Josh Warrington, Leeds Warrior

Andrew Harrison
21/12/2015 9:19am

A few miles outside the hubbub of Leeds city centre stands Oulton Hall, a picturesque Grade II listed manor house popular with golfers, executives and wedding parties. A former psychiatric institution and one-time military hospital, this converted hotel serves as a base for featherweight contender Josh Warrington before he fights. Unlike many former inhabitants, however, Warrington requires little restoration. He’ll check into this leafy haven in perfect condition, before venturing down the winding drive to light up a city.

As sunlight streamed through the grand bay windows on a bright, autumn morning, WBC International and Commonwealth champion Warrington, 22-0 (4 KOs), poured himself a cup of Yorkshire tea. Not long removed from his career-best win over Australian Joel Brunker, the immensely popular “Leeds Warrior”, for once, had time to breathe amid these elegant surroundings.

“The day of the fight is such a mental battle you know, because so much is going through your head,” Warrington told Boxing Monthly. “You can let it eat away at you. It all comes down to that fight. I think a lot of fights are won or lost on the day – on the walk from the dressing room to the ring.

“All through camp you’re saying: “I can’t wait for fight night” and then it arrives. That day is such a mental day. I always tell myself that nothing else matters. You expend so much emotion on those thirty-six minutes.”

Warrington, 25, has learned how to temper pre-fight nerves. His father Sean O’ Hagan – who also trains Warrington – proves invaluable in that regard. A former plumber, taxi driver and now registered foster carer, Warrington refers to O’Hagan as a “hell of a character” whose familiar refrain of: “What are you getting all nervous for? It’s only boxing,” helps to lighten tense moments.

“Sometimes I build these names up in my head like big monsters – like they’re unbeatable,” admitted Warrington. “But when I get in there it’s not as bad as I first thought and I really relax then.”

Rarely are boxers embraced in the manner Warrington has been by his people. A sporting prince in West Yorkshire, he’s doing well. Casually dressed in labelled jeans, t-shirt and trainers, he’s cheerful, charming and earnest. Despite his success, he keeps a close circle of friends. Focused on boxing since his teens, Warrington abstained from drinking and smoking, and weeded out those who took exception.

“I didn’t want to do none of that,” he said. “None of that appealed to me. Moving around a different circle of friends it seemed like if you didn’t do that you didn’t fit in. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. I used to watch ‘em – some of them were just following the crowd like sheep.

“I used that as momentum. Even as a young lad I used to think: ‘Just wait until I’m older and then see where we are later down the line.’ I’ve always had that wise head on young shoulders.”

Warrington’s introduction to boxing is a familiar one: an energetic kid from a local estate wandered into a boxing gym and was instantly smitten. He discovered he could fight soon afterwards.

“You find out when you first get punched on the nose,” Warrington quipped. “I remember the first time in sparring, I was sparring with a girl and she beat me up. As a young lad I used to do a bit of sparring with [Team GB amateur] Jack Bateson’s older brother Tom – he was the same age as me. I think we were about 9 or 10. We used to have wars as 30-kilo lads. We used to go toe-to-toe, blow for blow, and from then on I never liked to be on the bad side of a spar.”

After a slow start to his 48-bout amateur career (his diminutive stature made match-making difficult), Warrington’s take on one particular amateur contest, helped to inform his action-packed style.

“I was watching a fight on a show and it was piss poor - really boring,” he explained, shaking his head. “I remember seeing the decision and one of the lads afterwards was crying his eyes out saying: “I got robbed! I got robbed!” and I remember thinking: ‘You didn’t get robbed you just didn’t do owt.’ I just told myself from then on that to win the fights, you’ve got to throw punches – simple as that.

“It’s only three rounds. I can do three rounds non-stop on the bags, and from then on I took that mentality into every fight. I got a bit of a following on the amateur circuit round Yorkshire because I was busy and I’d be non-stop. The back-end of my amateur career was when I had most of my fights. I just came from nowhere.”

One recipient of the resulting Warrington whirlwind was former British, Commonwealth and European super-bantamweight champion Kid Galahad (currently serving a suspension after failing a drugs test). Warrington edged defensive wizard Galahad twice thanks to his father’s cool corner-work.

“I remember it well,” he said. “We were only amateurs like, but I boxed him at his home show and bloody hell, I remember going back to the corner after the first round and saying to my Dad: “I can’t hit him!” He was awkward.”

O’Hagan’s gift for breaking down and simplifying instructions guided his son home. O’Hagan later formulated a gameplan for the return match that resulted in a more straightforward repeat victory.

In his final amateur bout, Warrington was beaten 13-6 in the semi-finals of the 2009 ABAs by Team GB captain Tom Stalker after an ill-judged move up to 60kg. Already sparring pros Dale Robinson and Jason Booth in the gym, Warrington elected to switch codes himself. Still a boyish 18-year-old, his professional apprenticeship allowed him to fill out physically.

“It gave me a chance to mature and learn so much,” Warrington said. “Every fight, every time we’ve stepped up a level, we’ve come away in the camps or in the fights and taken massive experience from it. I think it’s done me the world of good. I’m such a different fighter now than when I look back to when I boxed for the English title.”

