‘I’ve got the fear this time,” Josh Warrington admits as he waits for the final hours to pass before he steps back into the ring to face Mauricio Lara again. The young Mexican knocked him out with shocking power in February and Warrington suffered his first loss in more than 11 years as a professional.
That crushing defeat left Warrington with worrying concussion, a fractured jaw, a burst ear drum and an injured shoulder that required surgery after Lara knocked him down heavily in the fourth round.
The 30-year-old Yorkshireman fought back, while clearly dazed, and he was stopped in chilling fashion five rounds later. An oxygen mask had to be strapped to his face before he was helped up. Warrington was taken to hospital that distressing night in London and it took him six weeks to recover from his injuries.
Fear, therefore, is an entirely reasonable emotion for Warrington to feel before the first bell rings at Headingley on Saturday night. Of course, being a fighter, Warrington is more concerned about losing the rematch than the realistic prospect that Lara will hurt him again. “I can’t escape one simple fact,” Warrington says. “I have to win this fight. Everything I’ve worked towards so long goes out the window if I lose again. I can forget talking about winning more world titles or taking my fans to Las Vegas for a massive fight. I can kiss all of those dreams goodbye. That’s why I’ve got the fear. This is a career-defining night.”
Boxing is a pitiless business. The stark realities are rarely far from the surface and, in choosing to face Lara less than eight months after a brutal contest which was calamitous for him, Warrington is risking his health and his boxing future. But you don’t win your first 30 fights in a row and become a world champion featherweight, while beating opponents of the calibre of Carl Frampton and Lee Selby, without great skill and courage. Warrington was underestimated for years – until the night he won the IBF belt against Selby in May 2018. But when he dropped, hurt and beat Frampton convincingly seven months later, in his first defence as world champion, Warrington was lauded at last.
He believed he had become the best featherweight in the world and, in his desire to prove that fact in lucrative contests against other champions, he gave up the IBF belt. He was frustrated when those prestigious bouts failed to happen and, after the pandemic set him back still further, he accepted the 23-year-old Lara as a seemingly routine warm-up opponent after he had been out of the ring for 16 months. No one in British boxing seemed to know much about Lara beyond the fact he had lost twice in Mexico against similarly obscure opponents.
“I underestimated him and paid the price,” Warrington told me. He also pointed to the fact that the first bout took place in an empty Wembley Arena, during lockdown, and everything felt foreign to a boxer accustomed to fighting in front of his adoring army of fans. Twenty thousand of those supporters will turn Headingley into a frenzied arena on Saturday night. Warrington believes he will be inspired and Lara could be spooked as the Mexican is more used to fighting in small venues.
There is some validity to this view but it will surely not decide the outcome. If Warrington is going to win it is imperative that he boxes very differently in the rematch. He was both careless and listless in London and it looked as if he had not recovered from the bout of Covid that laid him low four months previously. He also lacked any coherent strategy against Lara. From the first bell he looked to trade with the Mexican, declining the more sensible option of boxing smartly in the opening rounds, and he was punished.
Warrington has always been willing to absorb a few heavy punches to land more of his own but if he repeats the tactic in Leeds he will almost certainly be stopped again. His father, who is also his trainer, has stressed the need to stick to the fundamentals of boxing and avoid being dragged into a war. Lara hits so much harder and he will be entitled to believe he can walk through Warrington’s flurries of blows.
“I only had a month to prepare last time,” Lara said this week. “This time I’ve had four months. I will be even better.”
It is rare for a fighter to win the rematch after the kind of defeat Warrington endured. But he has been bolstered by Anthony Joshua who was knocked out, even more shockingly, by Andy Ruiz Jr in the summer of 2019. Six months later, boxing with iron discipline and great caution, Joshua outpointed Ruiz easily. He and Warrington have spoken in detail about the psychology needed to apply such a strategy – but there is no doubt Joshua was helped hugely by the fact Ruiz had chosen to party rather than train hard before their heavyweight rematch.
Lara does not look like he has been partying much since he won the fight which catapulted him into the higher echelons of the featherweight division. He has said instead that he always thought he was a world class fighter – but now he knows he belongs in this elite category.
Warrington faces an immense test. The suspicion remains that even Warrington himself will discover whether he has the resolve to withstand Lara’s raw power only once he is immersed in the fight. He will be determined and courageous. But Warrington will need great skill and discipline – and the hope that Lara is unsettled by the size and clamour of the occasion. It will be a night fraught with uncertainty and danger.