Josh Warrington has stepped outside the Emerald Suite at Headingley Stadium to get some fresh air and a better view from the top of the stand overlooking the rugby pitch. Next to him is his father and trainer Sean O’Hagan.
It has been three months since the Leeds Warrior’s shocking defeat to Mexico’s hard-hitting Mauricio Lara at Wembley Arena. Down and disorientated in round four, the fight was stopped in the ninth.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve ruined it for him,” Josh says pointing at Sean, grin stretched wide across his taut, chiselled features. Strong Leeds accent in full effect.
“If I’d got through that [Lara fight], then with another payday after, he’d put a deposit down on a fucking massive motorhome. Do you know, them motorhomes like you see in the States, doing Route 66? It were one like that. I’ve ruined it for him. How selfish of me!”
Sean shakes his head. “Had to cancel it. Had to ring them on my way home – Leeds Caravan Centre. I said ‘You know that camper?’ Lad on phone says ‘Yeah, it’ll be ready for you on Monday.’ I said ‘Forget it, job’s fucked.’ He said ‘Why? Don’t you like it?’ I said ‘Job’s fucked, he’s been filled in!’”
It is typical of the conversations the pair share. Like pals in a boozer. Both digging at each other at any opportunity.
“I were sat in the corner crying,” Sean continues, warming to the tale. “Curled up on floor in foetal position. Me camper! I’d only waited 25 years for it, Johnny. Don’t worry about it. Don’t feel guilty about it just because you don’t do as you’re told!”
Both call the other ‘Johnny’. Sean is ‘Johnny Kebab’ owing to his alleged similarity to Johnny Vegas, his penchant for such delicacies, allied with his own culinary skills. Josh is ‘Johnny’ for reasons kept between father and son.
The pair observe their surroundings. It is a sunny, warm May lunchtime. Josh is picturing 20,000 fans in this compact venue – open standing terrace at one end, with three other distinct stands. The main stand of the rugby ground is also attached to Headingley cricket ground – the home of Yorkshire. The Emerald Suite provides views over both rugby pitch and cricket oval.
To fight here would be another box ticked after multiple appearances at Leeds Arena, and a world title-winning night at the Elland Road home of his football team, Leeds United. He wants to add the home of Leeds Rhinos rugby league club to the collection for the Lara rematch in September – pending the result of an appeal to the city council which initially refused to license a boxing event following local resident objections.
Headingley or elsewhere, the Lara fight is an intriguing prospect. History suggests such a rematch with a big puncher is fraught with danger. But Josh insists he is nearly fully healed physically, and there will not be any mental demons when the bell tolls again.
“He’s not the biggest puncher I’ve been in with, but he gave me the most injuries I’ve ever come away from a fight with,” he says. “Normally I have the odd bump and bruise and my hands are a little bit sore. This one – perforated ear drum, fracture on my jaw, damage to my shoulder and elbow. My shoulder and elbow are still a bit rusty, but it takes time. I’ll make sure they’re 100 per cent before I get back to full training.
“It’s at the stage now where it’s just fucking annoying!” he laughs. “You go over these little things, little percentages and these all add up. In 11 years of professional boxing and 30 fights, it’s always gone my way. On 13 February it didn’t. I paid the price for it.
“There’s been the odd time where I’m sat up in bed, I can’t sleep and I’m thinking ‘Why, oh why, oh why?’
“You start thinking ‘Well, if this Covid situation hadn’t come in, I’d have had my fight against [WBA world featherweight champion] Can Xu in early 2020. Then I have to remind myself that people have lost lives, lost loved ones, lost businesses. I remind myself of that every time I start to really sulk. Then I take it out on a run or maybe go to the gym and hit the bag with my good hand!
“I’ve got to keep a professional head on it. I can’t take it personally. Mauricio turned up and did a job. He was meant to be just an opponent and I need to just treat it like I had a bad night. If I start to put emotion into it then I think it starts messing with your game plans. I start again now; I’m not going to dwell on the fact he gave me my first loss or the fact he gave me a bit of a hiding. I need to win this fight to get back on track.
“I’ve heard people say that maybe I should have a warm-up fight. He was meant to be a warm-up fight! If I go any lower, I’m dropping out of the world levels. I still believe I can win another world title at featherweight. Plus, it’d kill me to sit on the sofa and watch someone else from this country beat him.
“I’m discrediting him a lot here, but when I look down my resume, I still don’t think he’s as good as Lee Selby or Carl Frampton or Dennis Ceylan or Kiko Martinez or as awkward as Kid Galahad. But he’s done enough to give me my first ‘L’. I just need to sort that out for myself more than anything, then continue where I left off.”
Josh and Sean start moving tentatively down the steps towards the pitch. Sean’s not happy that there is no handrail to stabilise the journey… “Fuckin’ ‘ell, I’m not a mountain goat!”
