Frank Warren: 'Gone off the Rails? Ricky's been off for eight years'

The Brian Viner Interview: Ahead of tomorrow's event to showcase Britain's best young boxers, the promoter pulls no punches about the older ones, Hatton, Haye and Harrison
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The Independent Online

British boxing could currently do with a shot in the arm, if that's not an unfortunate metaphor in the week in which images of Ricky Hatton apparently snorting "industrial" quantities of cocaine were plastered over the News of the World. Then there was the horrible declaration from our very own world heavyweight champion, David Haye, that the fight against his erstwhile pal Audley Harrison will be as "one-sided as a gang rape". The noble art has rarely seemed more ignoble, the sweet science sourer, than in that Haye-Harrison press conference.

Frank Warren watched it with a heavy heart, though not with any great sense of surprise. After all, it was only last year that Haye, prior to a scheduled fight with Wladimir Klitschko that never took place, wore a T-shirt depicting him holding up the severed heads of both Klitschko brothers. Boxing has enough problems without being sullied by such grotesqueries – and Warren, who in December will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his first promotion, headlined by two obscure American heavyweights at the Bloomsbury Crest Hotel – has had to contend with most of them.

We will come back to the Haye-Harrison fight, which Warren considers "as cynical as you can get", but for now let's focus on an event which in a way is its antithesis, featuring no starry names but showcasing some of the best of British boxing; nine title fights at the LG Arena in Birmingham tomorrow night, all but two of which will be televised live on Sky Box Office in a production inevitably billed as "The Magnificent Seven".

It is Warren's show, and he thinks they are all evenly balanced contests, but concedes that opinions vary on which fight represents the pick of the bunch. For him it is 23-year-old Nathan Cleverly against the German Karo Murat, a light-heavyweight bout which could lead the winner to a world title if the current champ, Murat's compatriot Jürgen Braehmer, loses his appeal against a 16-month prison sentence for assault. Cleverly, says his promoter, is an engaging and sensible lad, just what the fight game needs. Of course, Warren is the last person to dismiss the way in which boxing can divert not overly smart young men from a troubled path through life – he's known more than a few of them – but I sense an almost avuncular pride in Cleverly's academic record: it is not every other boxer, or indeed any other boxer, who holds a degree in mathematics from Cardiff University.

Warren's own prowess with figures owes nothing to a university education (much as he'd love to have had one) and everything to three decades as a promoter. Financially, his career began inauspiciously – he lost £17,500 that night at the Bloomsbury Crest, a whopping sum to him in those days – but it got better. So much better that in 1999 he was able to stay in business despite having to hand over more than £7m to the American promoter Don King in an out-of-court settlement. Warren is nothing if not a survivor; a decade earlier he famously survived a bullet fired from six feet by a masked assailant, an attempt on his life for which the former world light-welterweight champion Terry Marsh was later acquitted. And he has needed those survival instincts again in 2010, he says.

"It's been a crap year. I've had no TV deal, Setanta went bust, I've spent the whole time treading water, trying to service all the boxers' contracts, which has been great for them and crap for me. But I think we've turned a corner, and I'm very excited about this show. We've got James DeGale fighting a 12-rounder after only eight fights, which will be interesting, because we know he can punch but has he got the stamina? And Kell Brook will be No 1 challenger to Manny Pacquiao if he wins. Without any question there are some future world champions in there."

The notion that tomorrow night represents the antithesis of Haye v Harrison is mine rather than his, but unsurprisingly, he does not disagree. "Audley has never done it. All he's ever done is talk about it. And there's Haye saying he doesn't deserve the chance, so why give it to him? Although I happen to think that if he hits Haye on the chin, he'll knock him out." Warren pauses to order another round of beers; we are sitting in the lounge of a central London hotel, coincidentally just down the road from the hotel where I interviewed Haye before he beat the WBA champion Nikolay Valuev 10 months ago. "Haye is one of those guys who's found himself in the right place at the right time," adds Warren. "He beat Valuev, and then he beat [John] Ruiz, but I can honestly say that in all my time in boxing those are the two worst heavyweight champions I've ever seen, bar none."

So let us talk about all that time in boxing, and what he might change if he had it again. "I wouldn't get too close to my guys, just like Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger don't socialise with their players." His guys included Naseem Hamed, Ricky Hatton, Amir Khan and Joe Calzaghe, all of whom decided that the grass was greener elsewhere. Hamed, in particular, came to realise that the greener grass was a mirage, but by then it was too late. It was old Mickey Duff who said that anyone in boxing looking for loyalty should buy a dog, and more recently Hatton, in an interview with Boxing Monthly about his new career as a promoter, claimed to Warren's vast amusement to be speaking for all promoters in having to accept that boxers will always let them down.

