Britain's leading boxing promoter has signed up his first artist. But what does Frank Warren see in Sandor Szenassy? And can they really take on the art world and win?
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The Independent Culture
PROPPED up against the wall opposite Frank Warren's desk, there is a very large oil painting, 8ft x 8ft, of the world heavyweight boxing champion Oliver McCall. It is a terrifying image - dark and timeless, the eyes hollowed - eliciting our sympathy and awe. Warren has not yet added McCall to his stable of fighters, which currently includes Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn and "Prince" Naseem Hamed. He has, however, just signed up Sandor Szenassy, the artist who painted the picture. For the next year, he will act as Szenassy's agent, attempting to establish him in America. Warren and the art world might seem like improbable sparring partners, banned by the Board of Control on grounds of bad taste, perhaps, but Warren insists it is no mismatch. There are, he contests, many similarities between promoting boxers and artists.

"When you look at a boxer, you have to see if he has the ability and talent," he says. "He then has to get the right breaks. That's what we are going to do with this particular artist. My job is to get him the right exposure. Then, I hope, his talents will be appreciated, and he will become a very wealthy man."

Szenassy's unique signing represents another colourful twist in the career of Frank Warren, who almost died six years ago when he was gunned down outside his office in Barking. The shooting left his business and private life in tatters (his wife turned up at the hospital to discover a secret mistress by the bedside), but he has since fought his way back to become Britain's leading boxing promoter, culminating with a recent pounds 20 million deal with Sky TV. If Warren's new charge proves successful, he intends to create an entire stable of artists alongside his boxers, and possibly even build his own gallery. "It could be fun," he says. "Working hard on behalf of a few really talented guys." He has yet to decide if his artists will share the same trainers, but he certainly intends to pay them equally big purses. "If an artist is going to perform, things have got to be secure for him," he says reasonably. "That way they won't have to worry about paying the electricity or gas bills. It's the same with boxing. A fighter's mind is not going to be focused on the fight if he's starving alive."

Until recently, Szenassy's mind was focused on scraping a modest living in a spartan East End studio. Like many impoverished painters, he slept on his hard studio floor and was reduced to eating baked beans cold from the can. "I had to pare my life down to an absolute minimum to paint full time," he says. "I was living off pounds 58 a month." Now he is set to become one of Britain's best-paid artists. For the next 10 months, Warren is paying him a "six-figure sum", in monthly instalments, while he paints a set of 17 pictures to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier fight in March 1971. The asking price for the set will be pounds 1/2 million and Szenassy is due to receive the major slice. "He has had what I call in boxing terms 'upfront money'," Warren says. "He has signed a contract and been paid to go and do the job. If he is Britain's best-paid artist, I am delighted. You pay for what you get, don't you?"

In Szenassy, Warren appears to have confounded the cynics and discovered an artist of real talent (as he might say). True, Szenassy is painting boxers to order, but he is certainly not a "sports artist". This rather derided (by the art world) category of artist-illustrators produces the sort of work that one might have expected Warren to champion. His own promotional posters and fight programmes, for example, are adorned with Boy's Own-style paintings, effective but unmoving caricatures by leading sports artists like the husband-and-wife team Doreen and Brian Meadows. Szenassy's painting of McCall, one of a series of 18 monumental portraits of black American heavyweight champions which he began in 1992 and completed this year, is in a different division altogether. The effect is like ageing stone. We only see the head of each fighter, and that is often left unfinished, fading into the dark abyss. Poignant and disturbing, the paintings eke out the human virtues of these ruthless 20th-century icons, rather than celebrate the violence they routinely practised.

It is no surprise to learn that Szenassy painted religious figures like St Jerome and St Anthony before he became entranced by boxers. "I have always painted the human body in extremis," he says. "Two fighters in the ring on the verge of exhaustion is just an extension of that. In my previous work I dealt with Christian iconography, crucifixions, the early exploits of the saints. The body was always expressing some aspect of the human condition."

That first Ali v Frazier fight at Madison Square Gardens said much about the human condition - man's urge to destroy one another and our own gory desire to watch - and is regarded as one of the most famous contests of all time. Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam and both men could legitimately regard themselves as undefeated champions. Frazier eventually won their titanic, 15-round struggle by a unanimous points decision but was detained in hospital for two weeks. (Ali went on to win their two subsequent contests, including the "Thriller in Manila" in 1975.)

Szenassy's deal with Warren requires him to paint 15 pictures, loosely relating to each round, and two further portraits of the boxers. When he has finished them, they will be flown to Las Vegas, where a commemorative ceremony is planned for March 1996. Warren has impeccable contacts in America - he is a business partner of Don King, no less, Mike Tyson's flamboyant promoter - and sees the event as a unique marketing opportunity. Ideally, the paintings will end up being sold as a set to a hotel casino.

