“I CAN’T believe it,” Frank Warren says as he reflects on the fact that next year will mark another boxing milestone for him. It will be exactly 40 years since he began working as a promoter and the truth makes Warren wince and smile at the same time. “The years just blur because it all goes so quickly. Forty years have flown by.”
A new decade will begin next month with the build-up to yet another massive fight as Tyson Fury, whom Warren promotes, prepares to face Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas in February. This British boxing year will end on December 21 with Warren’s ‘Fight Before Christmas’ promotion as his latest heavyweight prospect, Daniel Dubois, faces Kyotaro Fujimoto. It should be another explosive ending in favour of Dubois even if Fujimoto has lost only once in eight years as a professional. But, before we talk about Fury, Dubois and many of the other fighters who have made his career so vivid and successful, it seems the right time to go back to the beginning and, also, to talk more personally to Warren.
“When I was a kid,” Warren says, “I got into boxing because I didn’t know any different. I lived on a council estate [in Islington, North London]. I come from a tough background and boxing wasn’t a career for me. I just got involved in it. A couple of my cousins were fighters and I knew a lot of people in the fight business. My uncle and my dad were big friends with Angelo and Chris Dundee when they used to come over. I met Sonny Liston. I was only a kid when he came over. It was around 1963 and I was still at school.”
Did Liston exude that infamous intimidating force while in London? “He did. It’s an old cliché but I remember him skipping rope to Night Train, the great James Brown song. All the fighters in those days used to have cards. Liston had a big card with a photograph of him on it and I said, ‘Would you sign it?’ He did and I’ve still got it somewhere.
“I grew up with these larger-than-life figures. I used to go and work at the races when I was a kid because my dad was in betting. So I’m in the car, and all the guys are incredible characters. It was quite – what’s the word? I’m not saying romantic but everyone had a nickname like Bill the Russian, Jerry the Gimp. They were betting guys and they basically ran a lot of the races. They were street bookmakers, and when they became legal they opened betting shops.”
Did he have a happy childhood? “I did but my mum and dad had quite a traumatic relationship. It was one of those where they split up, got back together. It was difficult. I lived in a council flat and you heard everything. I was the eldest kid. It was me, Christine, Robert and Mark – the youngest. He’s gone now.”
Warren’s face creases with emotion. I know that Mark Warren killed himself when he jumped out of a block of flats in Islington in July 2010. The 67-year-old promoter pauses and then nods when I say I am sure it must be especially hard around Christmas as he remembers Mark. “I get quite upset when I think about it. It was terrible.”
His eyes glisten and, for a moment, Warren can’t talk. I ask him if we should change the subject but Warren shakes his head. He wants to talk because, apart from the grief, he is angry about the cause of Mark’s death. “All these idiots who talk about legalizing cannabis have no idea of the damage it does. I know what it did to Mark. I know it turned him schizophrenic. I don’t care what anyone says. He was smoking that as a kid and it got much stronger. He was 14 years younger than me and I tried to intervene a few times. You get hold of the people who were selling it to him, but then he’d go and get it off his mates.”
Did Mark have other mental health problems? “No. I genuinely believe that was the real cause of it, and it just screwed him up. I know a lot of people that love a puff. But I’ve seen what it can do – not just to my brother but other people I grew up with. You can’t be with them 24/7. We’re here one day, and we’ve got a plane to catch tomorrow. We’re here, there and everywhere. I live out here [in Hertfordshire], he lived in London, but my brother Robert and my mum and dad would see him a lot. I did all I can but at the end of the day if someone’s going to do something you can’t stop them. Mark was never married and he never had anything like that. He just loved music and that was it.”
Did boxing appeal to him? “He came to a lot of shows but in the end he was lost in his own world. I remember the night I heard the news. My wife Susan, said she had a phone call from my sister-in-law, Robert’s wife. I knew it was bad news and when she said ‘It’s your brother’ I thought it was Robert. But it was Mark, and that was that.”
Warren still looks upset and so it feels right to change the subject. Is it true that Warren’s uncle got him into the boxing business while he promoted Lenny McLean, the unlicensed boxer? “My uncle Bob was important to me. His business partner was Albert Dimes and they were the chaps in Soho at the time. Lenny McLean is my second cousin – although I’m not sure that’s what you call it. Bob was Lenny’s uncle on the other side of the family.
“I didn’t like Lenny. He was a terrible bully. He knocked a young kid out and killed him. He was originally a window cleaner and the only thing I liked about him was that he was very funny. He was a very good mimic. I used to go to fights to watch my cousin Johnny Wall, who was a light-heavyweight. He turned pro when he joined [George] Francis. John was a very stylish boxer but he was a playboy. He didn’t knuckle down. Then Lenny got involved and I went to see one of those Roy Shaw fights and it was crap. It was just awful even if they weren’t bare-knuckle fighters. They wore gloves.”
