I HAVE no idea what to expect before meeting Dean Francis, other than he will be waiting for me in a black Range Rover outside Bristol Temple Meads station. Nor do I know what I should say to a 43-year-old who has been told by doctors that he will soon be killed by cancer.
I walk out of the station and Francis is positioned, as advertised, in a black Range Rover. We exchange nods, he gets out of the vehicle to shake my hand and it strikes me he looks incredible. He always did; broad shoulders with the kind of swimming pool physique that makes you reach for your t-shirt – while wishing you’d spent more time in the gym than the pub. Francis, who won several English, British, Commonwealth and European belts – from super-middle to cruiserweight – last fought in 2014 after accepting, at the age of 40, the world title he craved was forever out of reach. The following year he married Ghalia, his long-term sweetheart and mother of their now three-year-old boy, Rocco.
Then, in 2016, his body started to tell him that things were not quite as they appeared on the outside. His once regular and “triumphant” visits to the toilet – the kind that most men can relate to – became drawn-out frustrating affairs, repeated bouts of stomach cramps left him in agony and, on January 31 this year, he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. But, the good news, it was slow growing, he could be cured. The bad news came three weeks later. After his treatment was transferred from Gloucester, where the diagnosis was made, to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, which is much closer to his home, he was told the cancer had invaded his liver and, worst case scenario, he had just months to live. And the best? If the chemotherapy doesn’t kill him, if he looks after himself, he can expect to live for another two years, maybe three if he’s lucky.
“You look well,” I say by way of introduction. I mean it of course, but realise it’s not the greatest opening line under the circumstances.
“Thank you, I’m trying my best to not look ill,” chuckles an unexpectedly merry Francis as he drives us to meet his wife in a nearby hotel. “I wouldn’t want anyone to worry.”
His wife worries. How could she not? The man Ghalia has been besotted with since she first set eyes on him as she drove through Bristol in 2008 has Stage 4 cancer. The man she spotted on a huge billboard poster ahead of his barnburner with Tony Oakey. The man who made her heart skip a beat before she’d even met him. The man who, purely by chance, came walking and talking into Ghalia’s bar a few days later.
“I didn’t know anything about boxing, I called it a ‘game’. I said, ‘I hear you’ve got a boxing game coming up’,” Ghalia remembers. “We looked at each other for a bit, I decided I wanted to go to his fight, and that was it, I got tickets and we’ve been together ever since. We’ve been together coming up for 10 years, and it’s absolutely flown by.”
She’s strikingly pretty, powerfully dressed with a personality to match yet, unlike with Dean, I sense the sadness almost immediately. I ask how she’s coping.
“I’m alright, I’m alright,” she says. “We’re quite strong, we try and get on with it until we hit a brick wall. People say to us, ‘How do you do it? You’re amazing.’ But it just feels like the right thing to do, we’ve got a three-year-old child,” and her voice fades and breaks, exposing the heartache of this horrible situation, the heartache that was already written all over her face. “When you’ve got a child that is so young, it’s difficult, but hopefully we’ll get a good result.”
Dean gets frustrated when Ghalia gets upset. Because, despite the grim prognosis from the NHS, he is 100 per cent certain that he will beat this disease. When his wife cries, allows herself to dwell on a future without him, a future raising Rocco alone, Dean takes it as an insult to the warrior code he has lived his life by.
“In my mind, it’s like she doesn’t trust me,” he explains. Dean Francis, you see, is not going to die. The couple were given a faint glimmer of hope when, shortly after the prognosis, they sought private medical advice from an Italian doctor in London’s Harley Street. The procedure involved more tests and consultations that cost thousands, but they were told the cancer is not yet indestructible, that the BRI should have begun treatment immediately and made their predictions later. The Francis’ can’t afford to go private throughout his treatment, though. Already thousands have been spent. They are emptying their financial reserves. Nobody has a cancer fund, after all.
But the boxing community, as it always does, is rallying around. Lee Haskins immediately set up a JustGiving page and Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe, James DeGale, Lee Selby and Haskins – alongside Francis, of course – were the stars of an emotional Bristol dinner show organised by Ghalia in her husband’s honour on May 6. All money raised will be put towards saving Francis’ life. He hopes to go to Mexico and get renowned natural treatment at the Chipsa Clinic in Tijuana.
“Just because the doctors told me it’s terminal, what they’re actually saying is they – the NHS – can no longer do anything for me,” Francis explains. “I talk to them about alternative therapies and they haven’t got a clue, which is scary really. Surely as a doctor you should have some idea. It should be a goal to find a cure, to expand your mind, not to just stop at what you’ve been told. But I’m the one who’s had to go and source this information myself. I’m learning myself, and that’s half the battle.”
