Lee Selby keeps world title hopes alive in clash of former world champions

Lee Selby keeps world title hopes alive in clash of former world champions

This article first appeared in the Welsh Boxing Annual 2019-2020. Click here to buy on Amazon.

By Dewi Powell: Barry’s Lee Selby (28-2, 9KO) kept his hopes of winning another world title alive with a crucial win over Scottish legend Ricky Burns (43-8-1, 16KO).

The Welshman earned a majority decision courtesy of 115-115, 116-112 and 116-113 scorecards. It was Selby’s first real test at lightweight, having lost his IBF world title two divisions lower at featherweight in May 2018.

Selby’s rebuild on the Sky Box Office televised show came at the expense of former three-weight world champion Burns. Although likely to enjoy Eddie Hearn’s home corner again, his time at the top table was probably at an end. For Selby, the plan for a return to world titles was on track.

“It was a good 12 round fight between two former world champions,” summarised Selby. “It was a toss-up between Ricky Burns and Javier Fortuna. The Sanigars [management] and myself agreed the Burns fight for the simple reason the fight would be over here and he’s more well-known. He’s an established fighter in Britain, I’d get more credit beating him.

“I couldn’t afford to lose. Although Ricky Burns is a great fighter, he was in the same position. That’s how the fight was built up by Eddie Hearn and Matchroom. They built it up like it was a must win fight for both of us and whoever lost has to retire basically. It had a lot of pressure for both of us. I spoke to Ricky Burns afterwards and he said the same thing.”

London’s O2 Arena has been a happy hunting ground for Selby. The docklands venue has been the scene for seven of his wins and a loss could’ve meant the end of his appearances on major shows. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to enjoy the experience when the career consequences are so severe.

Selby said: “Half the time, you’re thinking, ‘why didn’t I stay in school and get a proper education?’ It’s funny because after the weigh in, I always go to watch a movie with Chris Sanigar. He always says I should enjoy these times and ‘what I’d give to be back in your shoes’ and I’m thinking, ‘bloody hell, I can’t wait to be in your shoes!’”

The 32-year-old looked at home from the opening bell as he circled Burns and set a constant output. The movement was maintained in the early rounds and Selby kept a step ahead of Burns. Selby’s work was more precise and he punished Burns when he missed. Retaining better balance, Selby repeatedly landed sharp straights and swiftly evaded Burns’ replies.

After recognising the impressive start, Selby’s ambition grew in the fourth round and he came forward more often. It led to more clinches and a frustrated Burns, inevitably, threw illegal rabbit punches to the back of Selby’s head. The fouls were unaddressed by referee Bob Williams for the full 36 minutes. Burns grew bolder and tried to make it rough up close, becoming more blatant with his efforts to use his perceived size advantage. Selby’s jab remained ever-present and irritated Burns, who lost his temper and threw blows after the bell to end the fifth round. The behaviour was out of character for the usually cool-headed veteran.

Burns landed some impressive straights on Selby’s body but whenever they worked, Selby responded and was clearly ahead by the halfway mark. An accidental low blow and then a head clash temporarily halted the action, serving as the only interruption to the fight. Both occasions fuelled Burns’ fire and he loaded up with a series of yelping power punches in an effort to stop the rot. Selby lost his shape amidst the pressure and threw a lot of his own single shots, a trait he’s not normally associated with. Soon after, Selby’s corner reminded him to return to his jab, the basic fundamentals of his success, and he managed to clips Burns enough to consolidate his lead further.

The energy levels of both dipped as they entered the championship rounds. Burns’ relentless pursuit had reduced the deficit by a few rounds. Selby, footwork now slowing, finally met the bigger man head on in the middle of the ring. Overall, the tactics from trainer Tony Borg in the corner had been spot on. A clever approach had seen Selby consistently stick and move, craftily dipping out of sight when extended exchanges got risky. A big right cross landed from Burns in the closing seconds, though it was never going to be enough to unravel Selby’s earlier work.

Newbridge’s Joe Calzaghe remains the only Welsh boxer to rule the world at two weights. Supremacy at super-middleweight was followed with the lineal champion status at light-heavyweight. However, the Ring magazine belt isn’t an officially recognised designation, technically leaving the door open for Selby to be the first Welsh boxer to win legitimate world titles in two divisions.

Selby’s transition to the 135lb lightweight division was one of the most interesting sub-plots of the fight. Questions, from the outside looking in, had been answered. A sense of frailty was shed and his confidence visibly grew throughout the fight. Selby was able to embrace muscle building training methods into his preparation and, for the first time in years, he looked strong enough to hold his feet.

Selby said: “I felt a lot stronger on my legs. Since I moved up two weights, I’ve been able to do leg weights. That’s something I’ve never been able to do throughout my career. In the fight, I could feel the difference and the benefit, I felt a lot stronger and sturdier on my feet.

“He [Burns] was an established lightweight champion and I was the bigger guy at the weigh-in and the night. It’s still a struggle to make lightweight, it’s not plain sailing and I can’t eat what I want.

“It goes to show how much I took out of myself to make featherweight. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. I couldn’t do it again, that’s for sure.”

The struggle to stay at featherweight had been an open secret, even dating back to Selby’s British title reign. Before a fight with Martin Lindsay in 2013, he confessed fears that one weight cut in particular threatened his life. The featherweight limit of 126lbs was dangerous territory and yet he stayed there for another five years. What was once a size advantage had been reversed and instead worked against his weakening body.

“The night before the weigh-in, I thought I was going to die,” said Selby, recalling the toughest weight cut he endured in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “I thought if I make it to the morning, I’m either retiring or moving up a weight. I was too disciplined to go to the bathroom sink and have a drink of water. I’d rather dry out and risk my health. That fight, I left the hotel [to go to the fight] at 10st 8lbs [148lbs], so I’d rehydrated 22lbs, which is massive for a featherweight.

“That’s how much I took out of my body. Anything that went back in, I’d hold on to it. Any fluid, any food. There were times making featherweight, I weighed in and went for food and struggled to eat. I went back to my hotel room and near enough passed out, woke up a couple of hours later and then started eating.”

Remarkably, domestic honours still came relatively easily but by the time he was world champion, the weight was clearly affecting his performances. The decision to stay at the 126lb limit for six fights after dethroning Evgeny Gradovich in 2015 was like walking a tightrope, there was no margin for error in Selby’s preparation. His reluctance to vacate the IBF title made him vulnerable and by the time he faced his biggest rival, he couldn’t hold off Josh Warrington’s inspired challenge. The hometowner was spurred on by 30,000 locals in Leeds and although Selby was beaten on points, he could at least move to a safer weight. It was a telling sign when he skipped super-featherweight altogether and made the overdue decision to go another division higher to lightweight.

“The last week [before fighting at featherweight], I’d probably have about a day’s worth of calories all week. Hardly any nutritious food, nothing, just to get me by. It got to a point where I would make two meals, I’d chew up the one meal and spit it out. I’d replace it with a plate of lettuce leaves, that’s how bad it got,” shared Selby, who secretly grew fatigued from abusing his body to its limit.

“I’d never complain, I’d never tell my trainer or manager. I’d keep a straight face and make the weight. To me, failing the weight would be like losing a fight, it was like a fight to me. That’s the stupid mentality of a boxer, I suppose. I couldn’t tell my trainer or manager I’m struggling. It’s not in a fighter’s nature, I don’t think.”

Memories of losing his featherweight belt in an upset to Warrington may still linger. Nonetheless, the recovery process had made progress. A high ranking with the IBF and the organisation’s Inter-Continental title, from an earlier win against Omar Douglas in February, was a solid foundation to start a new chapter. An attempt at Welsh boxing history neared.

This article first appeared in the Welsh Boxing Annual 2019-2020. Click here to buy on Amazon.

Image by Liam Hartery.

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