"IO have always feared losing,” Josh Warrington says softly after he has spent an hour talking about the shattering first defeat he endured as a professional boxer seven months ago. In his kitchen in Garforth, on the outskirts of Leeds, Warrington has proved again that boxers are more open than other sportsmen and women in confronting raw emotion and the potentially catastrophic consequences of their trade with vivid honesty and intricate detail.
On Saturday night Warrington has a chance to avenge his loss against Mauricio Lara in February when he again faces the previously unheralded Mexican in front of a crowd of 20,000 at Headingley. The atmosphere will be intense and raucous, as Warrington’s supporters are the most passionate in British boxing. But Warrington, who describes himself as “a bit of a deep thinker”, uses this quiet morning at home to reflect on his harrowing defeat.
We have revisited the fight, which ended with Warrington being dropped violently in the fourth round and stopped in the ninth, and his subsequent trip to hospital in an ambulance. Warrington has spoken about the impact on his wife and twin girls, who turned three the next day, as well as the distressing video he made when still concussed. He has discussed his fractured jaw, burst eardrum and the shoulder operation he had after crashing to the canvas. Warrington has gone even deeper to pinpoint the loneliest moment.
“Ten weeks later,” he remembers, “I went to the Joseph Parker-Derek Chisora fight in Manchester [in early May] and it really hit me. Like I said I always worried about losing because how will you react? How will people react? But I was flooded with messages and phone calls. I had a huge response when I became world champion [in May 2018] e when I beat Carl Frampton [that December]. After I lost to Lara it went off the scale. People who would normally send a little ‘Well done, Josh’ were writing me massive essays of how much I’d affected their lives and what it’s meant for them following me. They were saying they’re proud of me and I will be back. It was unreal. I then had surgery and five weeks recovering from my injuries which were a distraction. ho pensato: ‘I’ve had a loss but this is not too bad.’ I was wrong.”
Before he was shocked by Lara he had also given up his IBF world title rather than fight his mandatory challenger, Kid Galahad, whom he had beaten on a split decision in June 2019. Warrington had wanted a lucrative and more prestigious unification fight against Xu Can who was then the WBA champion. That bout had been postponed and then rescheduled for May 2020. But Xu pulled out and the IBF insisted Warrington fight Galahad. He decided to relinquish his title and Lara emerged as a substitute opponent. Disaster struck and Warrington felt the full impact on the way home from the Chisora-Parker show.
“That was meant to be my rearranged fight with Xu,” the 30 year-old recalls, “and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was driving home on the M62 about 12:30, and I were in the middle lane at 60 miles an hour, nice and steady. But I couldn’t get it out of my head – thinking of what might have been. It should have been my night and I was all messed up. All the messages after the fight had been like a nice warm blanket. But that night, bloody hell, I felt so lonely. I was desperate to know what was happening with my next fight. I needed something to focus on because I felt so lost. I was at my lowest the next week.”
A rematch with Lara seems full of danger and a second defeat by the Mexican would have grave implications for Warrington’s career. But his willingness to revisit that terrible night in such a stark way is a sign that Warrington is mentally strong enough for a demanding challenge. He also stresses that his preparation for the rematch has “gone as well as possible. I always give myself 100 % in the gym and my mentality is really taking shape. I’ve got that tunnel vision, that obsession, and all I’m thinking about is this fight, visualising myself winning.”
Ma, primo, Warrington returns to the troubled first bout when an empty arena at Wembley during the winter lockdown unsettled him. “I felt flat even walking to the ring. I’m looking around and nobody’s there. I’m thinking, this is different. This is weird. Normally I’m focused on a packed arena, looking at people’s faces, meeting their eyes as adrenaline rushes through me. This time there was nothing and I’m thinking: ‘Come on, Josh, get yourself fired up.’ I climbed through the ropes and I’m thinking: ‘Let’s just get this done.’
“When I land that first right hand I think: ‘This is going to be a walk in the park.’ But he caught me a fair few times with uppercuts because my hands were down. I was a bit too arrogant and relaxed and that isn’t normally me. His confidence grew and he chipped away. He then caught me in the fourth and that was the fight.”
