AGAINST THE ROPES

Frank Warren survived a shooting to become the presentable face of boxing, and this week his star protege Naseem Hamed is in action. But the promoter's assets are frozen, Don King wants his head, and the Vatman could put him in jail. Paul Lashmar assesses both Warren's empire and his image

THE HEADQUARTERS of Frank Warren - Britain's "Mr Boxing" - are discreetly located over the Lloyds Bank in Hertford town centre. At the top of the stairs there is a life-size bronze of Warren's star, the garrulous featherweight world champion, Prince Naseem Hamed, gloved hands raised in victory, dedicated with typical Hamed modesty: "To: Frank Warren, the best promoter in the World. From: Prince Naseem Hamed, the best boxer in the World." Tight security at the office is a reminder that Warren was once gunned down by an assailant.

I went to ask Frank Warren a difficult question - is the end nigh for Warren as a promoter? For over a decade he has been the presentable, almost cherubic, face of boxing. But even for a man who has had more ups and downs than Frank Bruno's biceps, things are looking grim. In the past Warren has been shot, his companies have gone bust for pounds 14m, he has sued and been sued. Every time he has risen again. A year ago it looked as if Warren had finally made it big time; settled with a mansion outside Hertford, married to Susan, an ex-Vogue model, with whom he has four children. Indeed next Saturday, when Hamed defends his title against Wayne Mc-Cullough in a million-dollar American fight, might appear to be a crowning night in Warren's career. But it is unlikely he sees it that way. Warren's business is threatened. In the parlance, he has his back to the ropes.

His first problem is Don King, the flamboyant American boxing promoter with the demented ice-cream-cone haircut. Following the breakdown of the Warren-King partnership, King's lawyers went to the High Court earlier this year and had pounds 3.35m of Warren's personal assets frozen. King is suing Warren for megabucks and the case does not come to court until January. This has created a cash flow crisis for Warren's other ventures. Bedford rugby club, which Warren partly owns and on which he once rested much of his non-boxing ambition, has been stumbling from crisis to crisis since the summer. Last but not least, the Vatman has just summonsed Warren on criminal charges over a claim of pounds 1.9m of unpaid tax. Again, the case will take place sometime next year. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in jail and an unlimited fine.

I am ushered into Frank's large office, which is elegantly furnished in leather and maple. In one corner is a huge TV screen, perhaps there for viewing Sky's boxing output, for which Frank is the handsomely paid consultant. In the other corner there is a large Wurlitzer jukebox. On a shelf, photos of Warren with Frank Sinatra, his hero, and Nelson Mandela, "a serene man". War-ren, dressed in a well-cut pink shirt and loafers, retains something of the air of the Sixties mod he once was. He admits, "Yes it has been a crap year, a very bad year." Any redeeming features? "No, lost my mum this year too."

What about Bedford rugby club, where the players threatened to strike when there was delay in delivering their salary cheques? "The players are being paid, but not by me. The club has to stand on its own two feet," says Warren. The VAT charges? "All I know is that I have done nothing wrong. I have an accountant's report from Coopers and Lybrand saying I have done everything properly." But Warren's larger-than-life problem is Don King, who, appositely, calls himself the "Only in America Man". King was recently quoted as saying that the thing he most wanted in the world was Frank Warren's head on a plate. Frank certainly makes his enemies mad.

King says Warren broke their partnership by taking a six-fight $12m deal to the American pay-per-view channel HBO in 1996. King has a contract with the rival channel Showtime. Warren says the partnership had already expired and claims a handwritten clause on their contract for an additional three-year term was forged by the King camp. King also owes him money, Warren claims. Even so, King seems to be fighting a grudge match. What had Warren done to upset King so badly? "Its a broken marriage," says Warren. "He's the wife who won't accept the divorce. He is fighting over everything. If we had a cat and a dog we would have to cut them in half."

King is taking revenge. Recent press photo-graphs show King in London with his arm round Frank Maloney, his new British partner and manager of the heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. "Frank's misfortune could turn into my good fortune," Maloney says. "That is the only thing I think about it."

Shackled by King's injunction, Warren may have loosened his once-tight grip on British boxing promotion. His stable of 70 boxers has stayed remarkably loyal - so far. The unbeaten Hamed is one of the three most bankable boxers in the world. According to newspaper reports, Hamed's fights in the United States are now to be promoted by an American group of investors. "I would have preferred it to stay as it was. Prince Naseem's career has to move on. I am not in a position to offer that type of money," says Warren. But all is not quite as it seems. Warren has not lost Hamed. "I am a consultant to the American group," he says to me. Warren is disqualified from being a director, but consultancies are a common thread in his business dealings. Despite recent events, he manages some of his legendary optimism. "Look, even if I was to lose on all points against Don King, I would still get 50 percent of my business. If I win I get 100 percent of my business. I am battling on."

