By Richard Hubbard
Josh Warrington had long saved the date, informing all those around him that the only purposeful walk he would be making in August was up the aisle and not strutting out at the Leeds Arena or Elland Road ahead of a shot at the world featherweight title.
His nuptials with Natasha were a good few years in the pipeline and he had no intention of being marked up with a shiner or two in the wedding photos. A proposed meeting with the IBF world champion Lee Selby could wait until the winter. That was the plan.
Selby had other ideas, taking to social media to ridicule the 26-year-old for not taking up the option of a summer shot, labelling him a bottler and ‘running scared’.
If the intention of the Welshman was to provoke a reaction and lure the Leeds man into the ring, little did he know at the time, it very nearly paid dividends.
Warrington now concedes that, much to the chagrin of his intended, he snapped at the bait and only the wise counsel of his father Sean O’Hagan and manager Steve Wood persuaded him to bide his time and put bride before pride.
“It was a little bit annoying because, like any boxer, you sacrifice a lot throughout the years,” reflected the recent addition to the Frank Warren stable. “I had said previously that me and my missus were going to get married on that certain date and wanted to be quiet around that time.
“We’d boxed (Hisashi) Amagasa in the April and I thought that were gonna be it then until after the wedding as that was what the team had decided beforehand, apart from saying I might have a little eight-rounder just to keep me busy.
“I was ticking over just in case, but wasn’t looking at any big fight, then all of a sudden this offer (to fight Selby) comes out and we sat down as a team and started discussing it.
“We left it as ‘why can’t we do it at the end of the year?’ and there was no reason not to do that.
“Then he started spouting off that I had bottled it because of my wedding. Let me make it clear, I did not f**king bottle it and I was all for cancelling my wedding.
“I really was and my missus got a bit upset with it but, at the end of the day, if someone calls you a **** you want to hit them in the face.
“My dad and manager said I was jumping to his bait and, to be fair, when I look at it now that is what I did.
“The media were running away with it and people on social media saying I didn’t want the fight. His manager was pathetic, putting stuff out, but when you look back and take yourself out of the picture, they were desperate and didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“He hasn’t had a fight since April and is a world champion who doesn’t fight. When it goes a bit quiet and he needs a bit of publicity he shouts my name out again.
“That was the annoying thing this last time he started off again because I was thinking he’d had an offer, but then it turns out that he hadn’t.”
Of course, with his switch of camps, Warrington might just be jumping out of the frying pan and into another round of Twitter fire from his old social media adversary Mitchell Smith, who previously took great delight in aiming a few choice missives in his direction.
Warrington prefers to avoid too much in the way of keyboard combat and jokes that Smith would require surgery of the amputation variety for the pair ever to share a ring.
“I’m not normally one to get involved on social media and stuff as I would rather say stuff face to face or in front of a camera, rather than typing it up. I’ve had a few haters and whatnot on social media, but I never seem to get it to my face when I’m walking about up the street.
“I’ve had people slag me off, but when they see me at shows they come up and want a picture. That is the world we live in now.
“It were entertaining with Mitchell but I think he would have to chop his left leg off now if he wants to get down to featherweight.”
Warrington has got a front row seat in the waiting room when it comes to stepping in with one of the world champions, but rightly wishes feel the canvas under his boots again after a lengthy period of inactivity.
At one point it did appear as if the fast-forward button was being pressed on his career as his name was etched on a pick & mix of title belts from when he really announced himself at the back end of 2013 with victory over Samir Mouneimne in Hull for the Commonwealth strap.
However, with success comes scrutiny and when the rangy Dennis Tubieron extended him to a full 12 rounds in April of 2015, a few knockers began mocking, but perhaps the biggest critic was much closer to home.
“The last two years for me have been interesting. I were flying, I won the British, stopped Rendall Munroe, beat Martin Lindsay convincingly, won European, went to Berlin for a tickover one and then all of a sudden I came back to Leeds and there were 10,000 people there, I had Vinny Jones behind us and the national press going ballistic.
“I were getting called the next Ricky Hatton bla bla bla and then I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if the pressure of it all got to me or I got carried away with myself. I know that maybe I took my eye of the ball in training a little bit, but I went into that fight against Tubieron expecting just to blast him out of there.
“People say to me ‘what’s up with you?’ because it was a convincing performance and I didn’t lose a round, but I know myself how I was in that fight. I wasn’t myself, I went in there and I could hear the roar from the fans and it was just daft stuff, I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing and was just going on adrenaline.
“I was pumped on adrenaline and when I watch it back I think ‘what were you doing?’, cringing at myself. At one point I jog across the ring like I was going out in the street for a scrap – there was no boxing about it.
