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When Mike Tyson came to Britain

Mike Tyson
Photos: Action Images
Twenty years have passed since Mike Tyson created an unforgettable storm when he came to the UK amid objections from the media, the government and never-before-seen adulation from fans. Julius Francis was the proverbial sacrificial lamb served up to the monster and here, alongside trainer Mark Roe and promoter Frank Warren, he talks to Declan Warrington about the whole event

How did you feel when the fight was confirmed?

Julius Francis: I was very happy to have even been considered. He was and is intimidating, but I can’t say I was frightened, ‘cause I wasn’t. I wasn’t frightened; I was more bothered about my daughter being born, even though I had to be selfish in going away to train.

Mark Roe: To reach them sort of heights was as good as any world title fight. I wasn’t nervous at all. The only concerns I had were if the fight would really happen, and to make sure that Julius wasn’t entirely beyond his capabilities with such a formidable opponent. Even though he’d been beat, Tyson was still thought of as the invincible foe.

Frank Warren: Panos Eliades was also trying to get him over to the UK. Tyson was tied in with Showtime, who I believed he owed money, for advances. They suggested bringing him here, and it wasn’t easy, but we got it over the line. I wanted to put it on at the Millennium Stadium [in Cardiff], but Tyson’s mob were terrified it wouldn’t sell, which was really annoying. We then sold out the M.E.N Arena [as it was then known] without even announcing an opponent.

Mike Tyson
Julius Francis still considered Tyson a formidable opponent

How do you start to prepare for an opponent like Mike Tyson?

JF: It’s a mental thing. I had to steal myself away from myself. I had to become very selfish ­­– if I were to beat this guy my life changes forever. Lots of guys come into boxing for money but I never did to become a millionaire – I come in to be British champion. After winning that title, if I never fought again I’d achieved my goal.

We went down to Aldershot [to the army barracks]. I’d experienced going into camp with Lennox [Lewis, then the WBC, WBA and IBF heavyweight champion], but Lennox was the main man. Now everything was geared towards making me the best I could be on the night. I enjoyed it – every day at the gym I was the one everyone was focused on. My sparring partners come at me every day like they wanted to take my head off. I had to be that horrible, selfish, nasty person every day.

As far as I was concerned, and I know Tyson would have said this himself, “F*** the other guy”. He didn’t give a s*** about the other guy and I had to get my mindset into that mode.

Frank [Maloney, today known as Kellie but then Francis’ manager], every day would tell these different stories, what Tyson had done and said to different fighters at press conferences, weigh-ins and that. Every day I heard this name, “Tyson done this, Tyson done that”. We were in camp for five or six weeks. By the time we got to Manchester, if I’d heard Tyson’s name one more time from Frank Maloney I’d have strangled him. It was about me. Tyson would feel the same pinch and punch as every human being; he was just better at dealing with it.

Camp was sparse. I had a single bed – one of those metal-framed ones – a thin mattress, springs, no TV, a radio, a little wardrobe, plenty of books and plenty of fresh air. I didn’t have any luxury whatsoever. It was hard, but I don’t think I’d have wanted it any other way. If I was still in London I’d have had press camped outside my door; the neighbours coming round. You had to get past the guard to see me, so I was happy with that. I had to work, I HAD to work.

I was always a good trainer; I really did enjoy it. We worked on building my power. I remember doing sets on the rowing machine and literally falling off the machine at the end – thinking about it makes my legs turn to jelly. I got myself into fantastic shape.

MR: We had to change things round a bit for someone of that calibre. We called in sparring partners that we thought would be ideal and could emulate a couple of the things that Mike done. We set up camp in the barracks, which cost a hell of a lot of money. We had great backing from the army – they were fantastic.

One of the biggest mistakes we made was Frank Maloney saying he wanted to bring in Harold Knight, a co-trainer with Lennox Lewis and Manny Steward. He said, “We’ve gotta use some sort of intimidation. Look like you mean business”. I wish I’d put my foot down. It’s another influence in the camp but we’d always got Julius right on our own before then.

