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Frank Warren: The Greatest Hits

01
Dec

Over the last 40 years, Frank Warren has established himself as one of the most successful promoters in world boxing.

Operating as both manager and promoter during his time, Warren has enjoyed countless highs and lows during his time in the sport.

He was infamously shot by an unknown assailant, sued by Don King and had an infamous run in with Mike Tyson. On the upside, he has worked with many of the best and most popular British fighters of his time, including Tyson Fury, Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn, Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton and Prince Naseem Hamed. He has also brought overseas talent such as Tyson, Winky Wright and Marco Antonio Barrera to U.K. shores.

Warren came from humble beginnings. He grew up in a council flat in Islington, Central London, a stone’s throw from his beloved Arsenal soccer ground. As a youngster was good in school and passed his 11 plus but was bored and left at the age of 14.



“I was always interested in boxing and all sport as a kid,” Warren told The Ring. “My dad, uncle, a couple of cousins boxed. I followed them and used to watch them fight. I used to go up the gym and watch my cousin train.”

Initially, Warren’s path took him in a different direction. He owned some pubs and clubs in London. However, when his cousin, the notorious hardman Lenny McLean, famed for his role in hit movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels approached him to help promote him in some unlicensed boxing, Warren decided to get involved.

“They were quite low-level fights, ex-professionals, tough guys, club bouncers and that sort of thing,” he explained. “After a few years a steward of the BBBofC by the name of Wally Bartleman said, ‘Why are you messing about with all this rubbish, why don’t you take a license out?'”

Warren heeded the advice and did his first licensed promotion on December 1, 1980. The London businessman draws parallels between that show and the two cards (Daniel Dubois-Joe Joyce and Anthony Yarde-Lyndon Arthur) that will commemorate his 40th anniversary in the sport.

“The venue was more or less empty,” he said. “If you’d have driven a double-decker bus around it, you wouldn’t have knocked anybody over. Ironically, 40 years later it’s going to be the same scenario, there’s not going to be any people there.”

When Warren arrived, the established order contained a group known as The Cartel, which consisted of Mickey Duff, Jarvis Astaire, Terry Lawless and Mike Barrett, who’d collectively held ironclad control of British boxing. They weren’t eager to let new blood invade their patch, but Warren found a way to break through and went from strength to strength after brokering a television deal with ITV.

“When I first got involved there was only two TV channels [in the U.K.] which were ITV and BBC,” said Warren. “ITV didn’t show any domestic boxing. I think they had done a couple of shows, which didn’t do any business. BBC bought all the Cartel’s shows, they controlled the two major venues in London, which was Wembley and the Albert Hall.

“I got ITV into boxing and very quickly we took over as the major channel for boxing, and built all those great fights that were on in the 80s and 90s until I went off to Sky.”

Warren was approached by Sky in 1995 and decided to make that his home for the next two decades, building the careers of Calzaghe, Hatton and Hamed, among others.

He later founded his own platform, BoxNation, a dedicated boxing channel in 2011 and has big plans which will be unveiled in early 2021. He currently works with BT Sports.

“I want to establish the BT platform as the best,” said the 2008 International Boxing Hall of Fame Inductee. “Remember, they were new into sport three years ago. They’ve been great for boxing, they’ve been great for me, it’s continuing to build, and it’ll be the place to go for British boxing. My ambition is to keep enjoying what I’m doing. Once I don’t enjoy it, I won’t do it.”

Warren, who estimates that he has promoted in the region of 400-450 world title fights, enjoyed reminiscing on some of his favorite moments:

Oliver McCall vs. Frank Bruno
Date/ Venue: September 2, 1995/ Wembley Stadium, London, England.
Titles: WBC heavyweight

“I convinced [McCall’s promoter] Don King to take the fight. He didn’t want to do the fight. I sold it to him [by saying] that Frank was shot, he’d been there three times and was a bridesmaid. But I really fancied [Frank to win] if we could get the tactics right with his late trainer, George Francis, and we had quite lengthy discussions. Frank set a pace from the beginning, working behind his superb jab. In the later rounds, where he had the problems in the past, he walked onto McCall and negated the distance so McCall couldn’t get his shots away.

“They were all shocked because they thought McCall, having knocked out Lennox Lewis and having just fought an aging but great fighter in Larry Holmes, [would win]. I took Frank along to watch that because Holmes had a great jab and he was giving McCall problems in the early stages of the fight. We got it tactically right.

“It was ironic and satisfying for me that Jarvis and Mickey Duff were sitting in the front row at Wembley, watching their ex-fighter with me, at their venue, doing what they couldn’t do [with him], which was winning a world title. Maybe it sounds a little small-minded, but it wasn’t because they gave me a lot of problems in my early days.

“I felt really pleased for Frank Bruno. He was a thorough professional, he worked so hard, he never lost any belief in his ability, and it was great that one of the nice guys came through. It was a tremendous night and a fabulous occasion. I think that was the start for all the British heavyweights coming through. Now we’re the top nation for heavyweights, and this was a bit of a catalyst. The whole nation got behind him; he was the nation’s favorite. He had what I call the granny factor; all the old grandmothers liked him. It was one of our first big fights we did on Sky, and we delivered in all departments. For the nation and the profile of boxing it was brilliant.