"I have a chance to be at the cornerstone of something new," Szenassy explains. "America is my target market and Las Vegas is the country's fastest-growing city. It is very rich, very powerful, and there is wonderful architecture, but I don't know whether it has culture yet. Culture usually follows where there is money and ambition - it's always been like that. Powerful families like the Medicis had to make their livings before they could become patrons of art."

Warren certainly has money and ambition, but it is unclear whether in his case the culture has followed. There have famous crossovers between the arts and boxing before, of course. Ernest Hemingway was an advocate of boxing; Norman Mailer became obsessed with the Sixties champion Sonny Liston; and the novelist Timothy Mo was formerly a boxer. To discover more about Warren's artistic side, I went to interview him at his home, a reliable indicator of taste. Perhaps he is not really a boxing promoter at all, but a modern-day Medici in disguise?

CONTRARY to popular belief, Frank Warren does not come from the East End or from Essex. He was born 43 years ago in London N1, home to many of today's leading artists and intellectuals. (As befits a serious patron of the arts, he is an "Islington Person" rather than an "Essex Man".) His father was a bookmaker, and his uncle Bob was sentenced to seven years for cutting up "Jack Spot", the Fifties gang-leader. Frank left school at 15, worked for a time at Smithfield meat market and then rented out vending machines to pubs. A friend persuaded him to invest in a fight, and he soon started promoting his own (licensed) contests at places like the Royal in Tottenham. By the 1980s, they were being screened on ITV and he had become a millionaire. He even owned his own venue, the London Arena in Docklands, where he once presented his hero, Frank Sinatra. He seemed to typify the brash, Thatcherite entrepreneur.

Today, he lives in a modern, bright pink house, complete with mushroom turret, in an affluent backwater near Welwyn Garden City. Given his media image, I was expecting to encounter a wide-boy wheeler dealer, and the outside of "The Old Tower" did little to persuade me otherwise. There was also the unsettling fact that someone who knew him better than me took it upon himself in November 1989 to fire four 9mm bullets at him, one of which removed half a lung. (Terry Marsh, one of his former boxers, was charged with attempted murder but was acquitted.)

To meet him in person, however, turns out to be a pleasant surprise. Dressed neatly in expensive, pale green trousers, loose tie and white shirt (he likes wearing Versace, Saint Laurent, Armani), he is charming - an initial shyness replaced by a dry, self-deprecating wit. His features are soft and fair, and he laughs quietly to one side, his lips pursing into small, cheeky smiles. The shooting, it seems, has mellowed him, smoothed off some of the rough edges which made him enemies in the 1980s. "It took a disaster of that proportion to see what a complete fool I'd been," he says, in a measured London accent. "I thought I was God. I was so full of myself it embarrasses me now to think about it. I made the old mistake of thinking that to be successful you had to show it by spending lots of money, drinking too much and being seen in fashionable places. I don't go in for all that stuff now. When you've been shot you don't give a monkey's. I am more relaxed about life..."

In my bid to reveal the unknown side of Warren - the cultured connoisseur - we agree to embark on a tour of his house, beginning with a beer in the sitting room. We joke about the BBC Antiques Roadshow and of what treasures might turn up. "Before we start, I am no art expert or anything," he grins.

The sitting room is oak-floored and packed to the low ceiling with paintings, antiques and glossy artefacts: two Georgian mirrors either side of the double-doored entrance (they were bought at auction and are not a pair), a gold-leafed enamel vase on the table, a shiny brass pot, a white marble bust of a woman in the corner, a black grand piano by the windows overlooking the lawn, a 19th-century travelling clock above the fireplace. The effect is cluttered, but more tasteful, one suspects, than many of the surrounding "gin-and-Jag" residences. (Warren drives an E320 Mercedes sports.)

Warren and his wife, Sue, a former glossy-magazine model, like nothing better than to go rummaging in the local antiques shops, buying each other presents or just something for the house. One has to spare a thought for Hertfordshire's shopkeepers, whose hearts must sink whenever Warren walks in. Even his fiercest critics admit that there is no one in the business who can cut a better deal. "It's no different from dealing with boxing managers," he says. "They have got a price in their mind that they want, you've got a price that you want to pay."

Bizarrely, Warren once owned two sculptures by the late German surrealist Max Ernst, which he kept in a vault in Switzerland. He also initiated a project to cast some bronze reliefs from Ernst's house in the Dordogne. "A lot of his sculptures were in the cement walls and pillars," he explains. "They were deteriorating and there was a big dispute going on between his family. Eventually we got everybody to the table and were in a position to cast some bronzes. They were real quality, we got the French Government to agree." Unfortunately, Warren was then shot and he had to sell his interest in the scheme. "The whole lot went," he says sadly.

