The Evening Standard

It is not easy to put Frank Warren down. Many, including a hit man, the tax man and several boxers he has promoted have tried, but all have failed.

Warren can be so protective of what people say that when the Daily Mirror got one fact wrong in a largely complimentary article he sued and was paid a reported £10,000 in damages.

He liked the piece and the writer but objected to the allegation that he was raised in the “gutter”.

“I was brought up on a council house in Islington. People who live in council houses don’t live in the gutter. He insulted my mother,” he says as we chat in the Landmark Hotel opposite Marylebone Station.

Indeed Warren, who celebrates his 58th birthday next month, is proud of the roots that gave him the fortitude necessary to tackle a life story that has been a chronicle of many fights.

The son of a bookmaker, he never planned to be a boxing promoter, claiming it was “pure accident as I was doing a favour for a cousin”.

But in his early career he took on the British Boxing Board of Control and the established promoters who controlled the sport. In the 30 years since, he has guided many of Britain’s best fighters to world titles, but splits with three of them have left their scars.

In each case, Warren believes he was the one wronged. First there was Naseem Hamed, rated by the promoter as the “most talented fighter I was ever involved with”.

Warren took him on in 1993 when Hamed was 19. “He was a kid, he needed direction,” explains Warren. “Nobody was interested in him. His target market was youngsters and we really hit the spot with the kids magazines. Naz was like Marmite – you either loved him or hated him.”

But while Warren loved the Hamed Marmite, the feeling did not extend to his older brother Riath, who he feels did Naseem a “disservice”.

Barely able to conceal his contempt, Warren says: “When I met him, Riath was the Yemeni liaison community officer for Sheffield. Suddenly this guy became Jerry Maguire.”

The split came when Hamed went to fight Wayne McCullough in Atlantic City in October 1998. “Naseem was very rude, totally out of control,” adds Warren. “I learned that Riath was in New York negotiating with another promoter. I decided to pack up. Naz’s dad, Sal, a really nice guy, came up to me and said, ‘Frank, please don’t go.’ But I walked away.”

Even now, the split is tinged with a touch of regret. “Naseem never really fulfilled his potential,” he adds.

“He was the most athletic kid I had ever seen. He could lie on the bottom of the swimming pool for three minutes holding his breath. But he is now the size of a house. If he tried that, he would sink.”

Hamed, like many other boxers, suffered from what Warren believes is narcissism. “For a lot of them it is me, me, me,” he insists.

“Boxers who are good at something get the best treatment and they become very self-centred.”

As with Hamed, Warren claims he never personally fell out with his second great pugilist, Ricky Hatton, even though their dispute was so far reaching that the former welterweight world champion had to pulp his own life story after the promoter successfully sued him for libel.

“I never had a cross word with Ricky. The argument was with his dad, who was his manager. At the end of the day it became bitter. It was a shame.”

But such sympathy vanishes when Warren talks about Joe Calzaghe. Last March, a court action brought by Warren’s company Sports Network Ltd for alleged breach of contract resulted in the judge awarding the Welshman £1.8million. Sports Network Ltd were forced into administration.

“Calzaghe is one of the more selfish ones,” Warren says.

“He pulled out of fights because of phantom injuries. In his book he says he was going to pull out of the Jeff Lacy bout, 10 days before the contest. His father rang to tell me Joe had a hand injury. We had postponed the fight twice already. The press had built up Lacy, so I told Joe, ‘You can beat this guy with one hand.’ He agreed to fight and in the end he threw 1,000 punches.”

The contest in Manchester in March 2006 saw Calzaghe, in one of his best displays, demolish Lacy and unify the super-middleweight division.

The parting of the ways with the Welshman eventually came a year later but Warren nonchalantly brushed aside the damage his business suffered as a result of his unsuccessful scrap with Calzaghe.

“I am still in boxing, even though my company is in administration. Businesses are going bust all the time – that is just the environment we are in at the moment. Things happen.”

