LITTLE Jay Harris gives a knowing smile at suggestions that he resembles livestock being led to the abattoir.

On the 29th of this month, the angelic-featured, gentle-voiced, slender-framed Swansea flyweight – who moonlights as a forklift driver for Amazon and still lives at home with his folks – gets to share a prize ring with menacing Mexican mangler Julio Cesar Martinez at The Star in Frisco, Texas, USA (read Mexico!), for the cherished green WBC strap. Politely, there aren’t too many predicting that happy Harris’ first venture on the world stage shall prove a successful one.

But for once, the generally passive and habitually cordial Welsh wizard begs to differ.

“I’m a 7/1 underdog, I’m told. Good odds, that is,” claimed the mild-mannered Welshman when we met up recently at the Llanrumney Phoenix ABC gym in east Cardiff.

“Timing is everything. This has all fallen into place at exactly the right time for me. I’m 29 now, getting on a bit for a flyweight, but in the lower weights we get to the top quicker. [WBA boss Artem] Dalakian and [ex-WBC king] Charlie Edwards both got there in just 15 fights, so no way could I knock this back. I’ve always said, if I got to fight for a world title, I could retire a happy man.

“This might be my only chance. I know I’ve reached the top without being favoured, fast tracked. I done it the hard way, done the small hall shows, won a Commonwealth title, got the European. The world title is next.”

The conundrum is that nobody knows exactly how good Harris might be. Prior to punching for pay, the eldest son of 1988 British featherweight czar Peter Harris bagged three Welsh Senior ABA titles and, in 2012, won the GB Championships.

Though beaten just four times in 36 starts in a vest, opportunities at the major international meets were invariably blocked off by Barry’s brilliant Andrew Selby (a dual European amateur champion who also medalled twice at the Worlds), a fighter Harris never had the chance to box or even spar.

Jay Harris
Jay Harris beats Essomba to win the Commonwealth flyweight title at York Hall Action Images/Peter Cziborra

Openings have been similarly restricted since he joined the paid brotherhood in July 2013, even though hooker Harris has done everything asked – retaining a spotless 17-fight slate whilst hoovering up gongs.

“I last lost to Daniel Chapman in the 2011 Welsh ABA final up at 56kgs [almost featherweight], so I’m definitely confident,” says hugely under-exposed Harris.

“But I’ve been close to quitting several times. As Commonwealth champ, 10-0, a British title shot fell through and it all went stale for about nine months, nothing. I was actually losing work and money. Richie Garner and Mo Prior kept me going on small shows but I told my dad, I’ve had enough.

“However, my family convinced me I’d done it pretty much all my life so I needed to see the journey through. Then MTK came along and I decided to stick it. Thank God I did. Within a year, MTK delivered this shot. Mental!

“Since the world title fight was announced, my phone has been ridiculous. I’m a big Swansea City fan and they invited me to display my belts on the pitch when they beat Wigan in January. The Evening Post and BBC Wales were in touch for interviews but where were they six months ago when I needed them? Even when I was European champion, nothing.

“I was celebrating the New Year in Disneyland, Paris when the offer came. I’m like: ‘Get it on.’ No hesitation. I do like my grub so was a good stone over but we’ve had eight weeks to drop it. Then I’ll travel out to Texas a week before.”

Latterly, under the co-tutelage of his father at the Gwent ABC in Swansea and poker-faced Gary Lockett in the Welsh capital, Harris has evolved into a high-grade technician with a savage body attack. Nine of his 17 victims have fallen down the pothole before the cards were called.  

“The last 12 months I’ve had pretty much perfect performances,” claims Harris. “Angel Moreno [comprehensively outboxed for the continental crown in June] and Paddy Barnes [Belfast’s double Olympic medallist who was punctured by body shots in his home city in October] were coming off world title shots but I beat both of them comfortably.’

The bookmakers’ rather charitable odds perhaps reflect the fact that jovial Jay has completed the 12-round championship trip just twice and is yet to venture beyond UK rings in his seven-year term as a professional. Yet the Welsh waif scoffs at the notion that the occasion might consume him and cause him to freeze.

“As a kid you dream of fighting in America. It’s going to be an unreal event, press conferences alongside all those top world champions. Mental,” says a salivating Harris, who features alongside the Mikey Garcia-Jessie Vargas and Kal Yafai-Roman Gonzalez fights.

“With Garcia topping the bill there’ll be a lot of Latinos in there but I took 50 or 60 to Belfast and there’s been quite a bit of interest for this because flights are half decent price at the minute. 

“I’ll definitely be nervous. It’s a massive occasion but it’s how you deal with the nerves. Do you let ‘em swallow you up, or do you use ‘em as fuel? Before Barnes, I was as nervous as I’ve ever been. There was so much on the line. Victory was likely to present a world title shot while defeat would have cost me my world ratings, my European title, everything I’d worked so hard for. But I used the nerves to my advantage, didn’t buckle under the pressure.”