Warrington’s eyes open wide at the memory. “I’ve never been shaken like that – and I’ve been in against some big punchers and been hit clean. This was like nothing else. I’ve never been buzzed like that. It were a weird feeling and, after I got up, I just wasn’t there. I went back to the corner and in that minute, listening to my dad [who is also his trainer], I didn’t have a clue what he was saying.”
He fought back bravely. “I won the fifth, probably the sixth too. He won the next two rounds but he were breathing heavy and I thought: ‘I’m still in this.’ But the truth is that my punch resistance had gone. By the time we got to the ninth round I felt like I were in with Mike Tyson. He caught me again and I’ve gone over. I’m looking up at the lights and I can hear the count: ‘One … two…’ I’ve gone to sit up and the ref stopped me: ‘It’s over, Josh’. I said: ‘Let me get up.’ But it was finished.”
In the dressing room “it were a bit of a blur”, Warrington says. “The paramedics were making a big fuss about getting me to hospital. I were in a world of my own saying: ‘Let me be, just give me a minute.’ The doctor comes over and says: ‘Josh, everyone’s wanting you to go to hospital and I think you should.’ I say: ‘Doctor, just give me a minute. I’ll be okay.’ Then the boxing board doctor comes over with his torch and says: ‘Look up, look down. Look left, look right.’ He then told me I have to go to hospital.
“I vaguely remember [his wife] Natasha coming with me. We walked past Mauricio [Lara] doing an interview and then I’m in the ambulance. I broke down then and it felt so lonely in hospital. I went for a CT scan and Natasha weren’t able to come with me because of Covid. Tash was trying to be strong for me but it were a shock to her system because she has never seen me like that. It really hit home what I do for a living and scared her because they were checking that there weren’t any bleeds on the brain. I finally got discharged around four in the morning and I was driven back to Leeds because it was our girls’ birthday party the next day.”
Warrington gestures sadly to the front room. “We tried to put smiles on our faces but they knew something was wrong. All their presents were piled up in the room but they turned round to Natasha and said: ‘What’s wrong with Daddy?’ We tried our best to make it a nice day for them and they enjoyed themselves. They had a little tea party but it was a long, hard day.
“I took a video of the girls but I don’t remembering doing it. I hardly remember anything. I was probably still concussed but one of my pals who runs my media said: ‘Do you want to put a video out?’ I sat in that chair and spoke into a video. Within 20 minutes I had so many messages: ‘Josh, please take that down.’ They were right. I looked disgusting. You could hardly hear a word I was saying. Sometimes I talk too fast and I muddle my words up but after the fight I had so many cuts and bruises and my mouth were cut to ribbons and swollen. I had the fractured jaw, too.” Warrington slurs and mumbles as he impersonates himself before letting slip a rueful laugh. “It didn’t look or sound fantastic. So I took the video down within an hour.”
It is sobering to hear and we’re glad that his wife and girls are out of the house this morning. But what does Natasha feel with the rematch closing in on them? “She always believed I’d come through fights unscathed. But she worries a little now because she doesn’t want to me to go through that again. I have to look at it from her side because for weeks she just mothered and nursed me. It hit her how tough boxing is. But she’s a diamond and she knows it’s my job. Per 11 years and my first 30 fights I’ve always been on the right side. But I had a bad night against Lara and I’m not going to make an excuse. If I’m happy to talk about how I feel after I win it’s important that people hear from me after it’s gone the wrong way.”
Warrington is a lovely man, as brave as he is welcoming. But he is a fighter above all else and, despite the ordeal of the first fight, he insists he will beat Lara on Saturday night. He is also convinced that the roaring tumult of his home crowd will drive him on against the Mexican. “I went out to Headingley a few weeks ago to get a feel of it. They’ve recently revamped the north stand and the changing rooms and the facilities are fancy and snazzy. I made the walk down the corridors towards the tunnel and the walls are covered with photographs of all these great rugby [league] players. I could feel myself getting fired up. I came out of the tunnel and onto an empty pitch. I looked around and I could just feel the noise that will fill the stadium.
“I thought to myself: ‘Fucking hell, Lara’s done nothing but fight in small holes in Mexico and all of a sudden he’s here, in a massive stadium. Fair play to him. He’s earned it, hasn’t he?"
Warrington smiles and then, more seriously, he nods. “I know how important this fight is for me. I think it’s going to be very different, and much better, for me this time round.”