As Les Reed and Barry Mason’s infamous Leeds United anthem “Marching On Together” rings around Elland Road every other weekend, one diehard supporter bellows each lyric with more intent and feeling than most. Josh Warrington, Yorkshire’s IBF world featherweight champion, bleeds the blue, yellow and white of Leeds United Football Club, and in return, the 28-year-old has harnessed the unrivalled support of a city seldom seen since Ricky Hatton’s Manchester nights a decade ago.
It’s a song that has become synonymous with not only the football club but the “Leeds Warrior” himself. Walking into battle buoyed by the choir of a raucous Yorkshire fanbase, Warrington’s fight nights depict that of a Leeds United F.A Cup tie in the early 70s; a nervous energy swirls around the trembling walls of the Leeds Arena as 13,000 “Loiners” stand in the corner of their man, affirming a collective love of a city starved of recent sporting success.
Warrington’s rise to the summit of the featherweight division has come at the optimum time; Leeds United have been absent from the top tier of English football since relegation in 2004 and the subsequent mismanagement of finances and club direction has hindered an immediate return. This season-upon-season of heartbreak has become engrained in the younger generation of Leeds fans, with Warrington himself not reaching his teenage years the last time his beloved club could celebrate any form of success.
His road to the top of the 126-pound division is a refreshing tale of tradition, treading a path that has become less and less frequented as the hand of modernity attempts to push and pull tomorrow’s champions in different directions. From the small halls to the leisure centres, via pit stops in hotels boasting capacities in the 100s, Warrington journey is one that underpins his dedication to the craft of boxing, as well as facilitating the head-strong grounded nature that his personality exudes.
“One fella has drove three hours to be here today,” Warrington told the Yorkshire post. “I am not fighting I am just doing a workout. You can’t buy that loyalty. I have to pinch myself at times when people make that much of an effort to come along and see me working out for 10 to 15 minutes.”
This loyalty works both ways, with Warrington consistently putting the hours in shifting tickets on a personal level in the run-up to a bout. In what he calls the “ticket run”, Warrington’s old-school methods stretch to zig-zagging across Leeds selling tickets to his own fight to the supporters who have been by his side since day one – no demons of stardom seems likely to penetrate this humble approach to life as a prizefighter.
The support Warrington receives has never been taken for granted, with his reputation for being a huge ticket-seller being shaped over his 29 professional victories. “I don’t want to let those people down, who have paid their hard-earned money,” he added, speaking to the working class mentality he still assimilates.
These are Warrington’s people. When he scooped the vacant English title back in 2012, the ball began rolling for Josh. Signing with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing two years later, the European title followed in a fourth-round TKO of Italy’s Davide Dieli, with Warrington’s unique fanbase demonstrating their solidarity during the Kaiser Chiefs track “I Predict a Riot”, as Warrington stoked the fire in the arena. This partisan crowd hadn’t been seen in a British ring for a number of years, with Sky Sports tapping into Warrington’s marketability.
There were early fears, outlined by critics, that this fanbase was just a hangover from Leeds United football matches, with no one inside the arena knowing or caring about what happened inside the ring, however, over the years that followed, both Josh and his support would mature into a uniquely British sporting story.
On Saturday night, Warrington aims to defend his IBF crown for the third time against Frenchman Sofiane Takoucht, with a healthy crowd expected in Leeds for this one-sided mandatory defence. On Monday, Warrington also announced that Leeds United’s current Player of the Year Pablo Hernandez would be walking him to the ring on fight night, following in the footsteps of Lucas Radebe, Liam Cooper and Vinnie Jones that have had the previous pleasure.
“Leeds United are such a huge part of my life so it’s inspirational having the players watching me box. It’s mad because these are the fellas I cheer every weekend as a fan,” Warrington told the press on Monday. “Just imagine the noise this weekend. Takoucht will have never heard anything like it.”
As Warrington looks towards featherweight unification fights in 2020, the unbeaten 28-year-old’s sense of belonging seems to grow stronger and stronger with each test he passes. Eyeing a potential Las Vegas bout next year would attract an army of supporters, reminiscent of Ricky Hatton’s ventures in defeat to Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao just over a decade ago.
Over the past year, Warrington has earned his right to be considered more than just a footnote in a summary of Yorkshire sport. Leeds United and the “Leeds Warrior” now go hand-in-hand on their combined quest for glory, with a passionate city proving pivotal in building the foundations both have enjoyed harnessing support from.
“Marching On Together” will continue to provide the perfect soundtrack to this particular fan who is fighting for his city.