Jay Harris: "I don't want to go back now; I only want to move forward."

The perception of a professional boxer’s lifestyle can deviate spectacularly from the comparative reality. For those outside of the industry who remain blissfully unaware of the sacrifice and the struggle faced by even the most talented within the sport, the story of Jay Harris serves as a gentle reminder that not all pugilists who fight for world titles are endorsed by lavish, leading brands and have their ring walks flanked by giant initials, adorned with fireworks and a pyrotechnic extravaganza fit for a public New Year’s Eve celebration.

An attempt to explain the landscape of a professional boxer is framed far simpler by the Welshman himself who often declares to those who have questioned his employment outside of boxing by saying, “If I was earning as much as the likes of Anthony Joshua, do you think I’d be working a bloody nightshift at Amazon?”

Thankfully, the classy flyweight operator-who up until recently had to supplement his earnings with a job working for the global brand-has now secured a sponsorship deal that has enabled him to quit his job and focus solely on his boxing career. A move that has come about, in part due to his willingness and desire to grasp opportunities and fight on away soil in front of vociferous crowds in places like Belfast and the US.

“You’ve got to take the opportunities when they come”, insisted the realistic Welshman who beat Paddy Barnes for the IBF Inter-Continental Flyweight title at The Ulster Hall, Belfast in October of 2019. Harris ended the contest in round 4 after sinking in body shot after body shot before the admirable will of Barnes relented.

Elaborating on the scintillating contest against the former Olympian, Harris added, “When the opportunity came with the Paddy Barnes fight, I knew my capabilities and I knew I could beat him, so it was a no-brainer and my dad and the team around me knew exactly that and so we went over to Belfast and produced a class performance, the same with Martinez.”

The Julio Cesar Martinez fight was a different proposition, but arguably an even easier decision to make. A more difficult fight was in store for the man from Swansea but turning down the chance to challenge for the WBC title was never in question. “As soon as the world title shot came up, it would have been silly to turn it down. It’s what us boxers want to achieve, a world title shot in our lifetime or to try to win one. I can say I’ve had the opportunity to fight for one, we came up short but hopefully, we will be back again fighting for another one.”

The fight which took place just in February, just before COVID restrictions struck, saw a unanimous points decision for Martinez and meant Harris tasted defeat for the first time in his career, but his experience fighting on a Matchroom card in the US was one he will remember and the message for Eddie Hearn was that it would be one he would be happy to replicate should the possibility present itself.

“He (Eddie Hearn) offered nothing but praise, pretty much. He did an interview after the Martinez fight and he said that I delivered ‘The performance of the night’, which is brilliant coming from him, such a high-profile promoter. I’m sure Eddie and MTK might do a co-promotional deal and could get me on a Matchroom bill, which would be awesome.”

It would be unfair to suggest that Jay Harris (17-1) wasn’t already a notable talent before his exploits in the US, having already picked up Commonwealth and European titles, beating fighters such as Thomas Essomba, but the fight with Martinez showed his boxing skills, it showed he wasn’t overawed by the environment or indeed the fighter and made an excellent champion wear plenty of hard shots on his way to the win. It was not a plucky, damage limitation type defeat that can often be the case when a challenger loses.

It showcased the excellent technical ability he possesses and proved that he belongs at world level and the reaction from it on social platforms epitomized the level of performance, not to mention the respect from fight fans in attendance that evening. Struggling to suppress the understandable pride during his recollection, Harris beamed, “The respect I received afterwards was unreal, going in it was sh*t, I was booed, and they were spitting at me. So, from that going in, to coming out, I was getting mobbed afterwards. I went to see my family who were sitting in the front row, I got mobbed by people wanting pictures, everyone was saying how well I’d done and all of that stuff, it was a total change of heart. It was great, it was like the Rocky film when he went to Russia.”

With Harris now 30-years-old, and arguably in his peak, the dialogue (unsurprisingly) didn’t stray too far from the subject of future world title opportunities and although an element of frustration, borne out of the decision from certain governing bodies to omit him from their ranking system after challenging for the WBC strap, he remains positive that he will be granted another shot at one of the major belts. On the subject of rankings he said, “It’s mad right, because when they announced I would be fighting for the WBC, I was ranked with all of the major governing bodies, and I was ranked quite high with the IBF, like number 3, but as soon as it was announced, they all kicked me out of the rankings they did. I’m not ranked now I don’t think with the IBF or WBO, although I am still quite high with the WBA. It seems a bit childish, ’Oh he boxed for the WBC title, so we’ll kick him out of ours’."

One thing is certain, Harris desperately wants to sustain his current momentum and has no real interest in returning to anything other than top-level opposition. “I don’t want to go back now; I only want to move forward.”

Ironically, another top-level test could come in the shape of another British opponent, Sunny Edwards who recently admitted that a fight between the two could ‘make a whole heap of sense’. Harris, although on very good terms with the unbeaten star, admitted it would be a fantastic fight if made. “If Frank made a decent enough offer, I wouldn’t mind, Sunny knows that as well, we’ve talked about it in the past. He’s in a good position with the IBF and WBO himself. We said how mad it would be if we both got a shot, and both won and perhaps had a chance to unify. Two British fighters who are friends unifying, it would be great. It would have to be a really good offer or something decent on the line to make more sense. If Sunny can make Flyweight, I’d say we could make number 1 and number 2 easy.”

Another option that Harris would be happy to entertain would be a rematch with Martinez, despite describing the Mexican as “tough as hell.” Despite the war with the Mexican, Harris said, “I’d love a rematch down the line if it ever comes up, I don’t know if it will, I’m still ranked number 5 with the WBC so there could be a shot down the line somewhere, I just have to win these WBC titles and get myself into a mandatory position.”

Fighting in ‘The Lion’s Den’ has proved to be immeasurably invaluable and has no doubt enhanced his growing reputation, and it is obvious when you speak to the passionate flyweight that he would fight anywhere, but there’s an undeniable desire that prowls around the peripherals of the proud Welshman’s voice as he answers my mooted suggestion of luring an opponent to ‘The Dragon’s Lair’ for a home fight in Wales.

“I’d go anywhere, to be honest, it doesn’t really bother me. But I’d love to have a big fight back home, I would. I think they are doing a new arena which is being built in Swansea, an indoor arena holding around 5,000. That would be nice to have the opening sports bill in there. Of course, I would love to do the US again, I’d love to fight in Vegas or New York too.”

Wherever Harris winds up and wherever he decides to fight, he can already lay claim to being an inspirational example for all of those fighters who feel like their career is not reaping the rewards. As Jay reminds me, “I think I earned somewhere in the region of £150 for my debut, once the medical bills etc came out I was left with bugger all.” Now he is on the cusp of world titles, through a relentless and persistent mindset and the strength to keep going and never give up. The journey for him is not yet over.

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