JOSH WARRINGTON returns from the longest lay-off of his career on Saturday night as he bids to continue his march back up the featherweight rankings. The 32-year-old has not been seen since he beat Kiko Martinez nine months ago in a fight which gleaned not only the IBF belt but a seriously broken jaw, too.

It was an injury which has precluded him from competing for the last nine months but he is back in action this weekend with what looks like a stern test in Luis Alberto Lopez, the 26-2 Mexican.

Warrington was flying two years ago and, as a 30-0 belt-holder, looked to be on the verge of the Las Vegas superfight he has been craving. However it all came crashing down when he was stunned by Mauricio Lara in February of last year and then he failed to exorcise any demons when their rematch ended in round two after an accidental clash of heads.

He got back up and running in that fight against Martinez, which he finished inside seven rounds, but the jaw injury meant his momentum was lost. Lopez might just sense an opportunity.

Warrington, currently No.7 in the world, knows the importance of momentum so Saturday night is about an injury-free victory setting up a big 2023.

“I’ve been doing this a long time now so it certainly does affect momentum,” he said. “When you’ve got fights in close proximity you have your camp, your fight and then a few weeks off but then you’re straight back in the gym. Ticking over, sparring.

“After the Martinez fight I got suspended from any activity for 12 weeks, I tore ligaments in my hand and obviously had my jaw broken so starting again after three months of doing nothing is quite frustrating.

“I’m hoping to get through this unscathed, just get the win, don’t mind how it comes, and get some momentum behind me again. It’s a powerful tool when you’re in your stride. It takes you up another level.”

There would have been far easier options for Warrington than 29-year-old Lopez, a fit, strong puncher with nothing to lose. The last time he was in England he dropped and stopped Isaac Lowe inside seven at York Hall 12 months ago. He has racked up another two knockouts this year so will arrive in Leeds full of confidence. But given what happened against Lara that night at Wembley, there is no chance Warrington will ever take another Mexican underdog lightly.

It will be interesting to see if his recovery from the broken jaw affects the way he boxes although he insists it has been fine during preparation. “Absolutely fine mate,” he said. “Maybe it’s a fetish because I enjoy getting punched in the head.”

Even so, giving nothing away in the first half of the fight should be the order of the day before he attempts to go through the gears down the stretch against a man who has never gone beyond 10 rounds. The Leeds Warrior should have more than enough to box his way to a unanimous decision.

That showdown tops an 11-fight bill at the Leeds Arena which will clash with England’s World Cup quarter-final clash with France. Common sense has prevailed, however; those in attendance will see the match on big screens as the card – which subsequently begins as early as 1.30pm – takes a break in the action to accommodate the 7pm kick-off.

In the chief support, the city’s adopted Australian Ebanie Bridges faces compatriot Shannon O’Connell.

Bridges, 8-1(3), is the house fighter and big name but at 23-6-1 O’Connell is the far more seasoned of the pair and there is needle between them. This could turn into another classic women’s tear-up and O’Connell’s experience may be enough to earn her a decision.

Bridges’ former opponent Shannon Courtenay is also back in action for the first time in over a year when she faces Bournemouth’s Gemma Ruegg over eight. Courtenay’s last outing was in October of last year when she dropped a majority decision to Jamie “The Miracle” Mitchell in Liverpool, which was one of only two fights for her in the last two years. Victory will probably set up a shot at the winner of Bridges-O’Connell.

There is a step up for Hopey Price too, as he takes on former Warrington opponent Sofiane Takoucht over eight at super-bantamweight. The 36-5-1 Frenchman represents by far the highest calibre opponent of 8-0 Price’s career but he should win on points.

Felix Cash looks set for a big 2023 and he will look to shake off the ring rust from a 10-month hiatus in a middleweight eight-rounder against an as-yet unnamed opponent. Light-middleweight JJ Metcalf, meanwhile, will kick off the main broadcast in what looks like a potential cracker against New York’s Courtney Pennington.

Liverpool’s Metcalf, the son of Shea Nery, is rarely in a bad fight and will be full of confidence after he went to Bilbao and outpointed Kerman Lejarraga in his last outing back in May. He lost to both Ted Cheeseman and Kieron Conway in 2021 but has bounced back this year and victory over Penington will finish things off nicely.

Before that, there are six fights as part of DAZN’s ‘Before the Bell’ section of their broadcast. In the pick of them, Gateshead’s Calum French and Yorkshireman Kurt Jackson, who are both 3-0, face off over eight. It is not often two undefeated prospects fight this early so they both deserve credit here. Neither has faced an opponent with a winning record yet.

There is also a six-round outing for Rotherham light middleweight Junaid Bostan. There is lots to like about the 20-year-old and he looks like a potential star. This is his third fight in four months since signing up with Matchroom and he should have little trouble against Slovenia’s Aljaz Venko.

Unbeaten southpaw Rhiannon Dixon is hoping to continue her serene progress as she faces Exeter’s Kristine Shergold in her first eight-rounder at lightweight. Earlier, a trio of local undefeated prospects are also in action. Heckmondwike’s Cory O’Regan, who is 8-0, faces Seaham’s Jordan Ellison over six at lightweight while Leeds duo Mali Wright and Koby McNamara are in four rounders. McNamara, 3-0, takes on Nabil Ahmed while Wright 2-0-1 (1), does not have an opponent at the time of writing.

THE VERDICT: The ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ view of the organisers in regard to the France-England World Cup match is a wise one.