And things do seem to happen to Warren, who with some justice can claim that, but for events, he might no longer be alive. At Christmas 1988, he was booked on Pan Am 103, only to cancel two days before the ill-fated flight was brought down over Scotland by a terrorist bomb. Warren missed the trip because he had to meet an important Citibank executive and the pair were on their way to the Phantom of the Opera in the West End when Warren heard about the Lockerbie disaster.

He did not have time to react when a year later, in November 1989, he stepped out of his Bentley at the Broadway Theatre in Barking, where he was promoting the bout between Colin McMillan and Sylvester Osuji, only to find a masked gunman firing a .22 bullet at him from a Luger pistol.

“Suddenly, I heard a bang,” he recalls. “I looked round and somebody said there is a gun. I thought they were joking.”

But then came a second shot which missed his heart by an inch and cost him half a lung and part of his ribs. Terry Marsh who, two years earlier had become Warren’s first world champion and had also fallen out with him, was charged with the shooting but then acquitted. During our hour-long interview this was the only subject on which Warren will not be drawn.

“I know who shot me but I won’t tell you,” he says. “It is past, it is irrelevant to me now.”

But the shooting did take its toll and not only on his health.

A deal to secure the future of his London Arena in Docklands fell through because, Warren claims, banks did not want to do business with a man who had been attacked by a masked gunman.

In 1992, the Arena went into receivership with Warren personally owing £14m and 20 or so associated companies also went into liquidation. A DTI investigation disqualified him as a director for seven years and Warren issued a press release saying, while he did not accept all the allegations, he had decided not to challenge the ban because of “pressure of work”.

“The DTI would not agree to a postponement of the hearing although they had already secured two postponements previously, he adds. “I was very busy putting on four major fights, including the first pay-per-view Mike Tyson v Frank Bruno fight and there was no allegation of dishonesty.”

But he did contest the dishonesty charge brought by HM Customs and Excise when it alleged an evasion of £1.2m by the partnership – Sports Network (Europe) – he had set up with Christopher Roberts following his disqualification.

On the day the jury was sent out at Southwark Crown Court in May 2000, Warren was in court with a toothbrush and pyjamas and admits: “I did not know what to expect.”

It took the jury 20 minutes to decide Warren had left money matters to Roberts and acquit him. He emerged to celebrate with champagne and declare that he was the victim of a Clouseau-style inquiry. “I am no angel but I have not done anything dishonest.”

Interestingly, he says much the same about Don King, once his partner, and this despite the fact that a failed legal action against the American promoter cost Warren £7.2m.

“He is the most hard-working man I have ever met,” Warren insists.

“He comes from the street but that does not make him a criminal. He is very bright, very switched on and at the end of the day you cannot get the street out of him.”

Perhaps he can take a more indulgent view of King now because Warren believes that, while American boxing has lost its aura, British boxing has never had it so good.

This is when Warren became most expansive, reeling off the names of the coming golden age with Amir Khan, David Haye, Carl Froch and his own crop of youngsters – Kell Brook, Nathan Cleverly and Kevin Mitchell, who he labels “the best since Naz”.

What angers him is the refusal by mainstream television, particularly the national broadcaster, not to screen boxing. The BBC did a bad deal with Audley Harrison after the Sydney Olympics and they have shunned professional boxing since,” he says.

“Politicians say we need to do something about overweight kids. Then why is the national broadcaster not having boxing but going for Formula One broadcasts from all round the world at weird hours?”

Yet even as he got on his soap box, Warren claims he does not want any of his four boys (he has six children from two marriages) to go into boxing. “They don’t have the need to,” he insists, before adding that part of him wishes he had done something else with his life.

Warren remains proud that despite his council-house background he passed the 11-plus and got into grammar school.

“I was good at what I did. I left school when I was 14-and-a-half and did not take advantage of my education. That was ridiculous,” he recalls.

It is, though, the only regret of a self-made man for whom boxing has been wonderfully rewarding and when I pose one final question, his reply helps to explain why he has been so resilient.

When I ask for his greatest influence, the answer was not his mother or father but: “Myself. From a very young age I was always driven.

“I ran a football team when I was 11. I have taken that drive into my business and have never backed down from anything.”


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