'Anything could happen!': Jay Harris interview
Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Ahead of his Texas showdown with Julio Cesar Martinez for the WBC flyweight world title, Jay Harris was in an optimistic frame of mind as he spoke to Oliver McManus...
Fleet-footed flyweight Jay Harris has had the 112lbs division on notice over the past year as he has climbed the rankings.
The soaring 'Swansea Jack' - ranked number 6 in the world at present by BM - looks to capture the WBC crown jewels when he faces Julio Cesar Martinez on 29 February. It’s fair to say that Welsh fighters in Texas are about as rare as the State tends to serve their prized steaks but Harris will be looking for a job well-done when he pays The Lone Star State a visit on leap-year Saturday.
At the back end of 2018 the European and Commonwealth champion admits to BM he was feeling “forgotten about” and was struggling to land a meaningful fight. He defeated Thomas Essomba to claim the Commonwealth belt in early 2017 but had to wait 21 months for a first defence against Ross Murray in December 2018, ticking over inbetween with three non-title fights.
However, MTK Global hopped on the train at the turn of 2019 and have delivered the goods ahead of schedule for the Amazon warehouse worker.
Speaking to BM towards the end of January, Harris began by describing the moment he found out he’d be fighting for a world title: “I was in Disneyland Paris on New Year’s Eve: my battery died on my phone and by the time I’d turn it back on my phone was going mental.
"I’d seen my dad [Peter] and Gary [Lockett, his coach] were trying to ring me and my dad just told me: ‘we’ve got a fight, we’ve got a world title shot!’. I was over the moon and it was a bit of everything, really. I’ve been training for it since I was 12 years old so [when I was told] I was excited, I was nervous, every emotion you could feel.”
Outside of boxing the 29-year-old recently revealed he was an expectant father with a baby girl due to arrive sometime around June. For a boxer famed for his beaming smile it is pleasing to hear him say “I’m happy”, particularly given how much frustration Harris has endured in the sport he loves. He attributes his upturn in fortune not to any one specific moment but, rather, a process in which cogs have gradually clunked together.
“It makes me so chuffed that everything has fallen into place. They say a happy fighter is a dangerous fighter and everything seems to be going my way at the minute. If I win on the 29th everything just gets better and better: I’ll have achieved what I’ve always wanted and it’ll be a great start for the baby that’s on the way. I’ll be able to get us a nice house and then put the money away for the future. I’ll have to take them back to Disneyland every year!”
Standing in the way of Harris’ WBC quest, and that lifetime ticket to Disneyland, is a ferocious young Mexican: a 25-year-old dubbed ‘The King’ in his native language. Julio Cesar Martinez has, himself, had a speedy rise to his position in flyweight royalty. His ascendancy hasn’t been without controversy - a no-contest against Charlie Edwards highlighting the fine line between success and failure, as the Mexican was denied victory after striking Edwards when he was on one knee.
In talking about Martinez’ recent victories, Harris isn’t shy to praise his upcoming foe, but also highlighted the reasons he and coach Lockett felt upbeat going into the contest.
“I’ve watched what’s available on YouTube and we’re confident we know what we need to know. He’s fought Andrew Selby, Charlie Edwards and Cristofer Rosales back-to-back and, I’ll be honest, he’s looked pretty good in all of them.
"There’s loads of positives to take, as well; even though he beat Andrew Selby I thought [Selby] was winning the fight relatively comfortably. Rosales just stood in front of Martinez too much and let him tee off and Charlie Edwards was weight drained at flyweight so that could have been a factor.”
The Welshman is understanding of his position as ‘underdog’ but relishes that tag, insisting the pressure is firmly off his shoulders. That additional freedom to fight without fear plays into Harris’ hands, he says. Bouncing off a resurgent 2019 - in which he became European and IBF Intercontinental champion - is a perfect run of momentum that has often been missing in Harris’ career.
