After a breakout year, 126-pound champ Lee Selby eyes homecoming bout, potential unification fight with Leo Santa Cruz in 2016

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It almost sounds as if he’s speaking of another man’s life instead of his own, like he’s narrating a movie instead of starring in it. And yet, here's Lee Selby, the leading man in the role of a lifetime thanks to 12 transformative months.

Lee Selby

Since he became a world champion, hitting up the shopping mall in his native Wales has become an entirely different proposition for Lee Selby.

“It was a big year for me,” Selby says as if he had yet to shake himself awake from a lucid dream, “a year that will stand out for the rest of my life.”

Quick recap: In the time span that Lee Selby (21-1, 8 KOs) speaks of, the Welsh fighter won a title eliminator against fellow Brit Joel Brunker, became a world champion after besting high-motor Russian Evgeny Gradovich, and topped it all off by winning his U.S. debut in October, when he beat former 118-pound titleholder Fernando Montiel in front of a Phoenix crowd that was as hostile as a drunk at last call.

After the successful title defense, Selby returned to his hometown of Barry, Wales, where he was greeted like the champion he is.

“Everybody lined the streets and applauded me on like a 5-mile bus tour,” Selby says. “The streets were lined with people cheering me on. It was an amazing feeling, a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

In conversation, Selby’s as down-to-earth as your front lawn, and now he’s getting recognized every time he goes to buy a gallon of milk.

Seven years into a pro career that began with him slugging it out in small halls in front of modest crowds before slowly graduating to packed arenas, Selby is finally being viewed by the public at large in the same light as he’s long viewed himself: a blue-collar guy worth rooting for.

And that’s what’s happening these days when he steps outside his front door.

“I can’t go shopping without people stopping me, congratulating me, asking how my training’s going, when I’m fighting next,” he says. “I appreciate every single person who comes up to me and stops for a photo. But myself, personally, I’m still the same, still in the gym, still working hard.”

Selby may feel like nothing has changed, but he’s treated differently now, especially in the gym—and that's something he definitely feels.

“When I’m sparring, now that I’m a champion, they all want to get the best of me,” he says. “Even the youngsters back when I’m in the U.K., they’re always trying to make a statement.

"I remember being a contender and sparring with world-ranked fighters and world champions, and I was exactly the same. I had to try and prove my worth and get one over on them. Now the tables are turned. It keeps me sharp, keeps me ready.”

Ready for what, exactly?

Well, if Selby has his way, it’ll be a title unification fight with a big name such as Leo Santa Cruz.

But first, he wants a homecoming bout.

“Hopefully I can fight back in the U.K. around February, just to give my fans a bit of a treat, because I rarely box in Wales,” he says. “Opponent-wise, I want to fight the best. Leo Santa Cruz, I’d love to fight him. He’s a big star, and if I could beat him, I should have the profile he’s got.

"My manager, he sees things differently. He wants me to have a few more defenses of my title before I go for a unification fight. But me, I just want to be in there with the best, see how good I really am.”

In the meantime, it’s business as usual.

Selby’s as much a staple of the gym as dumbbells and the lingering scent of workouts past. “When I’m not training, I think I’m cheating,” he says.

And with that, the talk soon ends. There’ll be no cheating on this day.

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