Lee Selby: The kid that came out of nowhere
Where had Barry’s Lee Selby been hiding prior to his valedictory British and Commonwealth featherweight title win over Stephen Smith last September? The cocksure 25-year-old Welshman from Tony Borg’s flourishing St Jo’s stable in Newport proved a revelation by comprehensively outboxing, then felling, the former European amateur medallist in his home city of Liverpool.
Selby then consolidated with an equally impressive wipeout of John Simpson before the year was through. Prior to making a second defence of his Commonwealth strap against Patrick Okine at the Newport Sports Centre on Friday night, the richly talented switch-hitter spoke at length to boxing writer Glynn Evans about his career thus far and his future aspirations.
How did you first become interested in boxing?
My dad’s a huge boxing fanatic. You get quite a bit of trouble in Barry, where I live, some real rough places, same as everywhere. But I’ve never had a street fight. From a very young age, I was always in the Rhoose ABC gym where ex British and Commonwealth welterweight challenger Michael Smyth boxed. He’s kind of related to me, my uncle is his stepdad. After we left the Rhoose gym to join the Splott Adventure gym in Cardiff, he never spoke to us!
The St Joseph’s Gym in Newport where you train under Tony Borg is fast emerging as one of the best in Britain. What makes it tick?
It’s the boxers that make the gym. There’s top class kids like reigning British super-featherweight champion Gary Buckland and his younger brother Mitchell, my brother Andrew and Fred Evans (both 2012 Olympians), Joe Cordina and Sean McGoldrick (both Team GB members), plus good pros like Frankie Borg and Lee Churcher. We’re all talented boys and get along well. There’s a great team spirit here. We’re very competitive in the running and circuits, and we punch lumps out of each other in sparring. We all want to be the best. We mix the sparring up so that we get plenty of fast sharp stuff with the amateurs and rougher, heavier stuff with the pros. I’ve only been dropped once, by (Britain’s 2012 Olympic welter representative) Fred Evans in the gym. I was giving it him and he caught me coming in with a hook. I just knocked out a few press ups and climbed back up!
Despite winning Welsh and Celtic titles you had not been past six rounds when you challenged Scouse amateur star Stephen Smith for his British and Commonwealth belts last September. You were also forced to go to his home city. How confident were you going into that fight?
I’m confident going into every fight because of all the quality sparring I do with far heavier boys at Tony’s gym. After taking it to middleweights in sparring, I find it very easy when I’m in against kids who weigh the same as me. I’m very big for featherweight and, now I’m getting proper notice to make the weight properly, I’m very, very strong. Before, at just one or two weeks notice I was only showing half of myself. Going in, I wasn’t given much of a chance because no one had really seen me. I’d not been on TV or even on the internet much. I was sent up there to get beat. Being in his home city, I knew that if I outboxed Smith, they’d still give it to him on points. The hostile crowd certainly never bothered me. Two fights previously, I’d fought at the same arena, stayed at the same hotel and that helped. Compared with Smith, I’m very big at the weight. I’m also very fast. Every shot I landed, I could feel the strength draining out of Smith. I knew he was going to go. Sure, he can have a return but I’m not sure he’d want it. I was hurting him every shot I hit him.
You’d only registered two stoppage victories in 11 previous gigs yet the scything left hook that ironed Smith out in round eight was a strong candidate for British Knockout of the Year. Did you surprise yourself?
Not at all. I always have been a puncher but, earlier in my career, my manager Chris Sanigar advised me to get the rounds in the bag. He told me that journeymen are there to learn from, not to knockout. Now I’m at championship level I’m allowed to let the shots go. People don’t realise how hard I hit. But every title fight, when my opponent has had to get down to my weight, I’ve stopped them. When I boxed Dai Davies for the Welsh super-featherweight, he was ‘out’, gone from one punch, just like Smith was. Now I can knock ‘em all out.
Friday sees you defend a major title for the first time back in Wales. Are you looking forward to the homecoming or does it add unneeded pressure?
For a start it’ll be nice to enter an arena where the fans clap me rather than boo me. I was given 120 tickets and I should do the lot. Hopefully, I’ll be able to please all my family and friends but I’ll not be going out to be a hero. I’ll just be going out to win the fight and keep my belt. If the KO doesn’t come, I certainly won’t be disappointed.
You spent a week of your preparation over at the Mayweather Gym in Las Vegas. How did that opportunity materialise and what did you hope to gain from the experience?
My manager Chris Sanigar is good mates with Cornelius Boza-Edwards from their time boxing together at the Fitzroy Lodge gym in London. Chris wanted me to have a taste of what life’s like at the very top and Boza arranged accommodation and sorted out sparring and everything for us. Originally, we’d hoped to spar Yuriorkis Gamboa but we’d just missed him. However, I did get quality sparring with Joel Brunker, an Australian who’s number three featherweight with the WBO, and Kevin Johnson, an amateur light-welterweight from the Mayweather Gym who was good but not as good as me! I also sparred a Canadian welter who was 15-1. Getting the better of top boys like them gave me a lot of confidence. And I got to watch Floyd train and spar. 50 Cent was there plus guys like Andre Ward and Zab Judah. The most impressive thing about Floyd is how he takes his time and wastes nothing; lands almost every shot. We had a photo taken, shook hands and he wished me well with my career. His uncle Roger took me on the pads, showed me some defence and said he was impressed with me. I really enjoyed it and would love to return sometime, hopefully to challenge for a world title at the MGM Grand. I’m only about 18 months off, if I’m kept busy and keep winning.
What do you know about your Ghanaian opponent Patrick ‘The Mallet’ Okine?
He’s got a good record (11-1-1) with a very decent knockout percentage (nine stoppage wins, including his last five fights). Africans are usually very tough and, from what I’ve seen of him on You Tube, he’s very strong and not scared of letting his punches go. But he’s nothing too special technically. I’ve not boxed for over five months yet I’ve been in the gym for almost every day since and, for the last eight weeks, I’ve been at it, flat out. I’m feeling very sharp and ready to go.
Finally, if you prevail on Friday, what are your plans for the remainder of 2012?
I’d like a Lonsdale Belt and my British mandatory is up next. I’m unsure who it is but there’s some good fighters in the division such as Smith, Martin Lindsey and Joe Murray. I’ll oblige any of them. Fighting away really doesn’t bother me at all. I’d happily fight Martin Lindsay in Belfast if the money’s good. I’m also mandatory for the European, which is held by a kid (Georgia’s Alexander Miskirtchian) who lost on points to Paul Truscott so he can’t be too clever. However, some of those contenders behind him are very good boys and when I land at that level I want to be ready for any of them. I’ve only had 13 fights. I’m still a novice, still learning.
Watch Selby vs Okine live and exclusive on BoxNation (Sky 456, Virgin 546) from 7pm on Friday, 25 May. Join at www.boxnation.com