IBF title, Josh Warrington v Kiko Martinez: Leeds Warrior fired up by ‘exciting’ featherweight division

Since Josh Warrington last held a world featherweight title, the top of the division looked completely different to what it does today but, for the Leeds Warrior, it feels like the excitement is back at 126 pounds.

The 31-year-old will look to become a world champion again as he faces Kiko Martinez for the IBF title at Leeds Arena on Saturday.

Warrington vacated the belt just over 12 months ago and, in that time, the title has already changed hands twice, being won by Kid Galahad last August before Martinez lifted it aloft in November.

The excitement has not been limited to the IBF crown.

Leeds Warrior Josh Warrington ahead of his IBF world title fight with Kiko Martinez. Picture: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire.

Nine days ago, one of the contenders for fight of the year took place for the WBA featherweight title as Leigh Wood dramatically knocked out Belfast’s Michael Conlan in a thrilling contest in Nottingham.

Wood is one of three new champions in the featherweight division within the last 12 months, after he claimed the WBA belt in July with a stunning success over Xu Can.

Then came Martinez’s triumph as he floored Warrington’s old rival Kid Galahad in the sixth round as he was crowned IBF champion. In January, the WBC crown changed hands as Mark Magsayo, of the Philippines, beat Gary Russell Junior by a split decision to end the American’s seven-year reign.

WBO king Emanuel Navarrete is another top fighter within the division while Warrington is one of a number of elite featherweight boxers who are without a world title.

Josh Warrington with promotor Eddie Hearn and IBF world featherweight title opponent Kiko Martinez. Picture: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire.

After beating Lee Selby to win the IBF crown at Elland Road in 2018, Warrington defended his title successfully against Carl Frampton, Kid Galahad and Sofiane Takoucht.

The unified bout he craved never arrived and, although there were some top fighters that eluded him the last time he was IBF champion, Warrington feels the division has “revamped itself” in the last 12 months.

“Only a few years ago, Leigh Wood looked like he was done but he got that shot against Can Xu and has now been involved in one of the contenders for the fight of the year,” said Warrington, as he assessed the state of the featherweight division ahead of this weekend’s fight.

“It is still wide open and it is all to play for. Anything can happen.

New English champion, Leeds boxer Jack Bateson. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

“It is exciting to be part of this little era. I felt like I had a bit of bad luck not being able to get the Shakur Stevenson fight after beating Carl Frampton and Kid Galahad.

“Oscar Valdez moved up and I couldn’t face Leo Santa Cruz or Gary Russell Junior either. I think the division has revamped itself.

“I think the division always does as there are a lot of small guys who are coming through from the amateurs or guys from super bantamweight wanting to be multi-weight world champions. It is very exciting. You have got Mark Magsayo who beat Gary Russell in the states, you still have Navarette and Wood. Conlan is still very much relevant.

“Mauricio Lara is still on the rise as well; it is very tasty.”

The lure of potential unification fights - including what would be a massive all-British bout against Wood - is extra motivation for Warrington but he insists he can’t look past Martinez.

Warrington defeated the Spaniard, who is now a two-weight world champion, at the Leeds Arena five years ago and knows he is in for another tough fight on Saturday.

Warrington knows better than most not to overlook an opponent after sustaining the first loss of his career just over 12 months ago against Mauricio Lara.

Looking back, Warrington admits he did take the Mexican lightly in their first meeting as he suffered the only defeat of his career. He returned to fight Lara in September but that clash was ruled a technical draw after Lara was unable to start the third round following a cut above his eye.

“I always thought I would never take anyone for granted but I certainly did the first night I boxed Mauricio Lara,” he continued.

“I don’t think I will ever make that mistake again, from now until the time I call it a day on my career.

“If you are not going into the ring switched on, you are going to get hurt. That is one thing I have learnt in the last 12 months. As I have got older, I have learnt to listen to my body and the importance of recovery.

“I have always wanted to train until the wheels fall off but I have learnt the importance of resting and trying to switch off.”

In other news, Leeds boxer and English champion Jack Bateson moved his unbeaten record to 16-0 with a comfortable victory over Stefan Nicolae on Friday night, as he stopped his opponent in the third round.

It was the super bantamweight’s first outing since defeating Ramez Mahmood for the English title in November.