Where did these fights take place? “In a hotel somewhere. It was garbage, all the fellas went there. When Lenny fought Roy Shaw I went with my uncle to see the fight. It was in a place called Cinatra, with a C, in Croydon. Roy Shaw was managed by Mickey Duff. Lenny caught Shaw. He crossed his arms, leaned back on the ropes and just kept saying, ‘Hit me.’ He might have hit him about 50 times, and then slid down the corner. What was all that about? And then he made a rematch for some reason. A week before the fight, my uncle got him with Freddy Hill. If you get a fight, you have to get a trainer. That night, his cornermen were me and my uncle Bob. We knew nothing, we just went in there and Lenny won. He knocked him down and they rang the bell. So that’s how I got into boxing.”
How old was he then? “About 23. Then they offered Lenny some stupid money. I went with my uncle to a meeting and I said, ‘We’d give you that.’ Next minute we’re promoting a fight. It was like gambling. This fella, the opponent, came from Ilford, and was an ex-soldier. We had a big bet – about 25 or 30 grand. Lenny knocked him out. There was probably about 80-90 grands worth of bets. It was a lot of money back then. Every penny went to my uncle. So I did that for a few years. We then formed the National Boxing Council and started to change the medical care around boxers. I decided we needed to sort this out otherwise fighters would get hurt. I then got a chance to do more mainstream shows.”
In December 1980, Warren staged his first formal boxing promotion. He even secured television coverage but he was blocked at every turn by the boxing establishment. “I couldn’t even get a venue so we went to a Bloomsbury hotel which held 1,300 people. We bought these two American fighters in, after I did deal with Frank Gelb from Philadelphia. It was going to be for the NABF title, we had TV for it but the Board had regulations saying, no television. I lost 18 grand, which was a lot of money then. It was a painful lesson. They stitched me up and it was all about Mickey Duff, Jarvis Astaire and those big-time promoters. The Board of Control didn’t have to make any decisions before I came along – it was a cosy set up. I got involved and they had to start making decisions, and they didn’t like that.
“They spread terrible rumours about me. My uncle was a gangster, I had convictions for this or that. Yes, I grew up in that environment and I met all sorts of people. Some of my mates ended up being gangsters, some ended up being cab drivers. But Duff and the others lied about it. They did everything they could to screw me. The only way I could move forward was using the law as there were regulations but they relied on unwritten polices. They capitulated on everything. It was the same as now – you’re always fighting your ground. You stand up for what you think is right. And back then you’re young and Jack the Lad. It felt like a lot of fun.”
Boxing is a more complex business now – and it’s still a hard and brutal world. But Warren’s relish for the game, despite some tough times, seems undented. It helps that he is about to announce Fury’s rematch with Wilder. “ESPN are his American broadcasters, and we’ve got the rights for the rest of the world. So if he fights in the States he’s on ESPN. If he fights anywhere else, it’s on our show. We both agreed this route and it was a good move. At the time ESPN came up with huge money, and you can’t say no to that.
“Tyson’s one of the smartest guys I’ve met. He’s funny. He’s turned his life completely around. Twenty months ago, or whatever it was, he was 11 stone over his weight now. He was not in a good place. Broadcasters were wary of him. I had to go in and give my word. I took him with me into BT Sport, and there was a bit of reluctance to do the deal – but we convinced them.”
Did he approach Fury at a time when the fighter was in turmoil? “Yes. We were talking, and then he said, ‘I want to meet.’ And we met and put the deal together.”
Did Warren have any doubt Fury could get back on track after his battle with depression? “I wasn’t too sure to start with. Of course there was a commercial element but I wanted to help him. He felt that boxing was going to be the catalyst for him to become a better person. It was going to give him something to aim for because he was low and self-loathing. He was suicidal. It was going to give him some self-esteem, some self-respect back. He needed the discipline.
“I said to him, ‘Let’s focus on being positive. You’re a super boxer, a super athlete. Get yourself into shape. You’re going to earn a lot of money but have some fun. If you don’t want to do it then you stop. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.’ Look what he’s done recently. WWE, boxing, a record with Robbie Williams, an autobiography. Jesus Christ. That would make Prince Andrew sweat. He’s been really busy, hasn’t he?”
Fury, in his heart, is a fighting man and Warren is a riveting witness when he remembers how the big man got up from a devastating knockdown against Wilder to draw their first fight – which most people thought he won clearly. “Before the fight the referee came into the dressing room and said, ‘If you get knocked down I’m going to ask you to stand up and walk either three paces to the right, or the left, and then come back so I can look in your eyes.’ Shelly Finkel [Wilder’s manager] and all those guys had such long faces before Tyson got knocked down. They knew Fury had the fight won. When Wilder knocked him down they all jumped up. They ran to the ring, screaming. Deontay did the knife thing across his throat, and I thought Tyson was knocked out. Then, he struggled to his feet. The referee did all the things he said he was going to do and, by the end of the round, Tyson was on top again. I thought he won the fight.
