By Alan Hubbard
Dads and their lads have never really gone hand in boxing glove. Paternal guidance from the corner is not always appreciated. It can lead to rows, rifts and recriminations – ask the Eubanks, or the Mayweathers.
But somehow Sean O’Hagan and his offspring Josh Warrington have discovered the right formula. Whatever the chemistry is between them it works, with father taking son without defeat through 29 contests, gathering a clutch of championship belts and the IBF world featherweight title along the way.
O’Hagan is surely the most charismatic cornerman we have seen in this country since the irascible Jim ‘The Bishop’ Wicks masterminded the career of his ‘Enry (Cooper that is).
Like Wicks he is rotund, sharp-witted and never short of something to say. Always game for giggle, too, in the genuinely comical way that encourages heartfelt laughter. You can see why most lads would want him as a dad as well as a mate.
Further evidence of the way he and Josh bond can be seen this Saturday night in their hometown Leeds when Warrington makes the third defence of that precious title against Frenchman Sofiane Takoucht at the First Direct Arena where the pair have become something of a fistic institution. “The thing is says O’Hagan, “we’ve been together as a team since he first pulled on a pair of boxing gloves as a kid. We know each other inside out but we’re not living in each other’s pockets if you know what I mean. Family matters are separate from boxing.”
While O’Hagan – amicably separated from Josh’s mother and now in a new relationship – tends to a sizeable flock at home – Warrington has seven siblings including an autistic sister – the immensely popular fighter is now a married man at 28 and proud father of twins
According to his dad the young Josh began to show his warrior-like instincts when he was 13 or 14. “And when he started beating some top names as a 16-year-old that’s when we decided to take it seriously and see how far he could go. I’d done a bit myself as amateur but nothing to shout about though I felt I knew enough about the game and about Josh to train him. We have had a lot if knockers but so far it has worked.”
And worked a treat. In their professional life together O’Hagan is not only his boy’s guiding light in the ring but still very much a father figure outside though he confesses, “You know, Josh never ever calls me dad. He sees me as his coach and that’s not a bad thing.“
I pointed out to him that situation was the same with the great athlete Sebastian Coe whose father Peter was also “my coach“ and always referred to as such.
O’Hagan laughs, “More often than not he will call me Johnny. You know, after Johnny Vegas.”
True, there is a certain physical, resemblance to the northern comic actor though Vegas is from Lancashire while O’Hagan, whose own father was from Belfast’s Falls Road, is as now Yorkshire as the crispy pudding he bakes every week to accompany the family’s Sunday roast.
Self- taught in the culinary art, O’Hagan quickly discovered that the way to Josh’s big boxing heart was not just through his brain – “he is a really intelligent lad who listens and learns” – but his stomach. You might say he is literally Josh’s chef de mission. Head cook and bottle washer.
Next to boxing, slaving over a hit stove is his great passion. And not just plain, traditional grub. Jerk chicken, curried goat, and Josh’s favourite, Moroccan lamb steaks with homemade Lebanese bread and a Mediterranean salad with olives. “He’ll eat almost anything.”
A bity fancy for a fighter making weight, surely?. “No problems at all. When we are in camp he has someone to work out his diet. I used to do it but now we’ve had a bit of success we’ve brought in an expert to work out his meal plans. But sometimes I’ll still cook for him.”,
O’Hagan says he got to grips with cooking to feed his then young family after doing a spot of kitchen work as one of his many previous jobs, including cab driver, doorman (“I got used to getting chinned on a Friday night”), plus a spell in an abattoir. “A bit of this and a bit of that. In fact I just packed up a council job last week to become full-time in boxing.
Between them father and son have brought about a remarkable ring renaissance in Leeds which though traditionally a citadel of boxing had never before produced a full-blown world champion.
Warrington has always been my type of boxer, a front foot fighter who needed guts and guile to take the belt from Lee Selby and subsequently emphatically defended it against the estimable Carl Frampton in Manchester last December in what was rightly voted Fight of the Year, with Warrington just pipped for Fighter of the Year by Callum Smith. I am by no means alone in thinking he should have won.
He has arguably the biggest fan base in British boxing and is responsible for scores of young locals coming into the game as a result of his achievements and engaging persona.
A soon to be announced project will enhance and harness this burgeoning talent in the area, involving fighter, father and promoters Queensberry.
“Making the move (from Matchroom) to join Frank (Warrren) was the best thing we ever did,” O’Hagan told me this week “Frank has done us proud, kept his promises and really looked after us. I’ve got a few kids coming along as well as Josh so there are exciting times ahead for boxing in Leeds.”
Josh is a really intelligent lad who listens and learns. “You never have to tell him twice. His greatest attribute is his work ethic, it’s incredible. He’s non-stop. What you’ve got to remember s that we’ve never been fed a load of journeymen to beat up along the way. He’s always had decent opposition. But it is getting more difficult to find opponents willing to fight him in so we might have to go up to super featherweight to seek them out although, as I say, there is absolutely no problem with him making the nine stone limit. None whatsoever. But he is big enough to take on super featherweights.
“l’ll admit Josh’s performance (against Kid Galahad), wasn’t one of his best so we are taking this next one very seriously ,This Frenchman is a southpaw with a decent record, 15 stoppages and he’s never been stopped himself. There are some other world champions who wouldn’t take the fight but he has so he’ll be really up for it.”
He adds: “Josh will be here in a few minutes to pick me up and we’ll be off to the gym to put the finishing touches. But this time we will lock the door behind us and it will be just me and him there. No cameras. no one else watching. Just me and him in the ring together going through our game plan for the fight. We will be making a statement to show that he is better than ever.”
In other words, Warington, like his dad, will be cooking with gas.