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Frank Grant, the only British boxer to beat Herol Graham, recalls his greatest night

Bradford middleweight Frank Grant invites Terry Dooley to his home and regales him with stories from his British title-winning pro career

YOU could walk past former British middleweight Champion Frank Grant (22-4, 17 KOs) on the street and probably wouldn’t give the quiet, softly-spoken former fighter a second glance. If you have the magic eye you might suspect that he was once a boxer, they tend to walk in direct lines with a steady focus and gait, but there is nothing to suggest that he made history by becoming the only British fighter to beat cult legend Herol Graham. And Grant likes it like that.

I met the 54-year-old at a train station near to where he lives; he moved away from his native Bradford years ago. As we drove to his home we made small talk about his friendship with former fighter and trainer Billy Graham. “The Preacher” had visited Grant for Sunday lunch a few days prior to our meeting and had encouraged his friend to open up about his life.

Grant gave me a quick tour of his home, complete with a makeshift gym in a large shed in the back garden. Despite his gentle way of speaking it is eminently clear that Grant is a tough guy. A proper tough guy. One of those men who do not feel the need to tell everyone how handy they are or that they are in good nick — it is right there for all to see.

During a quick call the previous day Grant had told me that he had a lot to say, so he set about making himself a cup of tea so we could get underway. It was quite the process: he warmed the cup with boiling water first then emptied it before adding his teabag and more boiling water, and then he left it to brew for a while. “Some people stir their tea”, he said “but I like to properly prepare and infuse it.”

As he waited for his brew, Grant began the extraordinary story that you can read if you have a subscription to Boxing News or pick up a print copy of the magazine. A tale of family strife — his mother was a prostitute who told him that his father was a convicted rapist —and how his personal history powered him to that memorable British title win.

“You’ve got to let go of things, we all have to deal with things in life,” he said. “We all have a family history: you, me, everyone. For me this a cathartic exercise, just like winning the British title was. Life doesn’t stop when you win something like that, you still have other hurdles to get over. Winning the title brings other stresses, then you get to middle-age and have stuff happening. Life is always going on.”

There was more, though, and what couldn’t be squeezed on the printed page was put aside for this online outing. In particular Grant’s experiences at the famous Champs Camp gym in Moss Side as well as the background to his ninth-round win over Graham in 1992, which has become somewhat lost in the mists of time and was made more remarkable by the fact that Grant did not have any amateur fights and had lost his pro debut (L TKO 1 to Lincoln Pennant in October 1986).

Despite this, he told me that boxing was something innate within him. A desire to box had coursed through his veins due to his father, former fighter Hugh Mackie (14-43-5, 13 early). Grant’s dad rarely spoke about his time in the ring yet he would practice some moves in front of his young son, who believes that he took it all in organically and was therefore made for the professional ranks despite the fact that a prison sentence for assault in the 1980s robbed him of the opportunity to develop his skills on the unpaid circuit.

“I got out in 1986 and went straight into boxing without any amateurs,” he said. “You feel you belong if you’ve got a father who boxed. That stint inside allowed me to mature a bit. I met up with [local trainer and manager] John Celebanski. Sporting-wise, I was always good at all sports. I always got entered into cross country and that.”

Despite his debut loss, Grant racked up nine consecutive wins, seven by stoppage, before losing to Franky Moro (L6) and Kid Milo (L10).  By this point, Grant felt that a change of scene was needed in order to really kick on. Manchester was a short drive away and a local trainer called Phil Martin was doing good things in Moss Side so the time was right for a move.

“I was just thrown in for that first fight,” stated Grant. “Then I won the next nine. I was doing well until I lost to Moro and Milo. I felt I’d outgrown the gym. John said people didn’t want to fight me, which happens when you start knocking people out, and that stretched his resources as he only had dinner shows for his fighters. It became a bit of a stalemate.

“John had taken us down to Phil Martin’s gym for sparring and I liked the look of it there. When I went to Phil he gave me this spiel about not having TV and not paying great money yet he offered to get me going in the right direction. I bought into it all, fighting for 400 quid at Bowlers and all that to move on.

“Phil was a good guy, but everyone can be full of shit, can’t they? What Phil did was become an architect for people like me by creating that gym. He wasn’t a particularly good trainer. Loads of boxing trainers aren’t because it comes down to the fighters themselves. The people who stay in boxing are usually the shit fighters who didn’t achieve things, people who couldn’t box and don’t have a right to teach other people how to do it. They just want to massage their own egos through it.”

After a burst of bouts, Grant had elevated himself into title contention. Opportunity came knocking in September 1992 when he got the go-ahead to challenge for the British title that was held by the classy southpaw.

“Don’t forget, Herol was touch-and-go with McCallum, who was a legend, and he only lost out because he had a point taken away.  Herol was an awkward fighter, not a great one.  He’s gone down in British folklore as one of the best fighters to never win a world title — he had a style that made it very hard to beat him.

“Herol had beaten a guy called Rod Douglas a few fights before. Rod was a fantastic fighter who I had followed from his amateur career.  He beat Nigel Benn in the amateurs and won the ABA title at light-middleweight in 1983, 1984 and 1985. Then he went and won one at middleweight in 1987. He took on Herol after only 13 fights.  Rod collapsed after the fight from a blood clot on the brain and never boxed again.  Rod was a fantastic, aggressive fighter. His career just never really happened because he ran into Herol.

