FOR most of us, the idea of receiving a phone call on our birthday breaking news of an impending trip to Bilbao to fight local hero Kerman Lejarraga would not be considered cause for celebration. However, for Bolton’s Jack Flatley there was no better gift on the day of his 27th birthday. As well as enhancing his day, making it one to remember, the news offered the super-welterweight the chance to fight outside the UK for the first time as a pro, it offered him the kind of challenge he has for so long been craving, and it offered him the chance to win the European title on December 3.
“It was a pretty good present,” he told Boxing News. “My coach mentioned it, and then my manager rang me and told me it was sealed. To be honest, I think it’s perfect for me. At the start of this year, I set my own targets and I said I wanted to fight for a title and I wanted to box abroad. This literally ticks both boxes.
“My coach, Alex Matvienko, went abroad with Martin Murray when he boxed [Sergio] Martínez in Argentina, and I’ve always wanted an opportunity like that for myself, one where I’m up against it in an opponent’s back garden. Obviously, you don’t get much bigger than what I’ve got on December 3.”
What makes the prospect of fighting Lejarraga such a daunting one for so many has as much to do with the whole Lejarraga experience – when fighting him in Spain and, particularly, Bilbao – as anything Lejarraga, 33-2 (25), does with his fists. In many ways a throwback fighter, Lejarraga is an aggressive puncher fuelled by the energy and passion of his Bilbao fans and tends to use them as an extra weapon on fight night. He has a habit, too, of beating up Brits, as shown with victories against Denton Vassell, Bradley Skeete, Frankie Gavin, Tyrone Nurse and, most recently, Jez Smith.
“I’m going into the lion’s den but I’m thriving off that,” said Flatley, 17-1-1 (4). “I’m really looking forward to it. I expect it to bring the best out of me and, to be honest, the whole reason I’m in boxing is to enjoy the experiences I get along the way. When I’m an old man, and I look back at this opportunity, I’ll be proud. I took the chance to go into the lion’s den. It’s something I will always look back on with good memories, I’m sure.”
He added: “When I’m fighting, I only hear my close family’s voices and my coach’s voice. There will be some of my family there but it’s mainly just me and my coach. I’ll be listening to what they tell me and he’ll be controlling me on the night. Whatever he tells me to do, I’ll do.
“I have boxed at the Manchester Arena and stuff like that but not really at peak time. It’s going to be different to what I have experienced before but I don’t think it will be a problem for me. If anything, the extra noise will help me.”
At this point, having just gone almost two years without a fight due to a global pandemic, any noise is better than silence. “It was a bit frustrating,” Flatley said of his barren 2020, “because I was meant to have a fight in the middle of it all against James Metcalf for the Commonwealth title. I was meant to fight Anthony Fowler just before lockdown as well.
“Certain opportunities didn’t come off but there was never one day where I thought I should give up. I just got on with it and carried on. I knew I’d get an opportunity and that’s exactly what has happened.”
After 21 months away, Flatley made his return to the ring in September, when outpointing Peter Kramer over six rounds in Bolton. The fight helped to shed some ring rust and reunite him with his old office, but Flatley knows tougher tests lie ahead. “I was fairly happy with the performance but I think I need the better opposition to get the best out of me,” he said. “I know Lejarraga is obviously a good few levels above my last opponent and probably anyone else I have fought so far.
“But I’m still confident I can beat him. I’ve watched him since the fight got signed and I’ve seen him against Jez Smith. There’s no hiding from the fact he’s a puncher. His record speaks for itself. But he has got his weaknesses as well, which have shown in some of his past fights, and I’ll be looking to exploit these on the night.
“I think I’m a better boxer than him. We can both fight, but I can also box as well. I think he’ll try and make it a war but it’s down to me in terms of what kind of fight it ends up being. If I stick to my plan, it’s going to be my kind of fight. If I get drawn in too much, it’s going to be a fight, which will be entertaining for the people watching it.”
A lesson in patience and perseverance, Flatley has landed his European title shot on five weeks’ notice and feels as ready as he’ll ever be. Boxing being boxing, the timing will never be exactly right, but he believes any concern that the fight has arrived prematurely is balanced by a greater need to be tested.
“It will be massive,” he said when asked how it would feel to become champion. “I wasn’t really expecting the opportunity but I stayed ready and I’ve got it now. To become European champion at this stage in my career is another level for me. I thrive off these kinds of challenges. I’m a completely different fighter in the gym when I’ve got a big fight like this on the horizon.”