“After that I got a bit of stick and I was a bit down with that performance.
“We came up against Joel Brunker after and I knew this time I had to stick to my gameplan. Towards the back end of the fight I wondered if I could’ve put my foot down and gone for it, forcing a stoppage.
“The same with Amagasa in the next one, I was just playing on the side of caution. I know when I watch it back what I could have done. When I came up against Pajo (Hyland) I wanted to put a performance in and I knew in the seventh or eighth round I could take it to him.
“That’s what I want to start doing more now, put performances on and get these guys out when I’ve got them, rather than erring on the side of caution.
“When I come back I’m going to start making a few statements.”
Frank Warren, the promotional navigator of Ricky Hatton’s thrilling rollercoaster ride through the nineties and noughties, predicts something very similar with his new recruit.
Like Hatton, Warrington too has cultivated an enviable supporter base that provides a captivating backdrop when he steps between the ropes. The next step is emulating the achievements of Manchester’s finest on the biggest stage.
“Yeah listen, I am a massive fan of Ricky Hatton and have been privileged to meet him a couple of times. I grew up watching Ricky and his career unfold and I always told myself I would like to bring nights like that to Leeds.
“I remember watching him on TV as a young lad and saw Frank beside him on those big Manchester Arena nights. I used to think ‘why hasn’t Leeds got something like that?’ and was a bit jealous because I have always been obsessed with the city of Leeds. I love my hometown and where I come from.
“I was a big fan of Ricky’s entrances and the way he used to fight, his aggression and that he was a fans favourite and just one of the lads.
“I’m honoured to have my name mentioned alongside his in the same breath. I want to create the Josh Warrington party.”
The Warrington shindigs at the Leeds Arena haven’t occurred as frequently, or for as long, as some people like to imagine.
The popular perception is that his career was conceived at the shiney 13,500-capacity venue in his home city. The truth of the matter is he didn’t fight there until his 18th fight in mid-2014 and, up to that point, was serving his time on the small hall circuit and building a following.
The wheel of fortune spun in his favour when he upset the odds, not to mention the home crowd, by defeating local favourite Mouneimne. He wasn’t the fancied fighter and only victory on that November 2013 night persuaded his former promoters that he was one to push forward with.
“Yeah definitely, what used to wind me up was that people thought I had been spoon fed all the way up to the Arena. These things don’t just happen overnight, it takes a lot of behind the scenes work.
“I’ve been a pro since 2009 so to make my first appearance in 2014 is a good five-year stretch. People don’t realise that I hardly boxed in Leeds – just two fights at the Pavillion (Elland Road) – and it took years of self-promoting myself, spending time in pubs chatting to folk and getting to know other people asking them to get behind me.
“I was working as dental technician, studying at university at the same time, also promoting myself and training – I don’t know how I fitted it all in when I look back.
“People don’t see that. I remember a time when me and a pal were going round all the kebab shops in Leeds putting posters up and stuff like that, giving out flyers and going around the car parks in shopping centres putting them on cars.
“Just to get my name out there.
“I won the English title, defended it in Leeds a couple of times and from there it just snowballed.
“When I won my first major title boxing against Samir, people don’t realise I was in the away corner. I remember being sat at the top table and Eddie (Hearn) sat there saying ‘on the undercard from Leeds we’ve got Josh Warrington, a 13-0 prospect, English champion and good fighter’. Then he went on to say ‘on the other side we’ve got Samir and, when you talk about talent, this guy is talent’.
“I was thinking ‘I’m have to upset the applecart because I haven’t come here to lose’.
“I would’ve been forgotten about and it probably would’ve been the end of the journey for a little while. After that I got another little go in Manchester because Rendall needed a fight and we had come off a good win and we took quite a few over.
“I think then because Barry (Hearn) had the darts at the Arena they realised there was the potential there and that is where it started from.”
Strangely enough, Warrington has found himself relying on a nice line in self-depreciation since his profile has increased. According to some he is on the box more for his backing than his boxing. The fact that he is 24-0 appears to go unnoticed by a few of the harsher critics.
It is a peculiar thing to have to defend yourself for being a popular attraction, but Warrington takes it in his stride and chooses to join them rather than attempt to overcome – with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course.
“I know! I think it just came off the Tubieron one because it seemed that the analysts at ringside did nowt but knock me. So some people who are watching don’t come up with their own opinion, they just go with it.
“All of a sudden I was getting it, ‘you only sell tickets’, so it was just one of them that I started joking along with saying ‘I am just a ticket seller’. I am just a normal lad who can take the piss out of himself and it is funny because they think it is getting to me.
“Whatever they say, I am still winning.”
And long may that continue!