“Douglas was potentially a great fighter. [His manager] Mickey [Duff] put him in too early with Graham.  Rod never boxed again. What a fantastic fighter he was — beautiful and aggressive.  I often think about Rod’s career because it never got to where it should be.”

As for Grant, his training camp for the fight was less than ideal and prompted him to make a timely decision just a week before it. He said: “Training was shit, Phil overtrained us, there is other way to say it, so I left the gym the week before the fight and went back home — I’d been staying at Maurice [Core’s] mum’s house.

“I’d come out in a big infection on my forehead, which I’d thought was stress-related yet it was just an infection. Billy [Graham] was there that day, he said: ‘Let him go home, Phil — he’s fucked.’ I would not have won that title without Phil — I’d never deny him that — yet over time things rise to the surface and you’ve just got to say them.

“It all came together on the day of the fight. I was two pounds over two hours before weighing in. I used to walk around at 12 stone, so it was nothing. I was just a genuine middleweight fighter. I ran round Elland Road and came back a pound under. I was so strong it was unbelievable. The plan was to stay with him, not get out-classed, then step it up in the seventh round when he was in deep water. Then I just took the pace to another level on him. People had thought I was just some muppet from the north.”

Frank Grant vs. Herol Graham (Action Images)

Grant visited the gym the next day only to be told by a couple of fighters that Martin had predicted he would lose the fight. The allegation hurt him yet he never took it up with his charismatic trainer. It still rankles to this day. “Phil was in dreamland after the fight yet was maybe thinking ‘Shit, I’ve told people he’ll lose’ and we all have egos,” he said. “I never mentioned it to Phil.”

Three things in life are certain: taxes, death, and people within the boxing trade falling in and out with each other. Grant defended his title against John Ashton (W RTD 7) before losing to Neville Brown (L rsf 7) in what turned out to be his final fight. The success of the Graham fight was followed by disputes with Martin over percentage splits and money, the two other constants of the business.

“The pay wasn’t great when it came through, I was told it would improve when I won the title,” was Grant’s recollection. “I defended against Neville Brown at York Hall. It was about 12 grand for that one. You are feeling ripped off by your manager and wondering what you are going to do. It feels like a Catch-22 situation. Then I lose and he takes 35% of my money: a 10% training fee and 25% manager fee. I’d been told in the gym that if we paid our gym fees then they wouldn’t take fight fees.

“Phil told me I could go if I wasn’t happy. I’d been told I should have had TV money too so I went to the BBBoC. It was just a kangaroo court held at the Piccadilly Hotel. Everyone from Champs Camp came in and said what a great manager Phil was. There were no negatives. It was just what they perceived to be the truth.

“Champs Camp wasn’t always it was cracked up to be. Then again, Phil was like a father to Maurice [Core], getting him the British title fight at the old Co-Op Insurance Building [New Century Hall] in Manchester after my fight. Ossie [Maddix], Ensley [Bingham] and Maurice were always close to Phil, but those fighters know the truth. Even Maurice knows.”

“In the end I thought ‘What kind of game is this?’ and it just made me walk away,” he added. “I had been to see Brendan Ingle at a café just near his gym: me, Naz Hamed, Brendan, and Neville, who had just beaten me — that was surreal! They were all telling me not to pack it in. I never liked that Sheffield style, though. I could never do that. I like to fight. To come forward like a Latino style of fighter. Who wants to run about and do pitter-patter shit? With Phil we trained, sparred and fought hard. For me that is what Champs Camp was all about. It was all business.”

Martin’s death from the effects of cancer in 1994 meant that there would never be any closure to their story. The legacy he left behind as a community leader continued to grow after his death. The success of the likes of Billy Graham, Joe Gallagher and others who were part of the gym has ensured he lives long in the collective boxing memory. Despite their ups and downs, Grant told me that he recognises Martin’s lasting impact.

“Whenever I talk about Phil, I talk about his creation. The gym was a monster of success that continues to this day. There have been other people in the world who were successful but were also bastards. Part of Phil’s personality had that in it. Maybe you have got to have that, especially in boxing. Phil was a good guy. This was just how it was between me and him. We were a group of fighters who were on the verge of success coming out of a gym that would shape the local boxing scene for decades to come.”

Grant’s frankness during our time together was surprising due to how he has lived his life for the past two decades. If you Google him very little comes up: a few news reports of an another assault that he served his time for, an interview about the Graham win and that is pretty much it. It felt like he had decided that the time was right to talk before going right back to living his nice, quiet life with Donna, his partner, and their dog, Whit’. 

“No one knows me around here — well, they do now because someone who moved in recently recognised me from YouTube — and it was nice to have that for about all these years,” he said. “I got away from that image and reputation I had in Bradford.

“I am not even on social media under my own name, I just use Frank so I can see things people are saying on there. We don’t have hundreds of friends in real life the way people do on social media. We have about four, and if I had six I’m suspicious about three of them. Whenever I get a new phone they ask if I want my numbers brought over and I say ‘No’. I’m a private person.”

As he drove me back to the station, Grant reiterated that he is proud of what he achieved. “Lots of kids lose their first fight and either quit or become a journeyman — I wanted to get somewhere,” he said. “Boxing was something that I look back on and think: ‘I was good at that’. You fight, you win — you just go out and do it. I knew when I won the British title that I didn’t have too much longer to go. I’d done it.”

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