after Elland Road, it has been a career that has delivered on the promise and potential that many saw coming. Selby’s pro debut arrived four months before Welsh legend Joe Calzaghe retired. The genius of the super-middleweight boss took him out of the sport at the right time. But Selby isn’t a 30-something who craves the limelight and the noise, resembling an addict that can’t give it up. It’s a simpler reason and less tortuous for the soul. It’s the learning, the practicing, the training and telling the kids, who were just like him, how to move their heads. It’s a love of the fundamentals, the basics.

“It’s just what I’ve always done, haven’t I? I’m no different. I’ve done it from a young age. I had my first fight when I was 10. It’s just second nature to me, it’s what I do.”

Main image: Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing.