Great success stories often have humble beginnings. As the old adage goes, cream always rises to the top, regardless of the circumstances. In fact, often when that dairy by-product has endured a more tiresome and laborious process, the end result is all the more exquisite.
That’s certainly true in the case of Barry’s Lee Selby, the Welsh featherweight hope who has seen his career soar from small-hall defeat and relative obscurity to the brink of world title success. At London’s O2 Arena on May 30th, Selby challenges for Evgeny Gradovich’s IBF world crown as part of a stacked pay-per-view card on Sky Box Office. It’s been a long hard journey to get this far, but he’s within touching distance of reaching his dream.
“It’s all going to plan. I’ve been out to LA and Vegas (in recent weeks), getting good sparring. I had actually already been out to LA and Vegas earlier, but then they switched the date of the fight, so I had to hold back a bit,” Selby told BMM’s Jack Sumner, whilst in the midst of his fight preparations. “I was ready to fight a few weeks back but it didn’t affect my preparation, no. I just had to taper down for a week or two so I didn’t burn myself out and then I was right back on it.”
The fight was put back from it’s original date of April 25th, following James DeGale and Andre Dirrell’s super middleweight co-headliner being rescheduled to take place on American soil. But as Selby himself says, a one-month delay to his date with destiny is not going to derail his plans. Come fight night, it will be almost exactly six years to the day that Selby’s career suffered an early setback, and at that stage had looked like it was going nowhere.
On May 29th 2009, Selby entered his fifth professional fight against Hull’s Samir Mouneimne, in the moderate surroundings of the Fenton Manor Sports Complex in Stoke-on-Trent. After four rounds of the action in the Potteries, Mounemnie was adjudged to be the surprising points winner. Now 4-1, yet to record a stoppage win and without the backing of an influential promoter, you would never have foreseen the dramatic upturn in Selby’s fortunes by the time he reached his 12th professional outing, against the unbeaten Stephen Smith.
Selby had returned to fighting at the Newport Centre in South Wales, which staged most of his early fights and during which time he won the Welsh Area featherweight title with a second-round knockout of Dai Davies, recording his first win inside the distance. If that was a sign of the improving power that Selby and trainer Tony Borg had been cultivating, it was nothing compared to what the young Welshman would deliver when he stepped into the ring with Smith.
Despite being a huge underdog in challenging for the Liverpudlian’s British and Commonwealth nine-stone straps, Selby impressively outboxed his opponent en-route to a dramatic one-punch knockout in the eighth round. The British boxing community took notice and when Selby followed up by stopping John Simpson in five rounds just three months later, the potential of the boy from Barry was undeniable.
Signing with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing was then the catalyst for major exposure and since then Selby has continued to flourish as one of the brightest talents on the British boxing scene. That all comes to a head on May 30th, with Gradovich and a tough test that the Welshman believes he can pass with flying colours.
“I was ringside in Nebraska to watch (Gradovich’s last fight) and he was the same as he always is really. Very aggressive, determined, comes to fight and he tries to force the pace. I thought Velez won the first four rounds but then I thought Gradovich took over and I thought he won the fight. It shouldn’t have been a draw in my opinion.”
“I am expecting a tough fight, but I believe I can stop him.” The 28-year-old then laughs. “All fighters say that, there is a little bit of bravado in there perhaps . . . But I do think I’m capable of getting the stoppage if I’m at my best!”
“And I will be.”
The O2 Arena has been a happy hunting ground for Selby to date. Two of the standout performances of his career so far have taken place at the iconic dome on the bank of the Thames.
“It’s a great venue and the fact that it’s familiar helps because I’ve won there before. I won the Lonsdale belt outright there (against Ryan Walsh in May 2013) and then I won a world title eliminator (stopping Joel Brunker last October) so two great memories. Little things like the changing rooms and even the hotel we stay in too, which is going to be the same, that will all help because they’re also familiar.”
The fight is just over a week away. A week from Selby’s chance of realising a lifelong dream and announcing himself as a real player on the world stage. The hard work won’t stop there though, even if successful. There will be fighters hot on the new world champion’s heels.
One of those will be Josh Warrington, another exciting British talent in the featherweight division. Also aligned with Matchroom Sport, it’s a potential fight that has already been mooted, and one that Selby would be keen on.
“100%, especially after being sat at ringside in Leeds and having all those p***k football fans throwing beer at me and shouting abuse.”
“I think there would be some needle there, definitely. I’d love to go up there and knock him out just to shut them up.”