We return to our grand tour. Along the left-hand wall there is a red, oriental wooden cabinet, tall and elegant, the corner panels latticed with fine wrought ironwork. I ask about its provenance. "It's a genuine Chinese one," he explains. "I am told it's about 140 years old. The inside was all in a mess, so I thought, well, rather than restore it, I would just put the stereo in it."

He chuckles as he opens the doors to reveal an enormous black hi-fi system, squatting on two shiny MFI-style shelves. "I wouldn't do it to the inside of a nice cabinet," he protests. We move on. To the left of the cabinet there is a 19th-century Dutch landscape, bought in an antiques shop (artist unknown), and on the far wall there is a sentimental portrait of one of his four children. He commissioned it from an American artist, Alexandra Grunel Clarke, as a birthday present for his wife. (Interestingly, another one of his sons started at St Martin's College of Art last year, but has since dropped out. Warren hopes he will return this autumn.)

It is only when we get to his study and the adjoining snooker room that his signing up of Szenassy begins to make more sense. The walls of both rooms are covered with 18th and 19th-century prints of fighters and historic bouts. One of them is by Thomas Rowlandson, the 18th-century satirical illustrator. Warren must own more than 200 boxing pictures (some are in his office in East Hertford) and his knowledge of the people depicted in them is encyclopaedic.

He picks out one print of two 19th-century fighters, Sayers and Heenan, and marvels at the purse. "pounds 1,000 - mega money in those days." He is less sure about the artist. By the study door there is a haunted, blue painting of Joe Louis. "I was really pleased with that one and it didn't cost a lot. It's by Cecil Beaton, more famous for his photography. I just think it's a great face. Like copper, isn't it?" Over on the far wall there is a rich oil painting called The Knock Out, by Charles Bourgonnier, a pupil of Millet. It is an arresting image, a fighter lying limp on the canvas. In the dining room, there is a dark, tragic painting of Sugar Ray Robinson by an artist called Mentor, and at the entrance to the sitting room there are two attractive French paintings, again artists unknown. (One of them is in the Cubist style, the other owes more than a little to Toulouse-Lautrec.) "That's French art, that is, I bought it in France," he says, nodding at one of them. It depicts a bawdy Parisian crowd watching a fight. "I just liked it, you know. It's 1920s."

Warren might not be an art expert, but he certainly knows a good boxing picture when he sees one. He first started collecting them about 10 years ago, but says good ones are increasingly hard to come by. The first time he saw Szenassy's work, he knew straight away that he wanted to promote him. "I went to his studio and I couldn't believe what I was looking at. I just thought they were so impressive. I like seeing how somebody else sees a boxer. Some are dignified, others have a lot of pain in them."

DOWN AT his studio in Cable Street, Szenassy remains remarkably sanguine about his deal with Warren. A video is on in one corner showing the Ali v Frazier fight. He has already completed three of the paintings, and is contemplating an extra one, a postscript capturing Frazier's defiant snarl after the final bell. "It's a wonderful image. Frazier is saying, 'I got you, sucker'."

Just over five feet tall, Szenassy himself has the sinewy gait of a pugilist, more lightweight than heavyweight. He paints energetically, wearing red running shorts and no shirt, and is evidently a fitness fanatic. "My wife and I often compare dreams. She dreams of beautiful things, I spend all night fighting. If cir- cumstances had been different, I probably could have been a good fighter. I have got the tenacity and the physical discipline."

The son of a Transylvanian concert pianist and an Anglo-French mother, Szenassy received a cosmopolitan education at private schools in Australia and Jersey. A dedicated follower of boxing, he has always been fascinated by the tragedy of Sonny Liston (whom he has painted four times), and has no problem defending the sport: "People like to think we live in a civilised society. Boxing hurts our sensibilities, it reminds us that we don't."

For much of the 1980s he was heavily involved with the traditional art world he has now chosen, dramatically, to bypass. In conjunction with the Whitechapel Gallery, he organised two annual shows at the complex of studios in Cable Street, and his work was exhibited in West End galleries. He turned to the boxing world, he says, because he was disillusioned and wanted a wider audience for his paintings. Warren, with his unrivalled contacts, seemed the obvious choice. "My whole relationship with the boxing world has been very agreeable. They are not quite what people think they are. Frank Warren is a surprising man."

He certainly is. As we make our way to the front door of his castle, someone rings with the news that Oliver McCall has injured his hand and won't be able to fight Frank Bruno in a much publicised contest on 22 July. Warren is disappointed, but the disturbing image of McCall will still be staring down at him when he gets into the office - a symbol of money, ambition and now culture. !