Warren, incidentally, feels strongly in the wake of the latest stories that Hatton should be suspended by the British Boxing Board of Control until he sorts his life out. "It's very sad. But he shouldn't be mentoring young fighters. You hear all that nonsense about fighters going off the rails when they quit boxing, but he's been off the rails for seven or eight years with the booze. What I really can't get my head round is Manchester police using him in their Crimestoppers campaign. Sometimes you wonder who's running the asylum."

Nevertheless, what Hatton told Boxing Monthly is true enough. Fighters have always chased the often illusory quicker buck, and always will. And Warren wishes he could take it less personally when they do. "Other promoters seem to be able to deal with it better than me," he says. "Don King just steps over them and moves on to the next one, and Bob Arum has that lawyerly thing about him, that it's not life or death, it's just another day in the office. I have a lot of respect for both of them. The common view of promoters among boxers is that they do nothing and steal your money, but the good promoter invests a lot of valuable time, money and heart in building a fighter. Bob's a classic example. He did a great job with [Oscar] De La Hoya, a great job with [Floyd] Mayweather, and look what he did with a Filipino fighter called Pacquiao, who had two or three losses on his record."

King and Arum, aged 79 and 78, are still going strong in the boxing business, which I suggest gives Warren, a mere youth of 58, another couple of decades at least. He smiles. He has told me before that he would like to pursue something a little less testosterone-fuelled, and in fact he recently signed up to do a painting course at the Central St Martin's College of Art. He has just heard that it has been cancelled. "I'm gutted," he says. Hey, if you want commitment in the world of art lessons, buy a dog.

Seriously, though, will he ever be able to give up the unique whiff of adrenalin, ringside on a big-fight night? He concedes that it won't be easy. "I love that buzz, and I love seeing something in a young kid that nobody else has seen. My bit of ego is that I think I can do something with him. It's like Wenger banging on about the kids at Arsenal. It hasn't happened, but I can see where he's coming from."

Hamed and Calzaghe, he says, remain his greatest talent-spotting achievements, and doubtless for that reason, his greatest disappointments. "With Naz his stupid brothers got involved. It happens more and more in boxing, the families taking over. Shah Khan [Amir's father] thought he knew best, and now Amir's had three fights in two years. What's all that about?"

Needless to say, both Calzaghe and Hamed feature on his list of the truly great nights he has had in boxing since he lost his shirt at the Bloomsbury Crest Hotel. "Taking Naz to Madison Square Garden [to fight Kevin Kelley in 1997], that was bloody exciting. Everyone had a downer on it. King and Arum told me it was going to die on its arse, 10 days before Christmas. But the deal I did with HBO meant they had to really get stuck into the promotion. There were banners in Times Square, over the Lincoln tunnel, and it was the highest-grossing featherweight fight they'd ever had. [Frank] Bruno winning the world title at Wembley, that was another great night. And Calzaghe v [Mikkel] Kessler in Cardiff. And my joint promotion with Arum, [Erik] Morales v [Marco Antonio] Barrera, one of the best fights ever."

A pause. "And another memorable night for some of the wrong reasons was [Nigel] Benn v [Gerald] McClellan [in 1995, the fight that left McClellan in a coma]. Such an unbelievable fight, such an unbelievable atmosphere, and such a tragic outcome. It made me question my involvement, but Adrian Whiteson, the Board of Control's chief medical officer, talked me round. He said, 'This happens in sport. All the safeguards are there.' And of course later it came out that McClellan hadn't trained properly, that he'd got rid of Emanuel Steward to bring in some guy he'd met at a dog fight to be his cornerman. I remember him sitting in his corner, blinking. And if it had been Steward in his face he may have detected something, may have saved him."

Long before all that, it was another ill-fated fighter who made a boxing fan of Frank Warren. It was 1966; he was 14. "I was a football nut, Arsenal crazy. My big hero was Joe Baker. But Muhammad Ali v Cleveland Williams, with the Ali shuffle and all that, really turned me on to boxing. Though if I'd known then what I know now, I'd have realised it was a total mismatch."

Like his new hero, Ali, Warren refused to be intimidated by anything or anyone, a resolve that has subsequently both served him well, and cost him dear. "I've always stood my ground. [The Showtime TV chief] Jay Larkin begged me to settle with King sooner, and he might have been right, but I wouldn't do it. The TV companies can be the biggest bullies.

"But I've never done anything I haven't wanted to do, which doesn't mean there aren't things I wish I'd done differently. I wish I'd gone to university. I think that would have opened doors. In the early years, dealing with guys in the City, there were a lot of class barriers. Had I lived in America I'd have done 100 times better because there was none of that bullshit." Bullshit, perhaps. But 100 times better, divided by 100, still amounts to a hell of a career.

The Magnificent Seven is live in HD on Sky Box Office, from 5pm tomorrow. To order, call 08442 410888