At grass level, they take a seat and take it all in.
“Done alright, hasn’t he Mauricio!” Says Josh. “He’s only boxed in small halls before, now this! All of a sudden he’s landed himself a big pay day.”
Sean quickly chips in. “Well, he did better than you, didn’t he? To be fair, he did to you what you did to Lee Selby. One chance, one chance only.
“People say about the last fight ‘There was no crowd, he [Josh] can only perform in front of a crowd. That’s bollocks really. It’s not true. Fighters are fighters.
“There were a number of factors and we could sit here all day talking about what went wrong. We know what went wrong and, when we’re back, we’ll put it right.
“It’s not a massive shock to me that we got beat. It’s never been about unbeaten records. It’s about being a champion, and champions come back. It’s your response to it that matters. That’s it.”
Josh nods his head as Sean speaks. He pauses, then adds: “I think we both got a bit relaxed. From British level, people wrote me off. You get a British title and people say ‘He’ll never get a European title.’ You do that and you get ‘You’ll never make it to world level, the gap’s too big, he hasn’t got the punch power, his dad doesn’t know enough, not experienced enough.’ We’ve heard it all before. We won the world title, defended it three times and then it’s ‘He’s done alright, has Josh!’”
“We took him light, we overlooked him,” Sean interjects. “I’ll take a big share of the blame for that. As head trainer, I shouldn’t allow that to happen. But you become familiar, and you roll along with things. That’s just me being honest. But I’ll tell you what, it’ll not be happening again. Every time we prepare now, we prepare as the challenger.”
Since the defeat and the severe injuries Josh suffered, necessary healing time has been spent away from the gym. The enforced break, along with the pandemic, has given rise to a little more retrospection than would normally occur. That said, this is a fighter who has many strings to his bow. Life is not all about boxing, and the definition of ‘busy’ – to keep oneself occupied – could have been coined for Josh.
“I tried my hand at DIY. It’s scandalous! I bought myself a big boy drill during lockdown. I just put holes in all the walls. Not brilliant.
“I try and play the guitar. I can play a few Oasis songs. Having watched Derek Chisora the other week, I want to start playing ‘Hotel California’. That’s next on the agenda. You might see that on my social media some time soon. I put a video up last year, ‘Cast No Shadow’ by Oasis, and Dom [Ingle – renowned trainer and keen musician] actually commented on my Instagram and said ‘Not bad!’
“I’d try my hand at loads of different things if I could. I’ve got golf clubs, tennis rackets, a ping pong table in my house, bikes in my shed. I bought a pair of DJ decks last year. When I was a younger lad, I wanted to do a bit of mixing. I read a lot. I’ve got a massive fish tank with tropical fish. I’m always trying my hand at different things. It goes from one thing to another to another.
“He’s a bit like myself,” he says, nudging his dad. “He goes from hobby to hobby. He found a few pieces of wood in the garden and he’s built himself an aviary. He’s into his nature and wildlife is Johnny. As well as his cooking. He’s a cultured man!”
“I’m not a naturist!” Sean smiles, eyes fully lit. “Wildlife and that, yes, but not with no clothes on! Although it has crossed my mind a time or two!
“I like simple things. I went to Dubai and that were alright. But, other day, I was in Filey on the east coast. Had fish and chips and that was fantastic, know what I mean? It wasn’t as hot.”
University educated with a past career as a dental technician, Josh Warrington is clearly not your average boxer. But he isn’t your average 30-year-old from any walk of life. Books on the go range from autobiographies to the motivational, many focussing on trauma to triumph. Quite apt. It is the insatiable curiosity that really sets him apart.
“Sometimes I think deep. Really deep. I used to think deeper when I was younger. I used to hurt me head! As a kid, I had the thought process, ‘Why are we here? What’s it all about?’ It’s something I’ve always done. Visualising. It’s all energy systems, quantum physics and all that. When you have a thought, it’s got to go somewhere. It’s something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve always thought that if you think on something hard enough, then it’ll happen. That was the same before my first fight at Leeds Arena, it was the same before my fight at Elland Road against Lee Selby.
“I wear a cross, I believe in God, but I don’t follow religion. The spiritual side? We have energy systems, people around us. We have auras and stuff like that. This is something I’ll probably delve into when I retire.
“Over the years I’ve meditated and visualised, but I didn’t even know these were ‘things’. When I’d do mindfulness at home, I’d finish work, sit on my bed. It’s thought in pictures. Something I’ve always done. I only realised these were certain topics when I got into my early twenties.
“Who knows, when I finish [boxing], I might turn into a guru or become a monk, shave my head and dress in orange.” There is more laughter following his closing comment. But he might just be serious.