Flanagan nears world title destiny
Almost 12 months on from his British title victory over Martin Gethin, this Saturday evening sees lightweight Terry Flanagan fight for the vacant WBO 135lbs world championship against American puncher Jose Zepeda at the Manchester Velodrome.
Flanagan, a southpaw volume puncher trained by Steve Maylett, is unbeaten in 27 fights and has been a pro since he was 19. Learning his trade on small hall shows promoted by his manager Steve Wood, Flanagan dipped under the radar for several years before he captured the Prizefighter crown in 2012 by seeing off a talented line-up that included Derry Mathews, Anthony Crolla and Gary Sykes. But 10 years on from Ricky Hatton’s famous victory over Kostya Tzsyu, Flanagan is primed to become the city’s latest world champion.
“I’m relaxed and I feel in the best shape of my life,” said Flanagan shortly after completing a pad session for the assembled media and well-wishers at Steve Maylett’s gym in Ancoats on a wet Wednesday afternoon.
The gym, housed in an industrial unit on a commercial estate close to Manchester city centre, has posters of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Manny Pacquiao adorning a wall that overlooks the boxing ring, whilst above a large mirror towards the centre of the gym hangs an ever so slightly dog-eared picture of Flanagan holding the Prizefighter trophy he won almost three years ago.
Once the dust has settled on Saturday night’s clash with Jose Zepeda, a new poster showing Flanagan as Manchester’s newly-minted world champion could soon take centre stage.
“I can’t wait to get in there now, it’s been a long time coming and I’m ready to go,” said the former undefeated English champion as he awaits the biggest night of his career.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” he admitted. “But you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have nerves. I’ve got them under control and now I just want to get going and put on an exciting fight for the fans.”
Flanagan, from the Ancoats area of Manchester, isn’t a natural extrovert - instead he relies on his ability in the ring to do the serious talking and, when he worked out for the media on Wednesday, he looked relaxed and in tremendous physical condition.
“We brought in a nutritionist to help me do the weight better and I feel stronger, faster and bigger than I’ve ever done,” said Flanagan. “I’ve been able to eat more; in the past I’ve always felt hungry when I’m getting down to the weight but not this time. Because of that, I’ve been able to put more into training and I’ve felt much fresher.”
“Other than bringing in the nutritionist the preparations for this fight have been the same as any other. I’ve stayed in my home gym and gone around to spar with the likes of Kell Brook and Jack Catterall.”
Flanagan is fortunate to have the biggest fight of his life take place in his home city, and the fighter has sold over 1,000 tickets personally to friends and family, but with that home advantage can come trouble if he allows the occasion to engulf him and for the red mist to descend, especially against a proven knockout artist like the Californian.
“Yeah I can’t afford to let the crowd draw me into a fight,” he said. “I need to box clever and to stick to a game plan, at world level I believe you need a game plan and that’s what we’ll do on Saturday night.”
On Thursday afternoon, the two fighters came together for the first time at the final press conference and Flanagan told Boxing Monthly later that evening he was surprised by Zepeda’s physical size. “I thought he would be bigger to be honest. He has fought as a welterweight so I was expecting this massive lightweight but I was bigger than him.”
Having never made 135lbs, and competed as high as 154lbs, serious concerns surrounded Zepeda’s ability to get safely down to the championship weight. However, this reporter was told by a reliable source that Zepeda had safely passed his check weights although Flanagan revealed his opponent didn’t look great when they came face to face.
“He looked a little drawn. I’ve seen him look fuller in the face but we’ll see come fight night. He has this reputation as a puncher but if he’s struggled with the weight what is his power like at 9st 9lbs? Can he hold a shot at lightweight?” queried Flanagan. “Everybody can feel strong when they’re heavier. I feel strong in the gym when I’m sparring at around welterweight and you can take a better shot, too.
“Obviously, I don’t want to get hit clean, especially early on in the fight. It’s a 12-round contest so at some point I will get hit but I’ve come through other fighters’ punches up to now and I’m confident it will be the same on Saturday.”
A world title fight can’t take place in Manchester without mentioning Ricky Hatton’s incredible victory over Kostya Tzsyu back in 2005. And, with the 10 year anniversary of that great British boxing moment having just passed in June, Hatton has been on hand to give Flanagan some expert advice for his own special occasion.
“Ricky just told me to believe in myself and believe that I can win,” said Flanagan. “He said some fighters get a world title fight and don’t believe that they belong there, but I do - I belong at this level.
“I’ve been going over the fight in my head as I’m going to sleep for weeks and every time I come out the winner!”