By Danny Gilfillan
Josh Warrington (30-1-1NC, 7KO) will attempt to become featherweight world champion for a second time on March 26th as he takes on IBF titlist Kiko Martinez (43-10-2, 30 KO) at Leeds’ First Direct Arena, broadcast live on DAZN.
The stakes could not be much higher for the Yorkshireman. Not so long ago, Warrington was considered by many to be the best 126lb fighter in boxing following a remarkable three-fight streak that saw him defeat Lee Selby, Carl Frampton and Kid Galahad in just over a year established Warrington as a truly elite featherweight, providing him with the world title to prove it. Having cleaned out the domestic talent in his division, talks of unification bouts inevitably arose, with then WBA belt holder Xu Can heavily tipped to face Warrington in early 2021.
After being ordered to rematch Kid Galahad in a mandatory defence, Warrington made the decision to vacate his IBF belt and pursue a fight with Can for the Fuzhou native’s version of the world title. With a date for the two to fight seemingly imminent, Can picked up an injury and Warrington would instead face the relatively unknown Mauricio Lara on 13th February in what was regarded as a stay busy fight, with the view to fight Xu Can for world honours in the spring.
As has been well documented, Mauricio Lara proved to be anything but a tune-up fight. It became quickly clear that the Mexican had considerable power and a tenacious approach – neither of which Warrington seemed to have been expecting. In one of the most high-profile upsets British shores have seen in years, Lara unleashed a beating on Warrington, dropping him heavily in the fourth round before finishing the contest in the ninth.
Warrington’s world had been dropped on its head. It would have been difficult to find many pundits predicting he would concede a round to Lara, let alone be stopped in such devastating fashion. The familiar questions began to be asked. Was it down to ring rust? Had Mauricio Lara been criminally underrated by Eddie Hearn and his matchmakers? Or, most ominously, had Josh Warrington started to feel the effect of the long, gruelling fights earlier in his career and, as the saying goes, got old overnight?
Warrington was no doubt encouraged by those around him to stay well away from Lara for the time being and could have been forgiven for doing so. The nature of the defeat sparked observers to express worries for the long-term health of the Brit, and many feared he would never be the same fighter again.
Despite the swathes of concerned voices, the rematch with Lara was agreed upon. Warrington would face the man who savagely ended his undefeated record at Leeds’ Headingley Stadium, in a make-or-break fight on 4th September 2021. However, the saga was not to be concluded and redemption for Warrington would not be forthcoming. In just the second round, Lara sustained a deep gash above his left eye from an accidental headbutt, and was deemed unfit to continue. The bout was therefore ruled a No Contest, and many of the questions that emerged after their first fight continued to hang over the head of Josh Warrington.
A world title opportunity seemed unlikely in the extreme. A trilogy fight was the only fight on the lips of fans, and even if Warrington decided to swerve Lara and take another path, surely a lengthy rebuild and victories over ranked contenders would be required if the 31-year-old would get the chance to become world champion once more?
Boxing, however, is a funny old sport.
Two former foes of Warrington, Kid Galahad and ageing Spaniard Kiko Martinez, would face off in November 2021 for the IBF world title, now held by the latter. The fight was predicted to be a routine defence for Galahad, with many even criticising Martinez’ worthiness as a challenger. Despite being a world champion in his prime years, La Sensacion’s best days were considered to be well behind him, with a close and somewhat controversial loss to Zelfa Barrett the highlight of the now 36-year-old’s record over the past 5 years.
Galahad, who in previous outings had looked every inch an elite featherweight, was expected to have little trouble with Martinez. And for the first 14 minutes and 45 seconds of the fight, everything was going as predicted. The defending champion won every minute of the first four rounds, and a stoppage victory in the second half of the contest would have been a shock to no one.
However, in the dying embers of the fifth, Martinez landed a straight right hand on Galahad that would turn the featherweight division upside down. The champion managed to beat the count and was saved by the bell, but was on the unsteadiest of legs and it was of no surprise when Martinez finished the contest ferociously in the sixth. A carbon copy of the shot that floored Galahad in the previous round connected again, and on this occasion the champion would not be getting up.
To say this represented an Indian Summer for Martinez is an understatement. Many predicted Kid Galahad would inflict upon him a sustained beating that would send the Valencian into retirement. Now world champion and with Galahad announcing he would be moving up in weight, Martinez was free from rematch obligations and had the scope to secure another big-money fight.