DEAN FRANCIS died today at the age of 44 after a courageous yet futile fight against cancer. Gone too soon but his memory will thrive, one hopes.
He remains many different things to many different people. To his wife, Ghalia, he will always be her best friend, the loving father of her child. To his four-year-old son, Rocco, he is quite simply the best daddy in the whole wide world. His friends will recall his wicked sense of humour and heart of gold, while the boxing world won’t forget the thrills and skills that deserved more than the English, British, Commonwealth and European titles he won across the super-middleweight, light-heavyweight and cruiserweight divisions. Above all, however, Dean Francis is an inspiration.
Last February, when he picked me up at Bristol Meads train station, the smile on his face belied the disease that was killing him. Back then, just weeks after being told cancer was spreading through his body with such haste he wasn’t expected to survive the year, Francis declared war on his condition.
“It’s going to be all right,” he said. “It’s going to be good. It’s life, it’s what I’ve been thrown and it’s what I’ll deal with. I will beat this.”
In the end, he was forced to deal with the harshest truth of them all. There was no survival. His visit to the doctors had come too late. The symptoms had been around for a long time yet Francis, like too many men, ignored them until they became too much to bear. The cancer stormed from his bowels to his liver, blocking any escape route an earlier diagnosis might have allowed. The lesson for us all does not need spelling out any clearer.
But what I’ll remember the most about Dean Francis is not just his determination to live as he searched the world for alternative medicines, it’s his sense of inner peace. It was simply extraordinary. Even though he was in the midst of an unwinnable fight, Francis exuded calmness. There was no panic, no fear of failure.
“You prepare yourself and, as sick as it may sound, it felt nice, honestly, to just accept the fact [that I was going to die],” he explained, unforgettably. “But I came to terms with death, I came to terms with dying. That’s not going to happen, by the way, but when I came to terms with it, at that moment, I was struck with a peacefulness, a calmness comes over because it’s really hard isn’t it, life? You just have to sort things out, that’s all that was on my mind.”
Francis deserved to live a fuller life, but he was just thankful to live at all. He knew what it was to love and be loved unconditionally, what it was to be a husband and father, and he cherished the touch of his young family, always thankful to have been blessed with them, if only for a short time.
He deserved better from boxing, too. He would agree with that. For many years his failure to fight for a world title bothered him. In an era when inferior boxers were winning world belts, the Bristolian, dogged by a persistent shoulder injury among other gripes, as well as a stubborn streak that annoyed certain promoters, Francis was forced to retire at the age of 40 without the prize he craved the most.
In an alternative and fairer boxing world, Francis would gave ruled it.
But in the end, he knew what the real measures for success are. Boxing is too cruel to define someone like Dean Francis, after all. A fighter in every sense of the word, it’s true, yet the prize ring was just a small part of a life that achieved so much more.
The husband, the father, the friend, the eternal inspiration, we miss you already, and we won’t forget.