“The first thing he said to me in the ring was, ‘Frank, where’s my Bentley?’ I promised I’d buy him a Bentley if he won the world title, so that’s what we did. We did a ticker tape parade on an open top bus through London. The weather was dreadful, but it was really good. After that he was on a high, he was wanted by everyone, all the newspapers, everyone. It was his time.”

Result: Bruno UD 12

Photo by Al Bello

Prince Naseem Hamed vs. Kevin Kelley
Date/ Venue: December 19, 1997/ Madison Square Garden, New York, New York.
Titles: WBO featherweight

“I had been partners with Don King and most of Naz’s fights had been on Showtime. King and I had parted company, we had an acrimonious split, so I went and did a deal with HBO. It was an important deal in that they were getting behind Naz. At that time, it was the most lucrative deal they’d done outside of the heavyweight division, and it was with a British fighter. They wanted him to come over to the States, and it was decided to put the [Kelley] fight on at Madison Square Garden, six days before Christmas. Bob Arum said to me, ‘You don’t want to be doing a fight so near to Christmas, the place will be empty, it’ll be crap.’ Part of my negotiations with HBO were, I said, ‘I want to make sure you guys give us maximum advertising.’ That included an electric advert in Times Square, over the Lincoln tunnel, the bus stops, everything, ‘Naz in New York’ – It was huge.

“Obviously, Kevin Kelley was a native New Yorker and everybody’s favorite. Naz goes into the other guy’s backyard and the stage was set for a great fight. It was more of an exciting fight than I anticipated. Kelley came out, he put Naz on the floor, both of them were up and down four or five times between them. In the end Naz totally out-gamed him. The place was electric, all the yanks in there were behind the local fella. They see Naz as this brash, cocky, Arab kid. He went in the lion’s den and did the business. It was a tremendous night.

“We did an after-party in a club, it was the club in those days, everyone was there: [Donald] Trump, Pierce Brosnan, loads of stars came in to see the fight. It was brilliant. Naz was there, we had a really good time. There’s nowhere like New York at Christmas, all the lights and everything. We had a good pre-Christmas in New York, and we got a brilliant present with Naz doing the business.”

Result: Hamed KO 4

Kostya Tzsyu vs. Ricky Hatton
Date/ Venue: June 4, 2005/ M.E.N. Arena, Manchester, England.
Titles: Ring Magazine and IBF junior welterweight

“I was working with the late Jay Larkin at Showtime and they had Kostya Tszyu and he was their marquee fighter at the time. Ricky had done everything that was asked of him. They were trying to get us to make the fight, but the money that was being put on the table because Tszyu was [the IBF] champion was not great, so I said to Ricky, ‘I want to get you into the mandatory position, let Tszyu have another fight. It’ll improve our position at the table.’ That’s what we did, [Hatton] had an eliminator [versus Michael Stewart] and became the No. 1. After a lot of negotiating, and it cost me a lot of money, we got Kostya Tszyu to come to Manchester.

“Tszyu was a massive odds on favorite to beat Ricky, but I really did fancy Ricky could beat him. I believed the tactics we discussed with Billy Graham were perfect and that was just to press Kostya Tszyu, not give him an inch, which is exactly what Ricky did from the first bell. He just jumped on him, eventually broke him down and Johnny Lewis, who I think is a superb trainer and second, quite rightly pulled his man out. Ricky says it was the greatest night of his career and he beat the pound-for-pound No. 1 that night.

“The atmosphere was electric. Ricky had built a fantastic fanbase, he was a man of the people, everybody loved him, and he never disappointed you in a fight. He was all action – he was superb. I don’t think anybody would have beat him that night, he was on fire. That was something special for a British fighter to do that and do it in style. It wasn’t like it was a close fight.”

Result: Hatton RTD 11

Enzo Calzaghe (right) with son Joe. Photo courtesy of AFP.

Joe Calzaghe vs. Jeff Lacy
Date/ Venue: March 4, 2006/ M.E.N Arena, Manchester.
Titles: Ring Magazine, IBF, WBO super middleweight

“Joe had some ups and downs with injuries and pulling out of fights. He had some average performances, one against David Starie. I had managed to get all his fights broadcast in the States with the deal I had with Showtime. They were pushing for Lacy because he was IBF champion. According to everyone, before the event, Lacy was the next big star, he was going to be the super middleweight Mike Tyson, he was blasting people out. I brought him over a couple of times to have a look at him. I put him on the undercard of a couple of shows that were being beamed back to the States and we made the fight.