“Afterwards, Tyson said, ‘I couldn’t feel my legs for about five seconds, and I knew if I got up I wouldn’t be able to walk three paces to the right. I’d have been stopped.’ That showed his presence of mind even in that moment. He got hit with a tremendous punch and Wilder caught him twice more going down. I don’t know how he got up.
“Deontay Wilder is probably the biggest puncher in heavyweight boxing in the last 25 years. He’s dangerous for every second of every round. Most fights he’s behind, as he was against [Luis] Ortiz. So, you’ve got to be right on it. But I think Tyson will win the rematch – as long as he keeps out of the way. Ortiz is a good boxer, but he’s 40 years old. Tyson’s not got miles on the clock. His miles are from outside, not inside, the ring.
“And I think he has really got to Wilder. You could see it before the last fight. All the way leading up to it, they thought it was going to be a walkover. But I could see Tyson getting to him. One minute he was embracing Wilder, like they were mates, and then he’d turn on him. Wilder didn’t know what to expect. At each press conference we did, Wilder was more wary of him. And this time round Tyson’s not training to lose the weight. He’ll train for the fight.”
Is the fight guaranteed? “I’m hoping we’ll announce it over the next week. It’s going to be 22nd February in Vegas. It was a great fight the first time round. But it’s much bigger now.”
Warren has castigated Andy Ruiz Jnr as a disgrace after he turned up out of shape before losing so widely to a disciplined Anthony Joshua. “I’d like to see Joshua fight Daniel Duboius now,” Warren says of his bright young prospect. “I’d jump at it for Daniel. But it’s not going to happen, is it? Joshua is the Hearns’ golden goose. They’ve certainly cooked him a few times. And now they’re making a truckload of money out of Joshua, and for him. That’s how it should be. It’s a dangerous sport, and good luck to Joshua earning as much as he gets.”
Will Joshua and Fury agree to fight one day? “I don’t think Joshua wants the fight. He never talks about it. Even now they keep talking about Wilder. They’re not talking about fighting Tyson at all. I still think Joshua is an accident waiting to happen. Look at how many fights where he’s been caught, been wobbled. Tyson would stand him on his head and knock him out. Wilder’s not got a bad chin so if he and Joshua have a shoot-out, you know what’s happening. Wilder’s going to knock him out.”
Dubois is an intriguing fighter but Warren nods when I say that I found him, unlike most boxers, to be guarded to the point of blankness when I interviewed him earlier this year. “Daniel’s very focused. When I first met him he was very shy. But he has come out of his shell a bit now. All he cares about is fighting. He lives to fight. That’s all he wants to know.”
It certainly looks, at least against relatively limited opposition, as if he can fight. “He can punch with devastating force and he’s been clipped a couple of times in fights. I think, at this stage in his career, he’s fought some decent guys. Nathan Gorman caught him with a couple of shots and he took them. But his punching power stands out. Everybody he’s sparred with he’s put on the floor. There are some big names.”
Rumours have swirled that Dubois floored Joshua in sparring. “I’m not saying. I’m more interested in his next fight against the Japanese heavyweight who got a 21-1 record. He’s got a WBA ranking and Daniel hasn’t. After this fight Daniel will be ranked by the WBA. We can afford to be patient with him while these guys fight each other. Tyson’s fighting in February, and they could have a rematch later next year. Joshua has got his mandatories. So, by the time they get all that sorted out, I’ll have Daniel in the No.1 spot. I’m not going to give options. I’ll just say, ‘My man is No.1. You’ve got to fight him.’ By then he will have fought Joe Joyce. And of course Joe’s with me. We have Daniel, Joe, Tyson and the best crop of youngsters in British boxing. Dennis McCann, Hamzah Sheeraz, George Davey and lots of others. We’ve got some exceptional talent and they all committing their future to us. So we’re in good shape.”
Two of his sons, George and Francis have joined him in the boxing business and Warren says, “They’ve been fantastic but I didn’t want them to do it. All my kids have had a good education. I was quite big on making education a priority, and they all went to uni and did well. George did business, Francis went to Exeter and did history, and Henry, who does work on the TV side with us, did psychology with philosophy at Leeds. I didn’t have their opportunities.
As he enters his fifth decade in boxing, and his 40th year as a promoter, Warren’s hunger for the next fight, and the next deal, seems as sharp as ever. “I just enjoy it. I enjoy bringing young fighters through. Maybe it’s a bit of ego in finding a fighter that everyone else has missed. Nobody knew about Daniel Dubois. Let’s be honest. Now, everybody’s talking about him as the next big thing and I enjoy bringing those guys through. Naseem Hamed had about three fights with Mickey Duff and they couldn’t do anything with him. But he came to me and we brought him through. Joe Calzaghe? Couldn’t get arrested until he came to me. We did great with Ricky Hatton. He was a young kid and, outside the trade, no-one knew who he was. I enjoy that. And, after almost 40 years, I’m ready for more. We’ve had a good year and 2020 is going to be even better.”