Bilbao Bomber: Kerman Lejarraga interview
Kerman Lejarraga is a powerful puncher with a passionate following but, as Luca Rosi discovers, he's a fighter with nothing but respect for his opponents, past and future...
A rocking Bilbao Arena in the Miribilla district lived up to its reputation as one of the most atmospheric (and hostile) sports venues in Spain – indeed Europe. A cacophony of sound reverberated in the state-of-the-art indoor arena as the vocal fans cheered on their own sporting star in his quest to conquer the vacant EBU European welterweight title.
Speaking to Boxing Monthly, Kerman Lejarraga, the hometown favourite, recalled the magical night on 28 April. “To be able to challenge for the European title was a dream but to be able to do it in front of my fans in Bilbao was extra special. The arena was packed with 9,000 supporters who spurred me on to reach my goal.
"It was just a fairytale ending not just for me but MGZ [Bilbao-based promotions company co-founded by ĺñigo Herbosa and Jésus Del Valle who represent 20 Spanish professional boxers, including Andoni Gago, Jorge Fortea, Jon Miguez, César Núñez, Aritz Pardal and Brandon Oertel] and everyone who has helped in my journey.
"In Spain we look on in awe at the incredible shows in Britain and the passion of the fans, which is something unique. I’d like to think we replicated that here in Bilbao where we have our own very way of creating a very Basque atmosphere. There are a lot of people behind the scenes who worked so tirelessly to ensure that we got the result we wanted, so I’d like to thank everyone.”
The vanquished, the much-heralded Bradley Skeete, had been on a nine-fight unbeaten streak and many observers in the game felt that the south-east Londoner would come away with the spoils. “We studied him very closely, he is a very slick boxer who would use his long reach to his advantage. We left no stone unturned in preparing for the fight – we had the utmost respect for him and his boxing talent.
"My coach Txutxi Del Valle came up with the perfect gameplan and I knew what I needed to do to win – and fortunately everything went right on the night. I bided my time in the opening round, working off my jab and basically getting into my rhythm.
"I started to let some punches go in the second and I put him down with an overhand right after about a minute into the round. I then had him down again with a body shot and I could sense that he was in trouble. I started to unleash more punches and he went down a third time, at which point his corner threw in the towel [the fight lasted 285 seconds in total].
“Such is his [Skeete’s] pedigree that he was due to fight the then WBO welterweight champion, Jeff Horn [the Australian would go on to lose to his strap to Terence Crawford in June]. He came into the fight full of confidence and with only one defeat, so we took nothing for granted. In the end, I was just too strong for him.
"But I’d like to think that Bradley and I can meet again in the future, this time with an even bigger title at stake, because I repeat, he is a fantastic boxer. He’s still young [Skeete turned 31 in October 2018] and has a great future in the sport. I wish him and his team all the very best.”
The Penge man’s only defeat was a points loss at the hands of fellow Brit, Frankie Gavin back in 2014. As fate would have it, the Birmingham stylist will vie to defeat Lejarraga this weekend.
“Frankie Gavin is a great boxer. Like all British fighters he respects the rules and what he does in the ring he does very well. He is very experienced, a southpaw and a former amateur world champion [Gavin’s gold medal at the 2007 world amateur championships in Chicago has yet to be matched by another Brit], so we’ll be up against it. From the fights of his that I’ve seen, I know that I’ll have to be on top of my game.
“He moves when he needs to, but he can also mix it. He’s the number one ranked fighter in Europe, and even though by the time we meet [on 17 November at the 19,000 all-seater Bizkaia Arena in Bilbao] he’ll have been out for 17 months, that certainly won’t diminish his skills or dampen his ambition. Whoever comes through will take a lot of encouragement from the win and will work extremely hard to keep hold of the title. Should I win, nothing will change for me. I will carry on working hard, looking to improve – let’s see where it takes me.”