On that occasion, Warrington outscored Chris Male (then 11-0) over 10 rounds in the Dudley man’s hometown. His reward was another daunting away trip to Hull. Warrington faced local man Samir Mouneimme (then 12-0-1), who remains the only boxer to have defeated current IBF featherweight champion Lee Selby. Warrington felt Mouneimme received more of a fanfare from the promoter pre-fight.

“I was going there to lose – I know that,” he said. “I was just an opponent. I remember thinking: ‘Right, fair enough. I know what the sketch is here.’ But yeah, we didn’t half upset the applecart that night.”

Warrington halted Mouneimme in the 12th round. After retiring former British champions Rendall Munroe and Martin Lindsay and then stopping Italian Davide Dieli (to clinch the European title) and Nicaraguan Edwin Tellez, Warrington’s destructive run came to an end against Dennis Tubieron in April (despite dominating the Filipino lefty over 12 rounds). For Warrington, it was a watershed moment.

“I stood on the ramp with [Hollywood actor] Vinnie Jones behind me and there were 10, 000 chanting and I really got carried away with the occasion,” he said. “I tried too hard to impress. I was so disappointed after that – I learned a massive lesson.

“You know when fighters come away after they’ve lost and come back a different fighter or they’ve taken it as a learning curve? That was my learning curve. This time around was my biggest test. There was no way I could get carried away with Joel Brunker – he was too dangerous a fighter to do that with [Warrington outclassed Brunker to take a unanimous decision]”

Warrington’s support is astonishing. He packs out the nearby First Direct Arena with 10, 000 fans whose fervour is an extension his own love of Leeds, a city he feels he’ll always call home.

“I’ve always been really passionate about Leeds. I remember [former British super-featherweight champion] Carl Johanneson used to come out to Marching On Together [Leeds United’s terrace anthem] and I used to love that. I thought it was brilliant. I remember watching him box Ricky Burns at the Town Hall. I’ve always been a Leeds fan. I’ve always followed football and all my pals have been Leeds fans. We’ve always gone to the games together. A lot of my earlier fights I was out selling tickets to lads who go to the Leeds matches and word spread on that circuit. It’s just connected like that really. It’s not something that we set out intentionally to do.

“A lot of times people think: ‘He’s just a ticket seller because he’s Leeds United’ and it winds me up a little bit. They don’t see that I’ve been a pro six years. When you’re coming though you’ve got to sell tickets yourself. After training, I’d be out selling tickets or out at people’s houses having a cup of tea or having a chat and trying to promote myself. I went out after training when I probably should have been home resting. I was working at the time as well. I remember one time it was icy cold and we were putting up posters in takeaways and stuff like that. I’ve had to work for that [following].

“We’ve always taken a noisy crowd wherever we’ve went - even four and six-rounders. The main block in the middle, they’re mostly my pals and lads off the estate. I’m quite lucky in that, when they get behind you, they get behind you. They go to the next level.

“I wouldn’t mind swapping seats with someone for one night to be part of the crowd. I remember having a chat with [popular former British, Commonwealth and European 168 lb. champion] Henry Wharton about that and he said the same. I’ve met him a few times – hell of a nice bloke. He had a bit of a following from Leeds; he boxed at Elland Road [Leeds United’s home ground].”

Warrington is keen to listen, and learn, from former fighters. After the Brunker victory, manager Steve Wood and O’Hagan arranged a meet with a star name Warrington is often compared to: Ricky Hatton.

“We went to go see him after the last fight just to get a bit of advice about moving forward and stepping up because he had a big following,” Warrington said of Hatton. “It was just nice to hear from the other side - from someone who’s been there and done it. He talked about what he did to his body and looking back how much he regretted doing that.”

Warrington looked fit enough to fight the following day if required. He’d like two, maybe three more fights before a world title crack. Did he feel that would involve Welshman Selby? 

“I think so and I hope so. You always look at your man above don’t you? He is a good fighter, a very good fighter. He boxes well, he moves well. Not just anybody wins a world title and he’s done it the hard way. He’s won all his titles and fair play to him but I hope it’s a fight that happens because I genuinely believe I can beat him. 

“A lot of people think I don’t have the power to mix it with him. I think I can prove them wrong on the night. He is in front of me - in terms of what he’s done in his career so far - but I’ll catch him up soon. I use someone like [WBA bantamweight titlist] Jamie McDonnell as an inspiration. I’ve known him and trained alongside him. He’s gone to the next level every time.

“I took a lot of interest in the [Abner] Mares vs [Leo] Santa Cruz fight [won by Santa Cruz in August]. I’m only [25]. They say you peak about 27, 28 at my weight. I’m a baby really. Even though I haven’t really shown it in fights as yet, I don’t mind having a little war in sparring. The thought of being in a big world title fight and standing toe-to-toe would be brilliant.”

2016 could bring Warrington a world title tilt on sacred ground.  

“I’ve pictured it. I’ve dreamt about it. Every time I go down there [to Elland Road], I picture a ring in the middle of the pitch. Any time I need a bit of motivation, I think of that. I’ve been on the pitch a couple of times and I’ve pictured walking out to Marching On Together and Kaiser Chiefs [the Leeds indie rock band] going nuts, all the fans going nuts… It’d be something else. It’d be really special and hopefully it can happen.”