How a car ride with Josh Warrington saved Maxi Hughes’ boxing career

Boxing

Maxi Hughes thought he was done with boxing as then world featherweight champion Josh Warrington drove him home from London on Nov. 9, 2019. Hughes had just lost a unanimous decision to Liam Walsh and was ruefully considering retirement.

During the 170-mile trip to Yorkshire, United Kingdom, Hughes wondered if he would ever be good enough. He contemplated life after hanging up the gloves. This was his third loss in six fights and Hughes was telling Warrington he believed it was time to fully commit to his day job as a painter and decorator.

“Josh was driving me back from London, my trainer Sean O’Hagan was asleep,” Hughes recalled to ESPN. “But I was saying how I thought I wasn’t good enough to win the British title. I thought I was done with boxing. But that talk cleared my head.

“By the end of the journey, I had sorted my head out.”

Hughes said he needed someone he admired and learned from to listen. Warrington was that man. Hughes had also seen at close quarters how Warrington had got to the top.

“If anyone wants to talk about mindset or going through hard times, Maxi has shown in abundance that it is not over until you say it is,” Warrington told the Yorkshire Post. “I remember coming back from London when he had lost to Liam Walsh. Maxi was retired. It was hard to listen to him talk about that.”

In the following four-plus years, Hughes transformed his boxing career from being a struggle to one of continual progression. Sixteen months after Hughes had doubted his ability, he was British champion and reassessing what he believed capable of achieving in boxing.

Hughes’ story is one of resilience, determination and endeavor. It took 12 years for Hughes (26-6-2, 5 KOs) to establish himself as a world title contender. On Saturday, the Englishman faces Mexico’s William Zepeda (29-0, 25 KOs) in an eliminator bout for the IBF and WBA lightweight world titles at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.

Hughes has gotten to this point by overcoming a series of setbacks, challenges and a lack of confidence. The 34-year-old has suffered six defeats in his journey to the top, the last of which was a controversial majority decision defeat to Australia’s George Kambosos Jr, the former world champion, in July 2023. But it was the defeat to Walsh in 2019 that proved to be the turning point in a slow-burning career.

“I’ve always had the ability, but I used to be better in the gym away from the pressure and bright lights of the arena,” Hughes said. “I couldn’t take what I did in the gym into the fight. I just crumbled under pressure. I remember the Scott Cardle fight, and I was telling myself don’t do anything stupid in your first fight on television, it was the fear of failure, and I just didn’t perform. The pressure used to get to me.”

But since Hughes linked up with Warrington’s father, O’Hagan, as his full-time trainer in 2019, it’s been different.

“[O’Hagan] has a way of getting the best of out of me, we gel really well,” Hughes said. “That, tied in with all the experience I’ve gained in boxing, what I learned from the defeats and draws, and also being wiser in life, has all come together.”

Hughes said that he has gone this far by sticking to the hard work, and seeing Warrington work his way up to a world title kept him going.

“I always thought I was going to be the nearly man, never winning a British title,” Hughes said. “Once I got the win over Jono Carroll [unanimous decision in 2020], who had fought for the world title the previous year, I started to believe. That was a big moment, that all the hard work had paid for.”

Then, after Hughes beat Jovanni Straffon in September 2021, he said he was able to pack up work as a painter and decorator and concentrate full time on boxing because he got a sponsorship off the back of that win.

“Being a full-time boxer has helped with home life, I’ve got two young kids, and I’m able to live the life of a professional boxer,” Hughes said.

Hughes continued: “It’s not a very nice place when you lose, I found that out through experiences that I’m resilient and how hungry I was for success in boxing. I only ever wanted to be British champion but after winning the British title [with an eighth round stoppage victory over Paul Hyland in March 2021], it wasn’t enough for me and I’ve set myself new goals. I want the life-changing money, the big title fights. They tried to knock that out of me versus Kambosos with the decision and if I was less resilient, I could have walked away from boxing then. But it proved to me that I’m at that level and I’m going to prove it against Zepeda.

“There’s many different stories in boxing. I’ve just been reading Andre Ward’s book about his career and OK he ended up unbeaten, he had a perfect career, but those type of stories are rare. My defeats have developed me, I’ve had to answer questions and they have showed me how strong I am. Everyone knows who should have won between me and Kambosos, fortunately I’m back in a big fight and I’m going to make sure that situation doesn’t happen again.”

Hughes will be an underdog against Zepeda, which he is used to being. But in his last fight, Hughes showed he is not daunted by boxing on the big stage.

“I know what’s coming with Zepeda, I just feel like I’ve got a bit more experience,” Hughes said. “His two hardest fights were [Joseph] ‘JoJo Diaz’ and Rene Alvarado, they both gave him good fights. I’m bringing something he’s not seen before.”

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