Tucked away in an unassuming old mill building in Batley lies the training ground for a budding world champion fighter. It’s dark and dusty, with a smell of sweat hanging in the air – a lingering reminder that this is a place for hard graft.
It’s a far cry from the pristine, air conditioned gym you might expect of a fighter who already has English, British, Commonwealth and European titles to his name, but with a flurry of fight posters and pictures of Muhammad Ali surrounding the boxing ring, it feels like a place of ambition and the no frills feel suits the raw nature of this most brutal of sports.
It’s an ambiance Leeds boxer Josh Warrington feels at home in – ‘it feels rough and ready’, he grins – as he fondly looks about the place while strapping on his boots, noting it reminds him of where he started as a youngster.
“I started boxing when I was six years old –just a young lad, full of energy. I was no good at football, had two left feet, and I was too small for rugby, but I needed to let my energy out somewhere so my dad took me down to a boxing gym and I haven’t looked back since.
“I just took to it like a duck to water really,” he laughs. “I certainly wasn’t the best at it to start with, but something inside kept telling me to go back, and my dad always said to me, ‘if you’re going to do it, don’t do it half-heartedly – you either put your all into it or you don’t’, and that’s all I’ve done ever since.”
Now aged 26, Warrington has come a long way from his early days of being beaten up by the older girls at his gym –
including fellow Leeds fighter Nicola Adams – but his road to the top wasn’t without its hardships and it’s taken years of grit and determination to finally taste success.
Looking back, he said: “When I was about 14 I started to win a few national titles and I thought, you know what, I’m not too bad at this but I still wasn’t too sure if I would make a career out of it.”
On leaving school at 16, Josh started working in a dental lab as an assistant, cleaning up and doing all the odd jobs but such was his dedication, his boss offered to send him to university to qualify as a dental technician.
He said: “I thought I might turn pro at 18 but I knew I needed to have something to fall back on in case it didn’t work out and I was proud that I managed to complete the course and prove I’m not as daft as I look!”
Josh graduated from the University of Leeds four years later and earned himself the nickname ‘the boxing tooth fairy’ all while working full-time and turning professional, a task he admits wasn’t easy.
He said: “If you’d asked me when I was younger what I wanted to do I would have said I wanted to be a world champion boxer, but growing up I was under no illusion how tough it would be and that it would be a long slog before it started paying the bills. “Little things like wanting a new pair of trainers or boxing gloves don’t just pay for themselves and I knew from an early age you’ve got to work to get them.
“Money doesn’t grow on trees and I’ve always been brought up to appreciate things, that’s why it was important to do the dentistry in case the boxing didn’t work out and I’d have something to fall back on.”
His commendable work ethic is still very evident and he remains grounded and humble despite his boxing success. Rising star he may be, but he could never be accused of being too big for his boots as he still heads out to sell his own tickets and promote himself over a pot of tea with his fans.
As he joins me on a rare day off from training, prior to his WBC international featherweight title at the First Direct Arena in Leeds, he’s chatty, friendly and likeable, and it’s easy to see why he’s garnered such a huge following in his home city and beyond. Just days later Warrington went on to score a gruelling points win over Spaniard Kiko Martinez to retain his title and the victory extended his unbeaten record to 25 fights.
It was a dominant display against the former world title challenger, but Warrington had to settle for a majority decision victory after one of the judges called a draw, It was a victory that leaves him on the brink of a world title fight and one that he’s eager to secure preferably on the hallowed ground of his beloved Leeds United at Elland Road.
“It would be beyond dreams to win a world title,” he beams. “I’ve been going to Elland Road since I was a young lad and just walking out to my seat used to give me goose bumps and make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! “Every time I go it gets me excited and I’ve got little old ladies coming up to me in town asking when I’m fighting there. But after talking about it for so long, we’re now on the brink of it really happening.
“I’ve dreamt of this situation happening and having all of Leeds celebrating with me. I’ve sat up at night thinking about how I’d drive up to the stadium, how I’d be in the changing rooms, how I’d walk out of the tunnel and all of the feelings and emotion after; I’ve gone through it in my head so many times and now I feel like I can make that dream a reality.”
As a devout Leeds United fan, Warrington enters the ring to the club’s famous anthem, Marching On Together, and nothing would thrill him more than to win a world title fight in his home city.
“I’m a proud Leeds lad and I’ve always been proud of the city,” he says. “I follow Leeds United and Leeds Rhinos and when the Leeds Arena was being built, I said to my family if I got to fight there just once I’d be a happy man.
“But we’ve gone beyond that now – I’m headlining shows there and giving young amateurs a bit of hope that if someone like me, a lad off an estate, can achieve big things then they can do it too.
“To go on from that and be able to make a bit of Leeds history as the first World Champion would be something really special.”