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With blood pouring from the back of his head, Josh Kelly’s 12th professional fight was where the fairytale suffered a devastating knock. Since turning pro after the Rio Olympics, promoter Eddie Hearn had been there to guide him every step of the way, promising he would break America – but now there were serious questions being asked.
Hearn faced criticism for pitting Kelly against David Avanesyan in a European title fight so early on in his professional career. Every dominating performance Avanesyan has delivered since has reaffirmed how dangerous he is, but “Pretty Boy” takes pride in the fact he gave a good account of himself for six rounds before trainer Adam Booth threw in the towel.
“If you look at what he [Avanesyan] has done to everyone else, he’s just steamrolled them – they didn’t even get going,” Kelly tells i, “I was there, I won every round until I ran out of gas.
“I had a million marathons to run every day in my personal life and then try and do a personal best on fight night. But I’ve showcased what I can do, now I’ve got to keep that going over 12 rounds.”
That was February 2021. Kelly admits he did not expect to be out of the ring for so long, but now believes he is “back home”. No longer fighting the scales as well as his opponent, he is more comfortable than ever at his current weight. And lessons have been learned.
“I just learned to become a 12-round fighter a bit more, I’m fast, I’m spiteful, I’m switched on, I’m reliable,” he says. “I just need to probably give them a bit more of a look, instead of putting it on them straight away.
“I thought it was perfect, I was in the right place at the right time, it would have been the perfect step-up.”
The new Kelly is noticeably more serene. He refuses to get “stressed”, knowing “the more relaxed I am, the better I perform”. Some viewed the Avanesyan defeat as a reality check, an experienced former world champion halting Kelly’s rise up the ranks at welterweight – but he was never a character inclined to call out other fighters regardless.
“Everyone wants to call everyone out nowadays, it’s like a f___ing circus in boxing sometimes,” he says.
“You never know, I could be fighting a f___ing YouTuber next week! It’s a bit crazy, but if the fight makes sense business-wise as well as actual fighting and where I want to get to at the top then it’s a step in the right direction.”
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His opponent has now been confirmed as Xhuljo Vrenozi, part of a huge night of boxing put on by Wasserman in London and headlined by Linus Udofia and Denzel Bentley’s fight for the vacant British middleweight title.
Vrenozi has a four-inch height advantage but a less frightening record – 18-4, with three knockout defeats.
Kelly is happy for headliners Udofia and Bentley to take the limelight. “The last build-up was massive, I’ve been in those fiery build-ups so it’s not foreign to me. I can cope with it,” he adds. “But I’m a happy boy – I just like to crack on.”
- Linus Udofia vs Denzel Bentley (vacant BBBofC British middleweight title)
- Josh Kelly vs Xhuljo Vrenozi
- Harlem Eubank vs Sean Dodd
- Brad Pauls vs Ryan Kelly
- Katharina Thanderz vs Tereza Dvorakova
- Constantin Ursu vs TBC
- Harvey Horn vs TBC
How to watch
- Date: Friday 13 May
- Venue: indigo The 02, London
- Fight time: Ring walks for the main event are expected around 10pm UK time. Expect to see Kelly any time from 9pm
- TV/live stream: Free to air on Channel 5
- Undercard highlights: Harlem Eubank is also in action against veteran Sean “Masher” Dodd, two fighters at very different stages of their careers but who showed a huge amount of respect for each other at the fight announcement
- i predicts: Kelly has come back a much more seasoned fighter and he should be back to the performances which saw Hearn speak so highly of him in the early stages of his career – Kelly to win by stoppage in the later rounds
There is a Lonsdale belt on the line for the main event and Udofia described the chance to fight for the British title as a “dream come true”.
“Now, it’s time to show everyone what I can do,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of Denzel Bentley. He’s a good operator, he’s very slick and I think our styles are going to gel really well. This is going to be a good fight for the public.”
It’s not the first time Bentley has fought for the title, having been outclassed last time out by Felix Cash. This time around, he insists he is expecting it to be “50-50”.
“I’m expecting a full-blooded, fan-friendly affair,” he said. “I can’t wait until fight night. I’m itching to prove that I am still one of the best fighters in the division.”