Frank Maloney: Being Frank

He guided Lennox Lewis to boxing glory before the suicide of a star signing hit him hard - now the biggest fight of his life is battling the BNP. Alan Hubbard speaks to Frank Maloney
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The Independent Online

Nick Griffin boxed a bit when he was at Cambridge, winning a Blue (light, not dark of course) but he may have a real fight on his hands from someone who knows rather more about bloodying noses when he tries to win Barking for the BNP at the next election.

Boxing promoter Frank Maloney, who is standing against the BNP leader as the UKIP candidate, has already beaten him to the punch, challenging him to come fist-to-face in the ring, for charity, before their bout at the ballot box. Griffin hasn't responded, of course, but Maloney, who had 69 amateur fights before becoming a promoter, impishly reckons he would beat him black and blue, so to speak. Naturally, it is a publicity stunt. But that's the name of little Frank's game and he's already ahead on points.

So Barking's big fight beckons, though some think the 55-year-old, 5ft 4in Maloney is barking for even contemplating a career in politics after unsuccessfully running against Ken Livingstone (he finished fourth) for London Mayor five years ago.

In his office down an alleyway off Chislehurst High Street in Kent, up two flights of rickety stairs, Maloney sits in a boxing glove-shaped settee surrounded by fistic memorabilia, including Lennox Lewis's world heavyweight title-winning shorts and a gorilla-like Don King doll, and explains why he'll be a hustler at the hustings. "I am very passionate about politics," he says. "A lot of things I see in this country annoy me. What's happened over the last five or six years hasn't been good and it's right for a change. UKIP are a party which cares about Britain. I look at the politicians today and they are in it for themselves and not the people. I wanted to stand here in Chislehurst, which is where I got my best results when I ran for Mayor, but they already had a candidate so they asked if I'd be interested in taking on Griffin in Barking and I jumped at it because I detest him, the BNP and everything it stands for.

"If you take out race and religion, they've got nothing worthwhile to say; they are just fucked. I spoke to a friend of mine who is very big in politics and he said there couldn't be a better place to stand with my profile and the type of campaign I'll run. UKIP think I'll surprise people because the sitting MP, Margaret Hodge, is very unpopular over the expenses row. Also I am well known in that area, and I have run shows in Barking as well as Dagenham and Romford."

But, he says, what he really wants to do is give Griffin a good hiding. "I've never met him, but I don't like what he says. Yes, there is prejudice in this country, but it's a prejudice that is controlled, and we have to learn to live together. His philosophy is one of a pure white racist, he is like a Nazi. I spent quite a lot of Christmas reading their website and it's bullshit.

"Having Irish blood in me, I know my family were first persecuted when they first came to this country. I remember my father telling me that when I was born, they didn't have anywhere to live and when they were looking for places, there were signs that said: 'No Blacks, No Irish and No Dogs'. So it's a big issue for me and

we must stand up against it." But isn't he a bit right-wing himself? "Yeah, I am slightly, but not extreme. More like inside right. I know David Cameron calls UKIP nutters and fruitcakes but he's trying to be something to everybody. He's Tony Blair in a different suit with a different smile."

In the event of him becoming an MP, what would happen to his boxing business, one that almost cost him his livelihood, and his life, last year? "That would continue. My office would run itself. I have good people here. If I did get elected, parliament would know it. I would question everything. The arrogance of some of the politicians is unbelievable when all people want is honest answers."

Always a little man with big ideas, the cheeky chappie from Del Boy territory in Peckham, south London, seems to have a penchant for being in the middle of maelstroms – and there were plenty swirling around him last year, his 25th as a peripatetic promoter. "I was glad to see 31 December," he admits. "I wouldn't wish what happened last year on my worst enemy in boxing – and believe me, I've got a few. It was probably the worst of my life." It was certainly one ravaged by tragedy and trauma, encompassing the suicide of one of his star signings – the Irish Olympic bronze medallist middleweight Darren Sutherland, whom Maloney found hanging in the fighter's flat in Bromley – his own heart attack, which followed an apoplectic outburst over a scandalous decision against his heavyweight John McDermott, and financial losses on several of his shows which almost closed him down.