“The fight got postponed, we rescheduled it, then [Joe’s] dad, Enzo, rang a week before the fight and told me that he was pulling out, he had a hand injury. I was obviously a bit disappointed, disappointed for Joe because I said, ‘I think [the WBO] might strip you this time.’ His dad said to me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with him, it’s in his head.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Enzo said, ‘Frank, I’m his dad, there’s nothing wrong with his hand. You’re the only one who can speak to him.’ I phoned him up and was on the phone for about 40 minutes. When I rang him, he was so down, I don’t know what the problem was. I obviously didn’t tell him what his dad told me. I said, ‘Look, you can beat this fella with one hand. Just keep putting that jab out, that’s all you need to do. He won’t get near you. You’re too fast, you’re too classy, you’ve got better footwork and you punch… you’ll hurt him.’ To cut a long story short, by the end of the conversation, he was saying, ‘Where is he? Can’t we get the fight on now?’ His old man rang me back about 20 minutes later and said, ‘I don’t know what you said but it’s great, it’s all OK, he’s really up for this now.

“Again, he was a massive underdog, none of the British or American press fancied him. Nobody gave Joe the credit he deserved going into that fight. I couldn’t make it out. I couldn’t see how Jeff Lacy could beat him unless he caught him and knocked him cold. He couldn’t out box him, he was too slow for him. I had a big bet on the fight.

“When the fight happened, Joe was just phenomenal. He absolutely did a job on him. So much so, Gary Shaw, who was his promoter, was sitting next to me and I said, ‘You need to go and pull him out, he’s getting a shellacking here.’ This was about the seventh or eighth round. It was the type of beating you never get over, you never come back. And he was never the same fighter. Lacy was a world champion and suddenly he’s nothing, Joe wrecked him, he ruined him.”

Result: Calzaghe UD 12

David Haye vs. Derek Chisora
Date/ Venue: July 14, 2012/ Upton Park, West Ham, London.
Titles: None

“Chisora fought [then-WBC titleholder Vitali] Klitschko in Germany, there was all the shenanigans at the [post-fight] press conference, when Chisora and Haye had a big bust-up. It got out of hand, which culminated in [Chisora] having his license taken away by the [British Boxing] Board [of Control]. Some of the things he did were wrong, but out there, behind the scenes, the BBBofC representative wasn’t around to give us any support. After taking his license away, I was annoyed with the way the hearing was conducted. I said, ‘Fine, if he can get a license elsewhere, he can box.’ They shrugged their shoulders. We got him a license with the Luxembourg commission, David Haye didn’t have a license, so he took out a license [with the same commission] and, because of the EU laws, we put the show together at West Ham.

“It didn’t need a lot of selling because of what had gone on at the press conference. We had a lot of fun promoting it, I put up a fence up between them [at the weigh-in]. It more or less sold out at West Ham. The weather was dreadful, it was peeing down, but the atmosphere was electric.

“The two guys got in the ring and for a couple of rounds it looked quite competitive. But then David Haye turned it on and did a job on Derek. Haye came through and set himself up for bigger and better things and we did what we always did with Derek, we brought him back again.”

Result: Haye TKO 5

Photo by Al Bello/ Getty Images

Deontay Wilder vs. Tyson Fury 2
Date/ Venue: February 22, 2020/ MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Titles: Ring Magazine and WBC heavyweight

“Tyson came with me and lost around 11 stone (154 pounds) in six months. He had two warm up fights, he was going to have a couple more, then the opportunity came for the Wilder fight. I said, ‘You can beat this fella, Tyson.’ My only concern was he’d been out so long and had the dramatic weight loss, but I felt he had the better boxing brain, and he’s the most deceptive fighter you’ve ever seen.

“All through the [first] fight Shelly Finkel, [Wilder’s] manager, the whole team were holding their heads, and when [Fury] got clipped in the 12th round and went over, they all jumped up and ran to the ring. They thought it was over. I thought it was all over. It was like that film The Terminator where the flicker comes in [Fury’s] eye – it was amazing. Tyson gets up and came back at the end of the round. I can’t think of a more dramatic moment than that. I thought he won the fight and got robbed.

“The rematch, which we finally got on February 22, 2020, was extraordinary. I always felt the first round of that fight would be the 13th round, where Tyson came back on top and that was exactly how it panned out. Tyson just went out there and totally dominated him, took center of the ring, pushed him back and done a job on him. He absolutely took Wilder apart. It was a little bit like watching Calzaghe against Jeff Lacy. Tyson’s got his number. He can fight him on a month of Sundays and he’ll beat him every time.

“Tyson has done brilliantly, he’s a one off, he’s a phenomenal athlete. If you see him now, he’s ripped, it’s an amazing transformation. There’s no miles on the clock, he’s shown everyone what he’s got. We know he can box, we know he’s got fast hands, he’s got a fantastic boxing brain, he’s a switch-hitter and, more importantly, he’s got a good chin and a great heart. The public have taken to him, it’s the biggest turnaround ever. I think that’s the best performance by a British boxer abroad, when you look at who he fought, statistically, biggest punching heavyweight in the last 30 years, and was champion for five years.”

Result: Fury TKO 7

Frank and Fearless: A Life in Boxing by Frank Warren is published February 4, 2021 (Constable) and is available for pre-order now.

 

Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected].co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter @AnsonWainwright

 

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