‘He’s a gobshite’: Josh Warrington on Shakur Stevenson, breaking America and emulating Ricky Hatton
Exclusive interview: The IBF world champion wants to follow in Hatton's footsteps and break America - just as soon as boxing returns from the coronavirus pandemic
Not even a deadly pandemic and the subsequent shutdown of professional sport worldwide has stopped Shakur Stevenson from running his mouth about Josh Warrington. Stevenson, the WBO featherweight world champion, remains indignant that he was overlooked by the Englishman for his next fight. “Well, what do you expect?” Warrington, holder of the IBF belt, tells The Independent. “He’s a gobshite.”
Warrington is sat enjoying the sun in his garden in outer Leeds, where conversation is occasionally interrupted by his twin girls playing happily. It sounds an idyllic scene. Thoughts of a return to the ring are distant. But, before coronavirus laid waste to the boxing calendar, Warrington had agreed to fight China’s Xu Can, whose secondary WBA title stands to be elevated if Léo Santa Cruz continues campaigning in higher weight divisions.
Confused? Don’t be. Regardless of the baubles at stake, it promised to be a thrilling unification fight between two of the most renowned volume punchers in the business.
Just try telling that to Stevenson. The American is only 22, yet has already fought his way to an Olympic silver medal and claimed a world title in his 13th fight, by beating Joet Gonzalez, who just so happens to be his girlfriend’s brother. Brash, brilliant but – crucially – untested at the very top level, Stevenson is not used to waiting for what he wants. “We’re the big fight, so this has thrown me off guard,” he recently bemoaned. “I thought he had heart”.
Warrington, who won the English, Commonwealth, British and European titles before fighting for world honours, sees things differently.
“I have wanted a unification fight since beating [Carl] Frampton,” he explains. “So, I mentioned Stevenson’s name in a few articles and things. Not only his name. But he was the one to bite back. And he hasn’t let it lie. The problem was he was scheduled to be fighting in mid-March. And, because of that, he wouldn’t be getting back into the ring until July time. We wanted a fight in early May or June and I wasn’t willing to wait just for him. So negotiations with other fighters opened up.
“Look, he’s a gobshite. He’s got Andre Ward behind him. He’s got Terence Crawford behind him. Both blowing smoke up his arse and telling him how good he is. But he’s a young lad. And if we were to fight I think he would be backpedalling on his bike. He has boxed twelve rounds a few times but he has boxed people who were there for him to look good. If I were to go in with him, I would make it a dogfight. I’d give him twelve rounds of hell.
“I’m not saying that he’s not a good fighter. But he is yet to be in that big war scenario. When somebody is coming forward with their defence, changing the angles and mixing things up. Is he able to deal with that? Who knows. He probably doesn’t know himself. So he can talk a lot of shit, but unless you have been there and done it, you just don’t know.”
Warrington, Britain’s longest-reigning world champion, can certainly lay claim to having been there and done it. He became a world champion on a magical night at Elland Road in May 2018, stunning Lee Selby in a stadium that has been his cathedral since he was a boy. Impressive victories over Frampton, Kid Galahad and France’s Sofiane Takoucht have followed, elevating him to an even more enviable position in the featherweight division.
“It’s about legacy now,” he says. And, should he get past 18-2 Xu when life has returned to normal, he has a number of lucrative options. Elsewhere at 126lbs, the mercurial Gary Russell Jr. has held the WBC strap since 2015. While in the division above, the likes of Santa Cruz, Óscar Valdez and Joseph Diaz all loom alluringly. Warrington is firmly in superfight territory now.
“I know that legacy is ultimately defined by who you have boxed,” he adds. “Look at Russell Jr, he has been the WBC champion for five years now and is very well known in the States. So if I could pick somebody after Xu, I would pick him. And if Stevenson is still kicking about after that, then I will take him. I’ll take Santa Cruz, too, and Valdez. I just want to be a part of those big fights.”
One thing is for sure: whenever those big fights happen, they are likely to take place in the United States of America.
The text messages and phone calls from childhood friends started as soon as Warrington defended his IBF strap for the first time, against Frampton in Manchester. “My mates are now constantly asking me when we’re going to America,” he says. “Some have told me that they’ve taken out credit cards, or are planning two week holidays. Things like that make it hit home, although I’m not sure how many of them have told their missus yet.”
The similarities with Ricky Hatton are obvious. Like Hatton, Warrington is a working class hero absolutely loyal to his environment. Like Hatton, Warrington has entered the biggest fights of his life as the underdog. And like Hatton, Warrington has an army of vociferous supporters ready and willing to travel at a moment’s notice.
Hatton is one of Warrington’s childhood heroes. As a boy, he would stay up late with his father to watch the Mancunian’s exploits in America, the victories over Luis Collazo, Juan Urango, José Luis Castillo and Paulie Malignaggi, as well as the brave defeats by all-time greats Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. And those nights made an indelible impression.
“Do you know one of my favourite boxing videos ever?” Warrington asks. “It’s Hatton at the Mayweather weigh-in, when he grabs the microphone. ‘Are you here to see Floyd? No! Are you here to see me? Then let’s fucking have him!’ It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It would be hard to match Ricky’s numbers but even a small percentage would be good. I have a noisy bunch of fans who are prepared to travel and they would definitely make themselves heard.”
“I used to love watching Hatton during that early 2000s period when all the Brits were going over to America, taking their entourages and their fans. Lennox Lewis, Naseem Hamed, Joe Calzaghe. America has always had the glitz and the glamour and fighting there has always been on my bucket list. I didn’t ever think I would be headlining Elland Road fighting for a world title, but I have done that, so why not dare to go on and achieve other things that I never thought would be possible?”
Warrington laughs. “It’s fantasy stuff, really,” he adds. But it is now a fantasy that is just one fight from reality.