Maloney learned he "died" for 30 seconds on the operating table. "Later they told me that I'd got a damaged heart and this may have dated back to the Lennox Lewis days because of all the stress and strain. I was a walking time-bomb, and if I hadn't gone to hospital when I did, I wouldn't be here. My arteries had closed up. When I was coming round and started looking at my bank account, I thought, bloody hell, I have let myself go. Then my broker phoned me and told me I had quite a lump sum to come as I had a critical illness insurance policy I didn't know about. I decided to put the money into the company and that has steadied the ship. Now I do believe with the boxers I've got [including Olympians David Price, Tony Jeffries and Rendall Munroe, the boxing binman] it will all come good."

But he believes his biggest hit since Lewis would have been Sutherland, whom he signed after the Irishman lost to James DeGale in the Olympic semi-final. "I would have put my house on him being a superstar. But as time passed I began to notice something different about him. He didn't seem to be the person he was when I first saw him. I still haven't fathomed out what went wrong. Maybe it will all come out at the inquest next month. I think there was basically something wrong with him from the start and I wasn't told about it. There was a background we didn't know about." He says he still has nightmares about making the grim discovery that September afternoon, and continues to receive counselling. "The memory of finding him hanging there in that flat will be with me forever."

Maloney points to another pair of shorts in a picture frame on a wall in his office. "They were Darren's from his first pro fight with me. Sometimes I think I should take it down to erase the memory but I can't do it because it's part of what's made me. He's the one I put everything into. For about eight or nine weeks after Darren's death I couldn't work, I was just sitting here like a zombie going through the motions. But now I am back with my finger on the pulse and this political challenge has helped me."

Which brings us back to the forthcoming Barking punch-up. I remind him that during his Mayoral election bid he was accused of Griffin-like racism. "That was ridiculous," he snorts. "There were black members of my campaign team. Just look at the support I have from my black fighters." Fair enough, but didn't he make remarks that were deemed homophobic? ("I don't think gays do a lot for society... I don't want to see gay policemen walking hand in hand... I'd ban gay pride marches.") "Yeah, I said certain things about gays but to quote [US promoter] Bob Arum, 'then I was lying, today I am telling the truth.'

"I have looked at everything I said and I know it will come out of the woodwork, but I was inexperienced then and I suppose I just wanted to make people know I was there. It was very silly and in boxing, of course, as a promoter, you often say something outrageous to get publicity. What I said was wrong, I don't have a problem with gay people but I hold my hands up and say I am against same-sex marriages and same-sex parents, I won't change my view on that. If you're gay, you're gay. It's not an issue with me. Those remarks were a little bit stupid. I've grown up since then. Once I get out there and start talking to people, they will get to know me because I am quite a warm personality. I will argue my corner and I love solving problems.

"My ambitions now are to produce a couple of world champions, win a seat in parliament, and maybe become leader of UKIP. I think I am someone who can relate to the public and help change the face of politics in this country."

So will that Union Jack-the-lad suit we saw so often before he and Lewis split up after 12 years in 2001 be brought out of the closet again? "Nah. I don't want to be seen as a joke character. I'm a serious contender and I'm going in to start throwing some heavy punches." Not for the first time, Nasty Nick had better get ready to duck.

From priest to jockey to old-school promoter

In his youth, Frank Maloney trained for the priesthood but quit and tried, unsuccessfully, to be a jockey and a footballer before becoming a chef and publican. He boxed as an amateur, trained fighters professionally and, for 25 years, has been what he calls "an old-school promoter".

Twice in partnership with Frank Warren, he now says of him: "We don't exactly see eye to eye but I respect him as a promoter. In fact, he's the only one I see as a rival." Maloney took Lennox Lewis from six-round fights in Hull, Gateshead and York Hall to the world heavyweight title in Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden before their famous Little and Large act ended in a lawsuit.

He initially promoted David Haye, who also walked away, and he says of the trend of fighters to self-promote: "Unfortunately when they become superstars earning millions they start to think promoters are ripping them off, but what they forget is the work that goes on behind the scenes to get them where they are."

Twice married, with three daughters and two grandchildren, he is a Millwall fan "because it's fun and I like the atmosphere. If I wanted to watch football, I would probably go to Arsenal."

Alan Hubbard