Every boxer has to make sacrifices and overcome obstacles to become a world champion, but very few champions have had to defend their crown while carrying as much heartache as Lee Selby.
Selby’s mother, Francis “Frankie” Cummins, died just four days before the 30-year-old Welshman was to defend his 126-pound world title against Jonathan Victor Barros on July 15 at London’s Wembley Arena.
While his family implored him to return home to his native Barry, Wales, Selby chose to remain in London, where he concealed his mourning from the media at the pre-fight press conference and weigh-in.
Dedicating the bout to his mother, Lee Selby fought through a fifth-round clash of heads that caused a cut near his right eye, and floored Barros in Round 12 on his way to earning a wide unanimous decision, with the win coincidentally coming on the shared birthday of his daughters Lexie, 9, and Lucia, 3.
It was the third world title defense for “Lightning” Selby (25-1, 9 KOs), who earned his championship by winning a technical decision over Evgeny Gradovich in London in May 2015.
Unfortunately, his mother’s death wasn’t the first family loss Selby has endured during his career. Shortly after Selby won his second professional fight in 2008, his older brother, Michael Slevin, fell into a river and drowned. His younger brother, though, 28-year-old Andrew Selby, has followed Lee’s success in the ring and at 9-0 (with five KOs) is on the verge of challenging for a 112-pound world title.
Selby has fought outside of the United Kingdom just once thus far, when he beat Fernando Montiel by unanimous decision in Glendale, Arizona, in October 2015, in his first world title defense. He overcame the first knockdown of his career in Round 2 of his second title defense in April 2016, when he rallied to earn a unanimous decision over Eric Hunter at London's O2 Arena.
Selby was scheduled to return to the U.S. and defend his crown against Barros in Las Vegas on the Carl Frampton-Leo Santa Cruz undercard in January, but the fight was called off 24 hours beforehand when the Argentine challenger failed to meet licensing conditions in Nevada, leading to the bout being delayed until July and rescheduled in London.
After dealing with such a roller coaster of professional triumph and personal tragedy, Selby took some time to share his thoughts about fighting in the wake of his mother’s death, the importance of winning in the United States and his desire to compete against the other top names in the 126-pound division.
Can you describe your emotions when you learned of your mother’s death four days before your fight against Jonathan Barros?
We drove down to London on a Tuesday, and then during the early hours of the morning, my brother rung me up. At first, I was wondering “What’s he ringing me up for?” and I switched my phone off. Then I turned it back on and he rung me again.
That’s when I knew that it had to be something serious. Then he told me the bad news about our mother. It was him and my sisters and my nephews crying on the phone and saying that I can’t fight and that I needed to come back home. But I made the decision to carry on with the fight.
From there, I switched my phone off and didn’t have any contact with any of my family or my friends. I told my team not to mention anything [to the media,] and I turned my attention to concentrating on the fight. Right after I got the fight done, I returned home the same night and had to face reality.
Was it your brother, Andrew, who called you?
Yes. I was asleep in bed at about 3 a.m. He woke me up. I cried on the phone with my brother and my sisters for a long time. I thought about her constantly. I cried myself to sleep, woke up and tried to get it out of my head.
Usually during fight week, only my opponent's face comes into my head. But every time I thought of my opponent, my mother’s face would be there, as well. I just couldn’t stop thinking about her.
Did you wonder if your mother would have wanted you to go through with the fight or not?
She definitely would have wanted me to go through with the fight. She only came to a handful of fights, but from the time I was a 10-year-old amateur, she would take me to the gym and sit outside while I was in training. Then, after I was done training, she would drive us back home. She would do that every day and night.
Something just told me that I should carry on, and I’m happy that I did. Now I can refocus and carry on with my career.
Will you do anything symbolically to honor your mother at future fights?
I’m not sure if you’ve seen my trunks where I’ve got my brother’s (Michael Slevin) nickname “Slinky” there. I’ll place my mother’s name on there as well, probably on the waistband in the front.