At the end of February we should see a genuine mesh of styles and that’s enough to get the hairs tingling for the Swansea City fan.
“I think it’s going to be a really exciting fight. I’m an aggressive fighter and he’s pretty similar in that respect. He’s a very feisty fighter and we know he likes to target the body - he’s gone for it in pretty much all of his fights. He’s strong but if you take away the power and step away from him then what’s his Plan B?
“We expected something similar from Paddy Barnes," he continued, “and I blasted that test, to be honest. We’ve changed a few things and have got some great sparring but it’s a good fight to use as a base for this one.”
Indeed, talking to this writer in the aftermath of his four-round war with Barnes, Harris revealed he was pleased to have “answered any remaining questions”. On that night he “fought on instinct” and was able to relax once the pair engaged in a toe-to-toe firefight. More of the same is expected against Martinez, who fights in that typically proud, traditional ‘Mexican style’.
The event as a whole promises to excite with Martinez vs Harris part of a stellar night in Texas: Mikey Garcia vs Jessie Vargas headlines over 12 rounds whilst Kal Yafai defends his WBA super-flyweight title against ‘Chocolatito’ Roman Gonzalez.
For a man who got £250 on his debut to fight Brett Fidoe back in July 2013 it's a million miles away from the Newport Centre but, when all is said and done, it’s just another ring and another opponent.
“Two world titles, Joseph Parker and Murat Gassiev on the undercard: this show is insane. I’m fighting for the best belt in the world and there’s no pressure on me: no pressure at all. People are asking me how I’m feeling and I keep telling them ‘I don’t really know but I’m just going to embrace it’. As soon as a couple of punches start flowing I’ll be in my zone and we’ll go from there.”
In Harris’ corner for a career-defining fight will be two life-defining figures in the form of Jay's dad Peter, and Gary Lockett, the man who has spearheaded Jay's professional development.
Welsh boxing has a renewed sense of optimism running through the country and Lockett is a primary player in that resurgence. His stable of fighters features Chris Jenkins, Rhys Edwards, Maredudd Thomas and more names coming through the ranks.
Being part of that tight-knit pocket of success is bound to rub off and Harris admits to "stealing" the strongest attributes from his gym-mates.
“I’ve improved a lot over the past 12 months but it’s also down to the opportunities I’m getting. Having fights like I’ve had it’s impossible not to learn but they’ve been a great platform for me to showcase my ability. You can see in each of my performances I’m getting stronger, I’m looking fresher and just generally more well-rounded. I’ll look at someone like Rhys and his footwork and I’ll think: 'fuck that’s good, I’ll give that a go!' and it’s the same across the gym.”
Alongside that merry band, and they usually are in high spirits at ‘The Funhouse’, high-quality names have been roped in to help Harris prepare. Martinez’ qualities as a fighter are well known but the team around Harris have been keen to maximise long-term benefits for their fighter.
“Brad Foster was down the other day and we’ll do some rounds with him. Rhys is always there and he’s a special talent. You’re not going to get better than Kal Yafai though, are you? He’s a strong world champion and he’s better technically than Martinez so we’re trying to build high quality spars: strong technically and a few big punchers.
"I’ve got to thank Amazon, they’ve been great in giving me the time off, and the rest of my sponsors [Limitless Activity Centre, A&R Specialists, AJM Boxing, Sea Lift Diving, and Trimology].”
The outcome of this fight will not come down to what happens over the last ten weeks of training, but will be a reflection of everything Jay Harris has gone through in his lifetime - from the tortuous months of inactivity in which he considered packing it all in, to his refound love of boxing and, more than that, a renewed sense of optimism with life.
You can guarantee that, whatever happens, amid all the bright lights in Texas, nothing will illuminate the Ford Center quite like that joyful smile of Harris ... and then it will be down to business...
“Anything could bloody happen in the fight: it could be a one-round firefight or twelve rounds of graft. It doesn’t matter to me: I’m prepared for anything and I’m going to be WBC champion.”