Is Warren the engaging Cockney so often portrayed in magazine profiles? In person he is a powerful if low-key presence with a self-effacing humour. There are, however, clear tensions between the way Warren wants to be perceived and his background in Islington and boxing. He speaks of the sport with qualified affection.

Warren's 46 years have been action-packed, a rags-to-riches story. I have to be careful about the rags metaphor though. Warren once received pounds 10,000 in damages from the Daily Mirror after it described him as having come from the gutter. "It was an insult to my mother," he says. "We were brought up in a council flat, not the gutter." Warren is famed for the speed with which he will reach for a libel writ. The count is now in the thirties and he has won many pay-outs.

Frank Warren was brought up on the fourth floor of Priory Green council flats on the Penton-ville Road in Islington. Frank senior was a bookmaker and Frank junior was the oldest of four children, two brothers and a sister. By all accounts he was a normal Islington working-class boy. He passed his 11- plus and attended Highbury Grammar School, but was distracted from his education and left at the age of 15. For a while he was a solicitor's clerk for J Tickle & Son. He also helped his bookie father out on the racecourse. He has said that Smithfield Market was his real education. Here he earned good money, enough to afford a nice flat and a good car.

He says he was just bumming about until he was 27. Then he got into boxing by chance, organising "unlicensed" fights for Lenny "Lean Mean" MacLean. (Unlicensed just means that the fights were not licensed by the British Boxing Board of Control, not that they were illegal). Lenny was the 20st 6ft 3in "heavy" who finally achieved fame in the London gangster film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Lenny died of lung cancer shortly after it was filmed. He also left behind a lurid autobiography, The Guv'nor - I look what I am, a hard bastard, published this summer. It is full of "transgressing- the-unwritten-rules-of-the-underworld" dialogue.

While many of Lenny's comments on Frank are favourable, some are critical. Lenny says that Frank was wrong to go to court against Terry Marsh and implies that if there was a dispute it should have been sorted out without recourse to the law: "if you want to step into my world it's a different set of rules. And don't forget, this was the world Frank was moving in, so that's why my opinion of Frank took a dive."

I asked Warren about this. It clearly hit a raw nerve. "I'm suing," he says. "The publishers have agreed to changes. There is a lot of rubbish in there about me." Lenny has described himself as Frank's uncle. "As for being related, he is an uncle's wife's nephew. It is not a blood relation," Frank fumes. "He says in there that I had gone down in his estimation because I brought charges against Terry Marsh. I never brought charges against Terry Marsh. The police brought charges, not me. How could I stop the police? Let me explain. I never picked out Terry Marsh as the person who shot me. I never identified the person who shot me. He had a mask."

In the book Lenny says he won 3,000 fights. "To my knowledge he had only 12 fights in the ring and lost five. He was beaten by Sid Paddock, who was an 11st-something middleweight and beat Lenny on merit. It doesn't mention that, does it? Lenny was a bully, an absolute bulIy. He was hated." The publisher, John Blake, says that they are happy to correct a number of errors. "I would not want to upset Frank," he added.

Lenny McLean also refers to another family member, this time a close blood relative, Frank's uncle Bob Warren. Frank has been asked about him before. "It's never been a secret. He was charged over the Jack Spot case in the Fifties [He got seven years for it]. Jack Spot was a so-called gangster in the East End who, I understand, used to intimidate people and so forth. But I was three years of age at the time so I had nothing to do with it." Those events were a little more serious than Frank portrays. Bob Warren went with Mad Frankie Fraser and ambushed Jack "Spot" Comer, slashing him with razors. As the presentable face of boxing, Frank tries to play down any idea of a relationship between the criminal and boxing worlds. "People have this Hollywood image of boxing. It isn't anything like that - the gangster heavy number."

This is hard to believe. Boxing has had close links with the world of crime since the last war. Nowhere has this been more true than Islington, which is legendary for producing some of London's hardest criminals. Many of these villains have been involved in boxing. It has always been part of the milieu. As an example, I mention to Frank a once well-known Isling- ton criminal, Roy Garner, who is now serving a sentence for cocaine smuggling. Garner was involved in organising amateur boxing and prize-fighting. "He was the police informer, wasn't he?" asks Frank. "If I met Roy Garner two or three times in my whole life then that's about that." I once co-authored a book on Garner. Frank has read it.

I say to Frank that over the years I have often heard gossip connecting his name with various criminal elements. He responds wearily. "Yes, your name does get bandied about. If I wasn't involved in boxing then it wouldn't have come up. When I first started in boxing people said I was involved with the Krays. I was only 15 when they went to prison."

I say I have heard people try to link his name with the Adamses, now North London's most notorious crime family. They also grew up near Islington's Chapel Street market. "I know the father [who has no involvement in crime] but they are far younger than me," he says. "I have no dealings with them nor do I socialise with them." There is no evidence that Frank has ever been involved in crime.