Furthermore, any shortfall in top-flight experience will be buffered by a highly proficient back-up team. Since January 2019, Harris has enjoyed the patronage of MTK while father/coach Peter showcased his own ring skills in eight countries and against five world champions. Uncle Mike, Dad’s brother, was a two-division Welsh champion in the 1980s who contested British and Commonwealth crowns and fought on three continents. Likewise, mentor Lockett launched his feted left hook rockets in six nations during a 32-fight career that culminated in a 2008 WBC/WBO middleweight title challenge to Kelly Pavlik in Atlantic City.

“I’ve good people giving me advice,” says Jay. “Dad never pushed me into fighting but, once I started, his influence has been massive. He boxed all around the world and I can tap into all his knowledge. He’s constantly at my side.”

To accelerate his technical development, the body-snatching boyo has profited from extended sparring assignments with reigning WBA champions Kal Yafai (115lbs) – “the strongest I’ve been in a ring with” – in Birmingham and Artem Dalakian (112lbs) over in Ukraine.

The former has been providing Harris with sparring tutorials for several years and has been impressed with Harris’ progress.

“Jay’s improved with each visit. He’s a natural flyweight, technically sound and deceptively good at deflecting and parrying shots,” assesses Yafai. “This is his one big chance. He’s at his peak and entering on a good roll. I definitely see Jay enjoying spots of success in this fight. He and his dad are very nice people so I really hope they can pull something off.”

The fortnight jaunt to Ukraine last year proved equally worthwhile.

“We did about 30 rounds and I handled myself really good, didn’t take a backward step, which confirms where I am in the game. Artem is a different style to Martinez, more back foot, but quite strong when he let his hands go,” says Harris, who has also gone hard rounds with Lichfield’s Brad Foster in prep.

Gary Lockett, who has carved a reputation as a cautious and compassionate confidante to his expanding camp of fighters, expresses no reservations about unleashing his figurehead into the lion’s lair.

“The champion has probably been in with better opposition. He’s a brutal man, a very hard puncher. Jay’s up against it. It’s a very tough fight as world title shots always will be,” says Lockett.

“But Jay’s been through invaluable 12-rounders with Thomas Essomba [Cameroon’s two-time Olympian who Harris tamed to claim the Commonwealth crown in 2017] and Moreno. Through his professionalism and dedication, Jay’s now got everything required. Yes, he looks very young but he’s mentally tough and will cope well. He brings a fantastic, sharp jab and he can whack. He’s blossomed into a really hurtful body-puncher who’s got a bit of spite.” 

Even if you disregard the challenging location, Harris will be confronted by a violent product of the Mexico City barrios; a sinister, nuclear-hitting, merciless atom who is unbeaten in 15 since flunking his October 2015 pro debut.

After mauling Brits Andrew Selby and Charlie Edwards last year – the latter affair being reduced to a No Contest when, after registering a legitimate knockdown in round three, he delivered a savage second clout while the Croydon champ was cowering on his knees – Martinez scooped the vacant belt by blitzing Nicaragua’s Cristofer Rosales in nine in Phoenix in late December.

Team Harris have been deep in DVD reconnaissance.

“I saw the loss on his debut – to a southpaw who put it on him, broke his heart – plus his fights with Selby, Edwards and Rosales,’ discloses Harris. “He’s your typical Mexican; a strong, powerful guy with 12 knockouts from 15 wins, so I’ll be very wary not to get caught with his left hand. He waits for you to throw a lazy jab, steps inside, loads up with the uppercut then barges in throwing loads of hooks.

“He’s definitely got a nasty streak. If he can finish you, he will, like most Mexicans. But Charlie was struggling at the weight and Selby said the altitude in Mexico got to him and admits he should probably have gone out a fortnight earlier. As a patriotic Welshman, I intend to atone for Andrew’s loss.

Charlie Edwards
Julio Cesar Martinez lines up that illegal shot against Charlie Edwards Action Images/Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

“Martinez should be warned that I’m a very big flyweight with a far more aggressive style to Charlie and Selby who prefer to box back foot. He’s in for a big surprise. My strength is my body-punching. I’ve also never been over, amateur or pro.

“Martinez only fights one way. His movement’s not very good and he’s quite limited in his punching. Look, they’ll definitely try to put it on me but Moreno tried that. I held ring centre and ended up bullying him. Same with Paddy. I’m definitely a better boxer [at range] but Julio’s world champion so can probably adapt, change stuff in his camp. We’ll have to see what he brings on the night. I could box really nice for 12 or it could be a dog fight. I look forward to seeing how it plays out.”

Co-trainer Lockett concurs that the task is far from insurmountable, adding: “From a technical point, Martinez does everything wrong. His feet are all over the place. Selby boxed Martinez’s head off for four rounds before getting caught with a brutal body shot. And despite his youth, at times Julio looked very old, slow and tired against Rosales… and he’s only had 10 weeks to recover.

“Together, we’ll devise a plan to hopefully exploit the Mexican’s shortcomings. We’re not going there for the chance, we’re not going there for the money. We genuinely believe that we will win.”

Wales already boasts a rich heritage at 112lbs and Harris is hellbent on joining Percy Jones, Jimmy Wilde and Robbie Regan (interim) as flyweight champion of the world. 

“It’s the biggest opportunity of my life and I’m buzzing for it,” concludes Harris. “Because of my demeanour, people definitely underestimate me but I’m gonna shock a lot of people. I fully expect to win. My time is now.”