Francis remembers the moment he was told he was going to die. And for two days he accepted it. One might presume those 48 hours were the hardest of Francis’ life, but they were not. The relentless pressure of existing, of trying to do the right thing, of trying to fulfil expectation, were suddenly lifted. The stresses of life disappeared.
“It was a strange feeling, I didn’t know how to react,” Francis reveals about the moment he was told the cancer was incurable. “I looked at my wife and I kept rubbing my head. I was like, ‘Really? Me? Cancer? Dead?’ 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]. They said if I don’t do the chemo – and I’m really against the chemo, before this happened I always said I’d never do it – I’d last six months. 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 and you just have to sort things out, that’s all that was on my mind. Forget about me, forget about feeling sorry for myself, just make sure everything is okay [for my family].”
“That lasted a couple of days, tears and whatnot, and then after that I was on a mission. One thing I know about anything in this life is if you haven’t got it up there,” he says, pointing to his head, “then you’re not going to succeed. My boxing career helped me have that attitude.”
Not so long ago, Francis – when he allowed himself to drift back in time – was consumed with disappointment about that boxing career. A terrific fighter, Francis amassed a 34-5-1 (26) record but was blighted with almost incessant injury problems, saw his career interrupted when he served time in prison for assault (a period of his life he calls the hardest), and failed to secure a shot at a world belt when inferior boxers were not only contesting them, but winning them. Unfairly written off as a nearly man, and astonishingly unlucky, it all ended when Bob Ajisafe bent his face out of shape and outscored him over 12 gruelling rounds three years ago.
“Not for one moment in that fight did I feel in control, and to be successful as a fighter you need that control to build on,” Francis explains. He knew from the second round he was done as a fighter. “I’m chuffed that I lasted 12 rounds because that mindset – knowing I had no control, that it was all over for me – is horrific to have in the ring. I was in a bad way afterwards – one pupil was bigger than the other for about six months. The worst thing about that fight was the way that I looked and felt, not that I retired afterwards.”
For Ghalia, who watched at ringside, it was excruciating and she feared that a similar heartache to what she now battles with was upon them.
“I find it hard to watch boxing, especially when it’s your husband,” she explains. “For his last fight, Rocco was three months old and then I had to go and watch Dean fight. Ajisafe is awkward and nobody wanted to fight him, Dean was 40 and it was hard to watch. Every round felt like forever. I remember looking at him for days afterwards and just crying. The swelling didn’t come down, there was swelling on his brain, there was no more for him – that could have been the point when our lives changed forever.”
That moment wasn’t far away. Whatever happens from here, Francis has changed forever and he insists it’s for the better. He has revamped his diet, any regrets have been forgotten, and his outlook on the future is, for the first time, crystal clear. Dean’s incredible spirit is perhaps hard to convey here, and any doubts from strangers about his chances of survival are perfectly understandable. I had them too but, just 30 minutes after finding him in a black Range Rover, I realise I’m sitting alongside the most inspirational person I have ever met.
“I am a different person,” Francis says. “Usually to become a different person it happens over years and years, and you won’t notice it yourself – someone will tell you that you’ve changed. But I can feel it. What I put into my body now and how I talk about it. The ‘want’ to be a better person as well, which I know sounds corny, but it’s there, I want to make a difference. When I’m cured, I’ll be banging it out there, telling everyone about it, telling everyone what the NHS doesn’t. I’ll be one of those really annoying people!”
Francis has stopped his chemotherapy. The opening dose was “horrific”, resulted in him being admitted to hospital and, alongside the awful physical pain, Dean was effectively radioactive for three days after each treatment. Three days when he couldn’t hold his son, three nights when he had to sleep alone. In Francis’ world, three days without the touch of his family is nothing but a complete waste of time. Francis is now embracing natural treatment, with the defining trip to Mexico just weeks away.
“I’m not lying when I say I’m going to beat this,” he declares. “I am going to beat this. This isn’t something that can’t be done. This isn’t a miracle that I’m trying to perform here. People have been cured all the time from cancer who were worse than me. It’s going to happen, it’s about doing the right things, so don’t worry. It’s going to be all right. It’s going to be good. It’s life, it’s what I’ve been thrown and it’s what I’ll deal with – this happening to me is a positive. [When I beat it] I will feel invincible, I want to inspire people.”
Rest assured, that stage of his mission is already complete.