By Alan Hubbard
‘People are usually happiest at home.’
So said William Shakespeare, and while there is no evidence that he could fight a lick, the Bard’s wise words are a homily that both footballers and fighters will acknowledge.
There certainly is no place like home, which is the reason why I am taking Josh Warrington to become the first boxer from Leeds to win a world title by relieving incumbent Welshman Lee Selby of his IBF featherweight belt at Elland Road this Saturday night.
But it is not the only one. Contrary to what the majority of my fellow scribes believe I think home bird Josh has the ability, lifted by that Elland Road roar, to hit a career best and present Selby with the sort of high pressure, confidence-shattering challenge that the champion has never really experienced before.
Home advantage will be a powerful factor but so will Josh’s relentless go-forward gumption against a classy stylist who does not relish being hustled out of his comfort zone and on to the back foot.
Not since Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton and Norman ‘bite yer legs’ Hunter so aggressively defended the Elland Road fortress in Leeds United’s Don Revie-inspired sixties heyday will the stadium have witnessed such grit and tenacity.
And that is how I see warrior Warrington – an underdog with bite – tackling his task in the spirit of his footballing forebears.
I earmarked him to win when this match was first mooted by Frank Warren and I stick to that though I accept it will be close and maybe even controversial.
Josh, possibly by a split decision, is my prediction for a night the city’s fight fans will savour for some time to come.
As I have opined here before, unlike most other major UK cities – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast – Leeds could never claim to be a sizzling hotbed of big-time boxing or boast a world champion.
But that is about to change now with the advent of Saturday night’s spectacular show with two immensely popular home-brewed stars – Warrington and double Olympic gold medallist Nicola Adams – about to help their native city to join the fistic elite.
With burgeoning talent in and around the area now being corralled by Frank and his Queensberry team and beamed into homes by the TV union of BT and BoxNation, Leeds very definitely will find itself on Britain’s boxing map.
The dynamic duo of Warrington and Adams, who in her fourth pro bout faces the exotically named and greatly experienced Soledad del Valle Frias from Argentina, and .three times a world title challenger, in a prelude to her own world title bid, form the basis of a tremendous future for major boxing in what is one of the nation’s most thriving sporting citadels.
Among other fistic luminaries who were bred in Leeds are the most athletic of referees, Mickey Vann, once a circus artiste, Henry Wharton, Crawford Ashley, Tom Collins, Alan Richardson and Carl Johnneson, who defeated Ricky Burns at the Town Hall in 2007 to retain his British super-featherweight title.
There has always been an ardent following for small hall boxing in Leeds. In fact before the last World War there were some 30 venues across the city staging boxing events.
Perhaps, too, there is an omen for a Warrington win as Leeds once witnessed the shock upset of another boxing artist from the Welsh valleys.
It came on May 11, 1962 when the sublime Merthyr featherweight Howard Winstone, the finest and most popular fighter in the land at the time, had his unbeaten 34-fight streak ended by a stunning second-round ko defeat against American journeyman Leroy Jeffrey.
He was caught cold by a left hook, floored twice in the second round and stopped. It was one of the biggest upsets ever in British boxing.
I was there when the late Winstone, whose dazzling left hand had made boxing into an art form, was consoled by the great Sugar Ray Robinson, who had boxed an exhibition that same night. “A great fellow, really sympathetic,” Winstone recalled later. “Told me I’d get over it and not to worry.”
Winstone’s manager Eddie Thomas shrewdly ensured that he did ‘get over it’ by rebuilding his confidence by defending his British title three times prior to winning the European and world titles.
As for Jeffrey, he had one more fight – losing to another Yorkshireman, Billy Calvert – before disappearing into obscurity.
No doubt both the current home-town hero Warrington, who made his sixth appearance on the trot the FD Arena last time out when he brilliantly stopped Dane Dennis Ceylan to earn his title shot, and heroine Adams, who first boxed in Leeds as a 13-year-old schoolgirl some 20 years ago, will make sure that, unlike the hapless Winstone, they don’t take anything for granted and forget to duck!
The redoubtable Carl Frampton and another all-British blockbuster at Windsor Park awaits whoever emerges the victor from the Selby-Warrington duel.
As the day’s highlight, Selby v Warrington may face competition from a couple of other popular big matches – the Royal Wedding and FA Cup final- but to go all Shakespearean again, it certainly won’t be Much Ado About Nothing. More like Measure for Measure.
And, hopefully, All’s Well That Ends Well for Warrington.
For Leeds, the boxing big-time is here. So sit back and enjoy the show, whether at home via BT or BoxNation (where coverage starts live from 7pm) or as one of 25,000 or so in one of Britain’s most atmospheric arenas.
Warrington may be home…but as Selby will discover, he certainly won’t be alone.