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How Frank Pittal went from being the ‘Barry Hearn of arm wrestling’ to become the first female-only boxing matchmaker

Frank Pittal on Carly Skelly
Mark Robinson
'I’ve got that buzz, like in the arm wrestling days. Gyms are packed with more and more women coming in. It will become huge; bigger than it already is, all over the world,' Frank Pittal tells Oliver Fennell

LEAPS of faith, by their very nature, are unpredictable. Sometimes they pay off, other times they leave you flat on your face. Either way, Frank Pittal has never been afraid to dive into the unknown.

His first leap of faith came when he was just three years old. It was either a crash course, or just a crash, depending on how you look at it.

“My dad stuck me on the mantlepiece, put his arms out and told me to jump,” Pittal recalls. “He said he would catch me, so I jumped. He moved out of the way and I hit the floor. My mum came running downstairs saying ‘What the hell are you doing?’ My dad said ‘listen, this boy is going to be a success. He’s just learned a very valuable lesson: trust nobody – not even your father.”

Wise words for somebody who more than six decades later would enter the cutthroat business end of boxing. But by the time Pittal picked up his matchmaker’s licence in 2018, he was already blessed with a certain savvy, instilled by that unorthodox bit of parenting, honed by a career hustling in London’s street markets, and complemented by a keen eye for trends.

Pittal is now 67 and retired from selling shoes on the streets. It is in this retirement that Pittal has found a way to monetise his hobby, carving a niche as the world’s only female-exclusive boxing matchmaker. “In 2010 I bumped into [boxing promoter] Mark Lyons,” he says. “He was a market boy like me, so he gave me two tickets for a show at York Hall. He put on two female fights. I thought that’s unusual, I’d never heard of women fighting before.

“And here’s the key thing – they were fantastic. The crowd was mesmerised. Listen, I’m a Del Boy, a wheeler-dealer, so I thought to myself there could be something in this. I started drawing up a network of female boxers, using social media. I was just a fan but started wondering if I could become an agent, so I applied for a matchmaker’s licence.”

This was granted in October 2018. Pittal then set up Wise Girls Boxing, based in Romford, and hit the ground running. “Savannah Marshall was due to fight in Bulgaria [on the Kubrat Pulev-Hughie Fury bill on October 27, 2018] but was struggling to find an opponent,” he says. “The matchmaker there asked if I knew anybody. I looked at my network and got hold of an Argentinian girl [Yanina Orozco] and got a nice little earner from that.

“Then I befriended a French girl, Prisca Vicot, who was on the cusp of big fights. I got her sparring with Hannah Rankin and Rachel Ball and then I got her a ‘world’ title fight [vs Christina Linardatou on February 8, 2020, in Hammond, Indiana]. That was a real pat on the head, getting a WBO title fight on my resume.”

The momentum, as it was for so many, was then snapped by the coronavirus pandemic. “Last year nearly decimated me,” says Pittal. “I’ve got a folder as thick as a phone book with all the fights I had cancelled.”

But now, with restrictions easing, Pittal has arranged his first title fight in a British ring, as he will bring in Malawi’s Ellen Simwaka to vie for the vacant Commonwealth super-bantamweight belt against Liverpool’s Carly Skelly in Houghton le Spring on October 9.

“It’s a high point for me, putting on a match with the blessing of the British Boxing Board of Control and the Commonwealth Council,” he says.

While a lifelong fan, Pittal is relatively new to the business side of boxing, but it’s not his first run in combat sports. A previous incarnation as an arm wrestling promoter was also thanks to spotting a trend and taking a leap of faith.

“On my market stall in Walthamstow I had a greengrocer to my left and a dress stall to my right, and not a day would go by when they wouldn’t have a disagreement or come to blows,” he says. “So I stepped in and said ‘Why don’t you settle your differences over an arm wrestle?’

“That [1987] Stallone movie, Over The Top had just come out so everyone was talking about arm wrestling and I could sense an opportunity. I said better still, make it a charity event. This was not long after the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, so I said why not send the money to them? They agreed, so I set this match up and did it in a local pub.

“All the traders turned up, even some celebs came down. We had them hanging from the rafters. So I said to Les [Clayden, his partner in the event], ‘why don’t we have a proper look into this arm wrestling?’ and we found there was the British Arm Wrestling Federation, run by Clive ‘Ironfist’ Myers, a former pro wrestler who’d fought Big Daddy and the likes.

“We said we wanted to promote arm wrestling off the back of Over The Top and he was over the moon. We did a rematch [between the warring stallholders], with the official rules and regulations this time, and it was even bigger.

“We [L&F Arm Wrestling Promotions] soon became the top arm wrestling promoters in England. We toured around and invited members of the public to take on champions.

“It was through that we met Gary Mason a few years later. He was looking at things to get involved with after he’d retired and now wanted to set up a pro arm wrestling tournament. We travelled to Spain with this, did the nightclub circuit. The Guardian called me the Barry Hearn of arm wrestling.”

As happens with some trends, arm wrestling as a spectator sport fizzled out and Pittal went back to his market stall. But he believes women’s boxing is here to stay.

“I see a golden future for female boxing,” he says. “I’ve got that buzz, like in the arm wrestling days. Gyms are packed with more and more women coming in. It will become huge; bigger than it already is, all over the world. I foresee an explosion over the next five years.

“By then I might be getting ready to meet St Gabriel at the Pearly Gates, but I’ll have had a go.”

He certainly will, and nobody would say Frank Pittal was ever afraid to take the plunge.

His dad would be proud.

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