The doors of British boxing have been firmly shut since the end of 2021. COVID-19 continues to beat the ten count, causing delay upon delay of planned shows, as well as the lingering threat of moving fights abroad.
Despite positive steps being taken in December — seeing 1,000 fans in attendance for the heavyweight world title fight between Anthony Joshua and Kubrat Pulev — we’ve been back to square one in January: fighters haven’t been able to get dates or, more importantly, get paid.
Feb 13. sees Matchroom Boxing return with Josh Warrington vs Mauricio Lara inside London’s empty Wembley Arena, as “bubble boxing” extends into its second year.
Of course, this is a positive step. Zelfa Barrett, Kiko Martinez, Leigh Wood, Reece Mould, Dalton Smith, Hopey Price, Zahid Hussain, Ibrahim Nadim and Jonny Phillips are also set to feature on this bill, but the gaping hole in live boxing is growing, with small hall shows and amateur boxing taking the biggest punches in this seemingly endless flurry.
But we are where we are, and where we are is Josh Warrington returning to action for the first time since October 2019. The “Leeds Warrior” is now without his IBF featherweight title having vacated it earlier this month, opting for a cleaner route with fewer hurdles in order to secure marquee match-ups at the weight.
Xu Can (a form of WBA world champion) and Gary Russell Jr (WBC champion) are those specific targets, with Warrington and his team deciding against a rematch with domestic rival Kid Galahad as formerly instructed by the IBF.
Speaking this week, Warrington is aware that he can’t afford any silly mistakes at this stage of his career, and has underlined his hunger to test himself against the very best in the division.
“The next fight is always the most important one,” said Warrington. “You can’t afford to slip up. For my legacy as a fighter, I want to be known as someone who went in there and beat the best. This is the pinnacle of my career. Nobody in the boxing world ever thought I’d get to this stage. All of the big fights are there in front of me. I’m ready to take on the bigger names.
“It’s going to be good to get back. It has been mentally testing. There have been dates that have changed many times. It’s been last April, then last May, last June, last August, last October and last December. It won’t feel like I’m back until I step through them ropes. It won’t feel like I’m back until that first bell rings. It’s been frustrating but now I’m ready to go.”
“For the last six or seven years, I’ve headlined shows in Leeds and Manchester. I’ve always boxed in front of big numbers. When I first came through, it was smaller crowds on the small hall scene. I’ve had a taste of that, but I’ve got used to fighting in front of those big numbers. I’d say it wasn’t until September that I kind of thought to myself, ‘it might have to be behind closed doors.’ I kept on thinking, ‘we can wait a little bit longer for the crowds to be back.’
“For me, when I come out of those doors, I turn and I look to the crowd. I get in the ring and I look down to all of the people around the ringside and up in the stands. I meet them eye-to-eye and then I know it’s on. They’re there with me. During the fight I can feel the passion and feel the energy. They’re not just any fans; my fans are fucking crazy!
“Without them there, it’s going to be different. I understand that. But ultimately, when that first bell rings, I’ve got a man stood in front of me who’s trying to stop me from going where I want to be, trying to take food out of my mouth, my kids’ mouth. I have to just focus on beating that man and moving on. For the last couple of months, I’ve been visualising what it will be like to walk out in the empty auditorium. You’ve still got to be able to switch on.”