“ Usually during fight week, only my opponent's face comes into my head. But every time I thought of my opponent, my mother’s face would be there, as well. I just couldn’t stop thinking about her. ” Lee Selby, on defending his 126-pound world title four days after his mother's death
Considering what you were dealing with, were you satisfied with your performance against Barros?
When I first watched it back, I wasn’t too impressed. But then I watched it again and I thought I was a lot better the second time around. I believe I played it too safe and didn’t take too many risks. I think I could have done more to get him out of there.
I somewhat regret not pushing for the stoppage. But I had been out of the ring for a while and haven’t been among the most active of fighters. In the end, though, it was good to get in 12 solid rounds of learning.
How troublesome was the cut you sustained near your right eye in the fifth round?
I got back to the corner and was very confident in my cutman, who did a good job. I don’t think it bled too badly. I couldn’t tell how bad the cut was because there was no blood running into my eye.
How do you rank the top fighters in the featherweight division?
I could place [the other world titleholders] above myself, but obviously, I would want to put myself first. I would only be first if I could perform to the best of my abilities—as well as I do in the gym. In training, I’m like poetry in motion. I’m trying to transfer that into the ring where I’m competing in a fight against the possibility of failure.
So far, I’ve just tried to win. I need to take more risks and be more relaxed. I believe if I did that, I would be No. 1. Next, I'd have Gary Russell Jr., Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton and Oscar Valdez above Abner Mares.
Who, in order, would you like to face in your next few fights?
I would face Carl Frampton anywhere in the U.K. If I could get a win over Frampton, then my next fight would be against Leo Santa Cruz anywhere in the world, and after that either Abner Mares or Gary Russell Jr. anywhere in the world.
What are the merits of fighting in the United Kingdom versus fighting in America?
If I was to face Frampton, that fight would have to be in the U.K. That’s where it would sell best. He brings a lot of fans like you saw against Santa Cruz over in Brooklyn and in Las Vegas. I think a good location would be London. Frampton’s fans travel well from Belfast, and I think mine would, too. It would be great for British fans.
If I boxed an American fighter like Leo Santa Cruz, I can’t see him fighting in the U.K., so I would be more than happy to travel to America. As far as Gary Russell, I’m not sure where a fight like that would sell best. I’m not sure if he is such a big draw in America like Leo Santa Cruz. But one thing I know is that he’s a very good fighter and possibly the best American featherweight.
Gary Russell might not be as high profile as Leo Santa Cruz or Abner Mares, and I believe that might have more to do with the Mexican backing that they have. Still, I’d be happy to face any of those fighters in any location.
While you were originally supposed to fight Barros in Las Vegas, you’ve still fought just once so far in the United States. How important is it to you to conquer America?
That was part of the reason we teamed up with [PBC] is to establish myself over in America. There are other champions in the division who are over in America, and that’s the main aim is to become bigger and known as one of the best world champions over there.
What have Frampton’s three appearances on U.S. soil in the last two years done to generate enthusiasm worldwide, particularly in the 126-pound division?
It’s livened things up and brought more attention to the talent in the division that he went over and defeated such a high-profile fighter as Leo Santa Cruz in America. Frampton’s stock has grown massively, and that’s something that I want to do for myself now.
When Frampton fought [Santa Cruz both times], he brought so many fans over that it was like attending a fight back home. The British fight fans were making a lot of noise for Carl and it was similar to being back home on those two occasions.
Finish this sentence: If not for boxing, I would be …
Some of my friends have gone in totally different paths, and I could have gone down any one of them. Some of them are in prison, some are drug addicts and some of them are selling drugs, and others are top-level students and have great jobs.
If you could have dinner with four people in the history of the world, who would be on your guest list?
Muhammad Ali, Tupac Shakur, my mother and my brother Michael.
“12 Rounds With …” is published Wednesdays at PremierBoxingChampions.com. Next week: Marines veteran, 2012 U.S. Olympian and 135-pound prospect Jamel Herring.