Frank was very successful with unlicensed boxing. By 1980 he was organising bouts at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park and other venues. Then the official body the British Boxing Board of Control granted him a licence. It became clear that he was expected to take his place at the bottom of the pecking order of promoters. below the likes of old-timers Mickey Duff, Jarvis Astaire, Terry Lawless and Mike Barrett. Warren threatened to take the Board to court for "restraint of trade". They gave way. Warren's approach was simple and effective. He offered his fighters a better purse than his rivals. Gradually this brought over the big names, including Terry Marsh and Errol Christie. Most of his former boxers speak well of him. Retired world champ-ion Colin McMillan says, "Frank is very shrewd. When be promises you something, if it is in his interest, you will do well."

By the late 1980s Warren bought into a large company called Rex Williams Leisure. There was even talk of one of his companies being floated. This was in the early days of the Docklands revival. Warren became a majority shareholder, alongside Harvey Goldsmith and Lord Selsdon of the Midland Bank, in the new pounds 26m London Arena project. At about this time Warren was having problems with Marsh, his top fighter. Warren had signed Marsh in l981, and the "Fighting Fireman" went on to take a world title in 1987. But the same year the two men fell out over an article in the Sun newspaper. Warren sued for libel and received pounds 40,000.

Then on 30 November 1989 Warren was promoting Colin McMillan versus New Yorker Sylvester Osuji at the Broadway Theatre in Barking, east London. He arrived at the venue and, as he has graphically described, he, "Got out the Bentley. Bang. Misfired. I turned round. Guy there, masked up. I thought it was a joke to start with. Then a second shot came from sideways, into my chest. Very painful. I don't recommend it." His life was probably saved by his then business partner, an Oxford-educated solicitor, John Botros, who tried to tackle the gunman, who then ran off. In January 1990 Terry Marsh was arrested as he arrived at Heathrow and charged with shooting Frank Warren. Nine months later Marsh was acquitted at the Old Bailey.

Warren now says that he knows who the assailant was. "Obviously mentally unbalanced. What goes around comes around. He is very down on his luck now." He will not name the suspect. Who wanted Frank Warren dead and why has never been explained.

When the Arena went into receivership in 1992 Warren personally owed pounds 14m. His 20 or so companies went into liquidation. This probably would have ended in bankruptcy for most. I asked him how much he had paid back to his creditors. All he would say was that he had "done a deal with the banks" and the matter was now over. The collapse of Warren's business venture led to a DTI investigation. Two of Warren's business partners including John Botros were disqualified as directors. Then in 1996 Warren himself was disqualified from being a director for seven years. With the usual Warren aplomb he sent out a press release saying that he did not accept all the allegations against him, but that he had decided not to challenge the ban "because of pressure of work". In any other profession, all this may have spelt the end of Warren's business career. Not so in the business of sport. The man who has the boxers has the business. And Warren got the boxers.

Warren's fortunes revived from 1993 when Warren did a deal with rival Barry Hearn and American promoter Don King to televise a fight between Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank in the US and Britain. Frank Bruno and Prince Naseem joined him. In September 1994 he signed the now-contested partnership deal with Don King. Through King he had the rights to screen Tyson's fights in Britain and in April 1995 he signed a pounds 50m deal with Sky TV for his promotions. Warren received a pounds lm-a-year consultancy fee from Sky.

By 1996, despite his disqualification as a director, everything was looking sweet. Warren set up a trading partnership, Sports Network, with former city financier Chris Roberts. Warren began to diversify. He spotted the potential of rugby union and in June 1996 the partnership bought into Bedford. Also in 1996 Frank found artist Sandor Szenassy, a French-Transylvanian Hampstead-based insomniac painter. Under Warren's patronage Szenassy was to produce 24 "intimate, psychological portraits" of boxing greats. Warren said his plan was to make Sze-nassy as famous as David Hockney, a claim that helped win Frank himself plenty o f publicity.

Sadly, all these non-boxing plans have been stymied. Bedford totters on the edge. Warren says Szenassy did not complete the paintings on time. Szenassy's agent Lucy Holt says, "We were grateful that Frank took an interest in Sandor but Sandor is not happy about the way it turned out." The company that jointly owned the pictures with Szenassy is now in receivership. Szenassy is trying to buy back the full rights to his works. The artist has moved to New York.

Looking at Frank Warren's career, I am struck that he seems to thrive on risk, a driven desire always to come ahead in every deal. I put it to him. "You may be right. Being a promoter you are in the risk business. A boxer is as good as his last fight." Back in Hertford he is preparing for the biggest bouts in his life. Both are likely to be fought in court. One against the American heavyweight, electric Don King. The other against Vatman, who has a reputation for technical knock-outs.

If he survives these bruising encounters his future will be back in boxing. Warren says, "In an ideal world I would not have got involved in boxing. That was my way, my chance. A moment I managed to seize and capitalise on. Its given me a lot of headaches but it has opened a lot of doors for me." Let's hope it is not the prison door this time. !

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