Lee Selby: Pride of Wales
Barry’s Lee Selby certainly knows how to celebrate a world title triumph. The 28-year-old scored a well-deserved technical decision win over the tough, undefeated IBF featherweight titlist Russian Evgeny Gradovich at London's O2 Arena on 30 May. Instead of embarking on a hedonistic bender, Selby went back to his hotel room to tuck into a slice of cheesecake. The only drink that passed his lips was carbonated water.
“I don’t drink alcohol anymore,” admitted Selby, 21-1 (8 KOs), when speaking to Boxing Monthly. “I went to the hotel, hung around for photos and some autographs then went back to my room and ordered some cheesecake that’s my celebration.”
Selby made an effortless transition to world level. It was just another day at the office for the confident boxer. “It just felt like a normal fight,” was Selby’s assessment of the biggest night of his career.
“It was amazing,” he said when recalling the moment the result came in. “To hear those words come out of Michael Buffer’s mouth made it even sweeter. It’s such a big area, such a big crowd. You’ve got Anthony Joshua bringing in the general public, not just boxing fans, so you get to box in front of different types of people.”
Once the euphoria of the win had passed, however, he admitted to feeling flat; his mind had already turned to the next challenge.
“I want a homecoming fight back in Cardiff,” stated Selby. “Then another defence in December. Then Josh [Warrington] next year in a big domestic fight. I’m not just in competition with other feathers, I’m in competition with every fighter in Britain. I want to be the best in Britain, not just at my weight, so there’s competition with every one of us.
“I’ve done it the traditional way. [His manager] Chris [Sanigar] is a traditionalist. We’ve won every belt in learning fights [He won the Welsh, Celtic, British, Commonwealth and EBU titles en route to his world title]. Before that night, I’d only had 20 fights, but they’ve all been learning fights and gave me invaluable experience for my world title fight. I want to keep busy. It’s no good being a champion if you’re not defending your title. I want to earn money and cement my legacy by becoming one of the great Welsh champions.”
He added: “I’m proud of being the twelfth man from Wales to win a title. The names are all legends. I grew up watching them as a child, people like [former featherweight world champion] Howard Winstone. It’s a great feeling that my name’s cemented in history alongside them. Wales is only a small country, so to produce those types of champions is phenomenal.”
The division has a host of talented boxers: Vasyl Lomachenko (WBO), Gary Russell Junior (WBC) and Jesus Cuellar (WBA) hold the other major titles. Selby is eyeing the U.S. in general and Vegas in particular once he’s settled any lingering domestic issues.
“That’s the dream for any fighter, to fight and defend a title in Las Vegas - I want to crack America,” he said when asked if he wants to unify the belts. “I think they’d take to my style. I get caught myself, so I’m pretty exciting to watch - both for the good and the bad.”
The media commitments, huge crowds and titles are a far cry from the days when Selby was an aspiring young amateur and, like so many amateurs, was enmeshed in the red tape and politics of the unpaid ranks.
In 2007, Selby and his younger brother Andrew made a little slice of history by winning WABA Senior Limited titles on the same night. A year later, Lee defeated Chris Higgs in the National Association of Clubs for Young People only to be told he could not progress to the semi-final as he had boxed as a Senior.
“I was winning the national titles as an amateur and they were always picking the finalist instead of me,” he said with an air of resigned exasperation. “I’d win then they’d go for the runner-up, so that’s why I decided to turn professional. I don’t think the national coaches liked my style.
“I won in the first round of that tournament. The guy I beat, his dad was a coach. He complained to the officials that I’d boxed in a Senior tournament. I hadn’t. I’d boxed in an Under-19s, which is the same as the Boy’s Club, but I got kicked out of the tournament. That’s what gave me a reason to turn professional.”
However, there was more heartache waiting for him in the pro ranks, an early defeat to Samir Mouneimne, also undefeated, made him question his future.
“I had shingles in the run-up, I was the away opponent, it was his hometown, and it was only four rounds,” was his take on his sole professional reverse. “I think I lost the first, maybe drew the second and won the last two (rounds). I was doing a little bit of showboating; maybe the referee didn’t take to me and gave the decision the other way. I felt I’d done enough to win. Then again, I’d given myself reason to lose it with the showboating.
“I felt like I wanted to quit. I had a break, the hunger came back and I didn’t want to lose again. I have felt that feeling, how low it feels when you lose, and don’t want to feel it again.”
Four fights later, he had turned his career completely around. His first title fight brought his first stoppage win, a second-round KO over Dai Davies for the Welsh Area title, followed by another one when he went for the Celtic title (WTKO6 over James Ancliffe). The icing on the cake was his stunning eighth-round stoppage win over Stephen Smith - he also successfully predicted the round and passed the information on to a friend.
“I think he won £22,000,” he recalled. “I told him before the fight which round to pick. I go into each fight knowing I’ll win. I think he overlooked me because of my loss and the fact he’d beaten the same boy in the ABA Finals. He probably thought it’d be no problem.”
A run of wins, including a victory over the then-undefeated Viorel Simion (W12 for the WBC International title) led to the title shot that has changed his life. In the aftermath, some boxing fans have dubbed him the most naturally gifted boxing in Britain.
“I don’t feel the pressure,” he said. “I take it as a compliment that people appreciate my talent.”
If he continues to perform like he did on Saturday, there will surely be more performances for the fans to appreciate from the fighter who got his cake and ate it.
Coda: Doing it for “Slinky”
The Selby family were grief-stricken when Michael, the oldest of their three sons, died at the age of 23 in 2008 (the same year Lee turned professional) after falling into a ravine when coming home from a night out while working in Weston-super-Mare. Michael joined the local boxing gym at the age of eight; he took Lee to the same gym when he turned eight.
With his parents separated and without Michael to call upon, there was no paternal blueprint for Selby, so he designed one for himself in the aftermath of the tragedy after a few years spent drinking and smoking marijuana in the park with his friends.
“Yeah, most definitely, it was the turning point of my life when Michael passed away,” he told BM. “It was my toughest time—I reached a real, real low. Then I really dedicated myself to boxing. It was either make-or-break. I choose the right path. Now I’m world champion. Overnight, I changed it all around.
“Luckily, I did all that (partying) before I turned professional, so there’s no chance of me doing it now. I’m older, it’s all done and out of my system.”
His father is firmly behind him, Selby joked that the world title win probably “meant more to him than it does to me,” before explaining the role his parents played in his career.
“He’s with me in the gym every day. He’d have me up running, training me for this moment from the age of eight. We’d (Selby and his brothers) always be beating each other up. As soon as he spotted the talent in me and my younger brother, he got us into it. What started as a hobby became something else.
“Then my parents separated, so I was with my mum, not around my father so much, but she’s spent many hours sat outside the gym. She’d take us there when my dad wasn’t around.”
I asked Selby what he would say if he bumped into his younger self. He thought for a moment before answering: “I’d say: ‘Sort yourself out, stay focused and dedicated’.
“If you put in the work and you’ll reap the results. It doesn’t just apply to sport, just general day-to-day life and in your job - put the hard work in. I’ve tried to tell the youngsters in my hometown and gym to dedicate themselves to achieve something.
“I tell them to look at me, look at how I grew up and that I’m living proof that you can go from a nothing to something if you work hard. Growing up myself, I didn’t have that role model to look up to so it would mean the world to me if I could inspire a generation.”