Julius picked up a calf injury and couldn’t run, so we put him on the rowing machine for his cardio; the army PTIs said you couldn’t beat that machine. The media were saying Julius would be out of there inside a round, but I said, “This is a fight you can win. You can definitely go the distance. You get past four or five rounds and it starts becoming your fight”. Mike would easily lose interest if it wasn’t going his way – we’d seen that. He comes at you in straight lines. Although he moved his head and everything, the guys that tended to give him trouble were the ones that moved around. That’s what we worked on, and in sparring Julius was putting it together well.

The biggest problem I had was Julius was over the 17st mark. If Julius had come in around 16st 10lbs, 12lbs, we really could have won. He really did work hard, but that’s the one thing that played on me. I wish we’d been that much lighter.

Mike Tyson
Tyson was mobbed by reporters, fans and demonstrators when he arrived in the UK

It was the highest-profile fight you were involved in. What was the attention like?

JF: I remember the first press conference, every time I made a move – scratched my lip, scratched my nose – the cameras were “click, click, click, click, click”. There was a big cardboard cut-out of Mike Tyson, and that was the first time when I thought, “F***, that’s the guy that I’m fighting. That’s Mike Tyson”. That’s the only time that I can say I was frightened – when I was standing in front of that cut-out, six-eight weeks from the fight.

By the time we got to Manchester I wanted to stretch my legs. I don’t know how it happened – I got off our bus, walked round the corner, and we’re bang in front of Tyson’s hotel and there’s literally thousands of people outside and Tyson’s leaning out the window waving to the crowd and whatever.

All of a sudden it was “There’s Francis!” That was the only time I feared for my life, I don’t know how many were there. The guys were trying to protect me and got me on a police van but people were mobbing me and pushing the van. The crowd have fobbed Tyson off and are chasing this police van away. It was a surreal and fascinating thing. It was bizarre. I also got messages of support from all over the world, which was nice.

MR: Some people were definitely envious, but there was also a lot of support, and people wanted to jump on the bandwagon and be a part of it. When the tickets went on sale – that was the biggest fight this country’s ever had. We’ve had some great fights in this country, but this was the first Mike Tyson’s ever had, against the British heavyweight champion. It was unbelievable. If that had gone on somewhere like Wembley it’d have sold out.

FW: Everyone was coming out of the woodwork about him not being allowed into the country. MPs asked questions in Parliament; the police didn’t want to let him through the front door of the airport, which Tyson was pissed off about. Even Alastair Campbell gave us a hand. He was, without a doubt, the biggest fighter in the world. It wasn’t a fight – it was an event.

What was it like coming face-to-face with Tyson for the first time?

JF: The only thing that ever went through my mind was, “He’s a man and feels pain the same way I do”. The last thing I was ever worried about was getting hurt in the ring – boxing’s the pain game. I was very confident. If I didn’t think I could beat him I wouldn’t have even entertained the fight.

I sat there in the press conference with my headphones on, listening to music, because it was all about Tyson. The press asked me one question: “What music are you listening to?”

He had this aura of invincibility. I remember thinking “I can’t let him come on to the stage standing up and have me sitting down, because he’d be over me, like I’d already been defeated”. So I turned round and stood up and made myself as big as I could. I stood in front of him, and my only regret was that I had my dark glasses on. He would truly have been able to see, “You may be Mike Tyson, but I’m Julius Francis and I don’t give a f*** about you”. If it had kicked off on stage I was prepared. My mindset was “Don’t f*** with me”.

MR: When we were at the weigh-in I looked at him and thought, “You’re nowhere near as big as I thought”. His physical presence did nothing whatsoever to make me think, “We’re gonna get well beat here”. He didn’t look big at all. But on the night, when we got into the ring, he looked like he’d grown to twice that size – unbelievable. I was wondering if Julius thought it as well. Perhaps it was mental.