The Bilbao bruiser, known for his trademark body armour he wears during his ring walks, is not prone to looking too far ahead into the future. Nevertheless, he was happy to cast his eye over one of boxing’s hottest divisions. He told Boxing Monthly, “There is so much talent at 147 pounds. Terence Crawford is without doubt one of the best P4P fighters in the world. I’m taking nothing away from Jeff Horn though who is also a great champion, but sometimes we just come up against that special someone, who is a level above us mere mortals.
"Crawford can certainly unify the division but there are other fighters who’ll have their say, guys like Errol Spence Jr., Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia and Shawn Porter. The one certainty is that the welterweight division will throw up some great match-ups over the next few years.”
Having also stopped Manchester-based Denton Vassell in 2016 (TKO4 for the WBA international welterweight title), Britain seems to be a lucky charm for the 26-year-old fans’ favourite. “I think that Josh Kelly has the talent to join these other greats and go all the way. He’s only had seven pro fights [at the time of writing] but he’s a former European bronze medallist and Olympian [the Wearsider lost to eventual gold medal winner Daniyar Yeleussinov – the Kazakh featured in the July edition of Boxing Monthly].
"And let’s not forget Amir Khan who is on the comeback trail [after a two-year hiatus], a former WBA and IBF light welterweight world champion and a fighter who I have a lot of respect for. There are a lot of good British fighters at welterweight and I’d welcome the opportunity to fight in the UK [Lejarraga has fought only once outside Bilbao – in Verona, New York against Jose Antonio Abreu on the Regis Prograis-Joel Diaz Jr. undercard]. Not many people know that I can fight for the Commonwealth title as my father is an Australian Basque!”
As for the immediate future, the ‘Revolver from Morga’, a ring nickname given to him by fellow Basque pro and good friend Andoni Gago (who beat game Frenchman, Geoffrey Dos Santos unanimously on points to capture the EBU EU featherweight title on the Lejarraga-Skeete card), remains firmly focused on the task at hand.
“I’ve always said that the hardest fight of my career is the one that’s yet to come, in other words my next encounter. Of all my previous fights, I could talk about the talent of my various rivals and what I learnt from them in the ring, but from today onwards, all that’s in my mind is Frankie Gavin. He will come to Bilbao with the sole intention of wresting my title away from me.
"I have the utmost respect for him and it will be a great fight. Although it would be a dream come true for me to eventually fight for a world title, my focus is solely to defend my European title. My objective was always to become European champion. Now that I’ve managed it, the hard part begins, which is staying there and defending my title.”
Boxing in the Biscay – the history makers
Following his win over Bradley Skeete, Kerman Lejarraga became only the fourth Basque-born fighter to win a European title. He joined a select trio of much revered champions in the fiercely patriotic region, whose official language – Euskara – is Europe’s oldest spoken tongue.
Pre-war heavyweight Paulino Uzcudun first won the European title in 1926, beating Italy’s Erminio Spalla on points. He would go on to become a three-time European champion with subsequent wins over German Ludwig Haymann and Pierre Charles of Belgium. During his 12-year career, Uzcudun would count a win over former world champion Max Baer as well as losses to heavyweight legends Joe Louis, Primo Carnera and Max Schmeling.
Another heavyweight, José Manuel Ibar, known as ‘Urtain’, first won the European title with a seventh round KO of Germany’s Peter Weiland in 1970. He would be dethroned the same year by our very own Henry Cooper at the Empire Pool, Wembley only to regain the title the following year against Derbyshire’s Jack Bodell. His attempt to win the European crown a third time would end in defeat in what was to prove his final fight against Jean-Pierre Coopman (the Belgian had only the previous year challenged Muhammad Ali for the WBA title (KO5 loss in San Juan, Puerto Rico).
Agustin Senin, ‘The Tiger of Irala’, was an undefeated bantamweight who first captured the European title against Liverpool’s Alan Rudkin. He would defend it twice against Frechman Guy Caudron and Italy’s Antonio Sassarini. Remarkably Senin finished his short five-year career with an unblemished record (just the one draw in 43 fights). He would never fight for a world title.
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