A frustrated Josh Warrington says he cannot understand why Can Xu did not want to face him in an arena with no fans and has questioned why the Chinese boxer is in the sport if he doesn’t want to take a big fight.

Warrington, the IBF featherweight champion, has been thinking about a fight with Can for the past year, having been originally supposed the face the WBA’s regular champion last June in front of 25,000 fans in Leeds.

But having finally been told the fight was agreed for February 13, Can turned it down, claiming he didn’t want to box behind closed doors. It means that Warrington now faces Mauricio Lara, of Mexico, on that date, with a vague promise for a fight with Can or Gary Russell Jr, the WBC champion, in April or May.

“I just can't fathom it,” Warrington said. “Thinking about it gets me worked up. What the f--k? What is your life, why are you part of this sport? We are lucky to be step into a ring during this pandemic, we are lucky the sport is allowed to happen, we all have to make little sacrifices there. 

“How long are you going to wait? It's been frustrating for me to get my head around it, I still don't fully understand it but at least I'm getting back in the ring and back to competing.

“It doesn't make any sense whatsoever. I don't know if he was going to be getting a bonus with more people coming in but the geezer was getting a career best purse anyways. I’m ranked No 1. I don’t put myself there, I just do what I do in the ring and the people who do the ranking systems deem me as No. 1 – Ring and Boxrec. Why would you not want to come and take my spot? Why would you not want to come and fight for the Ring Magazine belt? Your fan base will multiply on that. This is an opportunity gone to waste. 

“He can talk about having the fight later in the year but we don't always have that luxury, certainly with what is going on in the pandemic you have to take what opportunities are there now. I'm frustrated but I've got to crack on, ha vent we? I'm smiling but I'm crying inside.”

A deal to face Can at Headingley rugby ground had been agreed last year although the fight was never formally announced before the pandemic hit. But it was Can that Warrington had been thinking about and, as he had been training over the past six months, it had been Can who his training and sparring had been geared towards.

Warrington had signed with Eddie Hearn with the promise of a unification fight, followed by a big fight in America, but instead the first part of their three-fight deal is a tickover defence, having not been given a spot on Hearn’s Fight Camp last summer or the residency at the SSE Arena, Wembley.

“When we signed with Eddie it was on, Headingley, 25,000, massive fight to come back with, it would probably be my last fight in the UK before going on to fight in the States,” Warrington said.

“Then the pandemic hit, there were talks about me going on in Eddie's back garden but financially we weren’t able to do so. By September time we were looking at December and maybe going on the same show with AJ (Anthony Joshua). I think by early October I knew that wasn’t going to happen. 

“Then we were going early in the new year, that changed four or five times. We were ready for the announcement on December 20, I had the artwork sent through to me, different posters. Then Christmas Eve we were going to do an interview ready to go out. That was chopping and changing, so I thought it was Christmas Eve and I wanted to spend time with my kids, so we were going to do the interview on Boxing Day. Then it was going out just before the New Year but then the Campbell-Garcia fight happened and I thought 'This is not looking good, why is it taking so long?' 

“Then last week, we had the news that it wasn't going to happen. I had been telling people to watch out for the news, all the sparring partners were tailored for Xu, all the tactics that we have been going over from my old fella sat down on the toilet with his ipad making notes, to other people picking up data on how many punches he throws in a round; myself lying in bed at night thinking about the fight with Xu, trying to visualise it, and for then for him to go he doesn't want to fight without a crowd. How?”

Despite the frustrations, Warrington says he won’t be taking Lara lightly. If he fails to retain his title against the Mexican, he can wave goodbye to any hope of facing Can or Russell.

“You have to try channel it into the gym,” he said. “While I’m at home with my missus and kids, they don’t want to see me sulking and moping. The gym is only a mile away from my house so I go round there and put it into the training. 

“I’ve had a fair old sulk over these last few days but I’ve realised I’ve still got an opponent in front of me. He has more or less won the lottery getting a shot at my world title. 

“If I keep sulking and not having my head focused then I will get punished for it on February 13. I have to be switched on. I’ve got it out of my system and looking ahead.”

Ron Lewis is a senior writer for Boxing Scene. He was Boxing Correspondent for The Times, where he worked from 2001-2019 - covering four Olympic Games and numerous world title fights across the globe. He has written about boxing for a wide variety of publications worldwide since the 1980s.