He had an aura, but a lot of that was caused by that silly entourage he had with him. He’s got some sort of stature about him, like an aura of greatness. He had a very dignified manner. You’re looking at someone of magnificence, because of what he’d achieved.

FW: There was definitely something wrong with him at the time, though he could be quite pleasant. He’s very cunning – he’d tell you what he thinks you want to hear, and be your best mate – and he plays the victim, well. He’s not a nice person – he was very manipulative, and always the victim.

At one point he went and got a load of jewellery, and for some reason thought I was going to pay for it, and they threatened not to fight. With him it was all about him wanting to go on these mad spending sprees. The first night he was in London was a Sunday and he wanted to go and buy a McLaren in Park Lane – fortunately the shop was shut.

His team were as good as gold. They had old “Crocodile” [Steve Fitch] there, a couple of security guards; they were all telling him what he wanted to hear.

Mike Tyson
Tyson fights his way through fans and security as he leaves the London Central Mosque

How did you feel about The Mirror paying for advertising on the bottom of your boots?

JF: That was all down to Frank Maloney. I couldn’t give a fuck. My sole focus was Mike Tyson. It meant absolutely fuck all to me, it didn’t mean nothing. I really couldn’t have cared less. That was my attitude.

MR: If it bothered Julius he never said it did. But if someone says to you, “You’re gonna get knocked out in this fight, I want you to wear this”, what’s gonna go through your mind? They’re planning the funeral when you’re still alive. But it earned Julius a bit more money, I suppose.

FW: At the time I had a column in The Sun, and they sponsored the fight. Piers Morgan was the editor of The Mirror; I’d known him for years and he asked if they could sponsor it but I told him he was too late and, as a joke, told him to sponsor the bottom of his boots. I don’t know how Maloney even asked but he did – I would never have said that to one of my fighters. It’s an insult.

How was the pre-fight dressing room?

JF: I did the same thing I always did. Got my stuff ready, played my music, and went to sleep. There are guys that bang their heads on walls and pace up and down – all that’s just wasted energy.

MR: It was a little bit tense, which is expected, but relaxed as well. It was my job to keep everything the same as every other fight. There was a little bit of anxiety about Julius but there would be about any fight of that magnitude. It was once we got in the ring that things started to change.

How do you recall the fight?

JF: We knew Tyson would come straight forward, step left, step right, and throw a right hand, and that’s what he done. In split seconds I’m thinking, “He just f****** hit me”, so my immediate thought was to hit the f***** back.

We’re going at it like a street fight. Tyson draws you into a street fight, because that’s his business, and I played his game. He was a better fighter than me, and fair play to him. He’s one of the greatest heavyweights of the last 150 years.

In the first round he knocked me down twice. When I got back to the corner Mark told me he’d knocked me down twice, and I thought “No, he never”. Then three times in the second round. When the fight was finished [Francis was stopped after 1-09 of the second] they said “Julius, you were knocked down five times” and I was saying to myself “No way, there’s not a chance he knocked me down five times”. Then I watched it back, and I thought, “F***, how did that happen?”.

He took everything out of me with those body shots. I knew he was a big puncher, but I didn’t think he’d do what he did to me.

Mike Tyson
Tyson leaves Francis on the canvas

MR: It was frustrating, because we’d trained Julius to move around, not to brawl. The minute you stand and trade with that guy you get beat. I probably could have remained a bit calmer – I was on a high, we all were. It was loud, you couldn’t hear yourself think properly. The adrenaline rush for Julius when it started must have been fantastic.

FW: It was all good fun. The night was quite electric – the only disappointment was trying to get Joe Calzaghe on the bill and some exposure, and him then having a boring fight [a decision victory over David Starie; Ricky Hatton also won, against Leoncio Garces]. Julius had been an afterthought when we were making the fight, but we wanted some British interest, and he was a brave sod and took his lumps, and probably got the best publicity of anyone.

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