Boxing: Boxing's little big man; Interview- Frank Maloney

For a dyslexic boy who left school with no qualifications and a label saying 'scrapheap' around his neck, the Pugilistic Pygmy - as Don King called him - has come a long way.

You can only say "We'll take the Hungarian kid" in an accent from the Bronx or the Walworth Road. Otherwise, it sounds like a bad line from On The Waterfront. Not that Frank Maloney was worrying much about the pastiche. With a show to stage and his main challenger out with a dislocated shoulder, the Hungarian Kid had saved the day. One phone is put down in the attic office on Bloomsbury Square, another is picked up. "We're back in business," Maloney shouts down the receiver. "Tell 'em the fight's back on." Boxing, a land of permanent crisis.

Maloney put on 28 shows in Britain last year - "even made money out of a few" - and four more, in the United States, Uganda, South Africa and France, which made him the busiest promoter in the game. His schedule over the next month is equally hectic: Bethnal Green (16 January), Ipswich three days later, Crawford Ashley v Henry Wharton on 6 February in Halifax and a couple of testimonial nights, one for Alan Hudson (of Chelsea, Stoke and England), and another for Herol "Bomber" Graham.

Only then will he take himself off to Lennox Lewis's training camp in Pocono Resorts, Pennsylvania, for the grander business of unifying the heavyweight championship of the world. There, he says, he will lose a stone and a half by going into training himself and use his spare time to polish his campaign for the Mayor of London elections in May 2000. He pops out from behind his desk to show me the outlines of the manifesto, all neatly sealed in a dark red folder: "Education, Health, Sport..." For a dyslexic boy who left the Sacred Heart school in Camberwell with no qualifications and a label round his neck saying "scrapheap", Frank Maloney has come a long way.

His teachers thought the milk round or HM prisons were the most likely career options. Now Maloney is invited into schools to lecture errant children on keeping to the straight and narrow. A council house in south London has been swapped for a five-bedroomed detached house in Chislehurst at the swankier end of the 0181 telephone range and a touch of Tory law and order policy has been grafted on to solid old Labour credentials. "A right-wing socialist," he grins. "That's what I am. But I'm unpolitical, really. I just want to be the People's Mayor." Maloney expects the patronising smile. He has made a very decent living out of being underestimated.

When I first met Maloney in 1986, the pioneering spirit was already evident. He was bringing boxing back to Lewisham Town Hall for the first time in 60 years and had hooked up with a big white heavyweight called Danny Moull, whose one distinction other than a solid punch and a certain B movie suavity was in beating Gary Mason as an amateur. Moull was a computer analyst in the City and had once been on Chelsea's books. Only thwarted ambition and boxing's peculiar lure drew him into believing Maloney's bluster about great white hopes. Moull was beaten that night and lost his next two fights as well before Maloney himself took over his training. His next fight was his last. "He came back to his corner at the end of the third and said he'd had enough, so I stuck a pin up his arse and told him to get back out there. He did, he won and that was that. He packed it in."

Maloney had better luck with a 6ft 6in Olympic gold medallist who arrived at Heathrow Airport one morning in 1989 and, for a reason neither Maloney nor Lennox Lewis can fully explain to this day, chose the little Londoner as his trusted ally on the road to fame and fortune. The unlikely chemistry has survived boxing's unique ability to curdle friendships. Even Don King, that arch manipulator, has had to concede Maloney's worth. The Mental Midget of old has become my "little pal from England", a shift of allegiance which is only partly attributable to the fall of Mike Tyson and the growing pulling power of Lewis in a dangerously threadbare heavyweight division. The seraphic smile of the former Sacred Heart choirboy unnerved King. While King ranted at the Pugilistic Pygmy, Maloney went to bed to watch his Millwall tapes. A Don King doll now holds pride of place on the windowsill in Maloney's office and a deal on a permanent partnership is close to completion.

"He's the ultimate," Maloney grins. "All those insults were great for me. They moved me from being a 5ft 3in boxing manager into the world's spotlight. People still ask me how I can keep talking to him, but this is a business built on hype and propaganda and showmanship. I've got quite close to Don over the last few months. He sent me a contract recently, pages of it. I read the first page and got someone else to check it for me. Then, I rang him back. I said, 'Don, the offer you made was fantastic, but you told me slavery died over 200 years ago and you also told me only black guys were sold into slavery. I'm a little white guy and we're moving into the next Millennium and you're still trying to put me back into slavery'."

But Maloney knew that years of haggling and evasion were over the moment King arrived in London to do business. "Before then we had always had to go to the States," Maloney said. Lewis-Holyfield was made.

Conversation with Maloney hovers dangerously close to the edge of the absurd. Ideas swirl around and then vanish like smoke. Some are potentially brilliant (hiring the first woman MC through an ad in The Stage), some crackpot (persuading the Euro-sceptics to sponsor one of his shows), others plainly mischievious. Recently, he persuaded King to become US patron of Coventry rugby club. His name is there on the programme masthead, plus a little fanfare by King, all bombast and Churchill quotes (penned by Maloney himself, as it happens). Maloney did some publicity before the game against Bedford and the club had its biggest gate of the season. Mere coincidence, of course, that Bedford happens to be Frank Warren's club. And Coventry won 13-12, an apt metaphor for the shifting alliances on the ring apron. There was a time when Maloney made the tea for Mickey Duff and was happy to be seen in the company of such movers and shakers as Frank Warren. "Now I'm their equal," he says. While Warren is due in court this month for a costly and potentially ruinous legal battle with King, Maloney will be helping to prepare Lennox Lewis to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world beneath the great chandelier in Madison Square Garden.

His own involvement in such a momentous sporting occasion still requires the odd pinch. "The Garden, that was a masterstroke by Don. The first big fight I ever saw was Ali-Frazier at the Garden. I saved my pocket money and sat in the cinema all night, open-mouthed. Now I'm actually going to walk out under them spotlights, flags waving. I can't believe it." Lewis moved into camp yesterday with the team which has served him since 1992: Manny Steward, his trainer, Harold Knight, Courtney Shand and Al Gavin. Denis Lewis, Lennox's brother, handles the commercial side. It is a tight-knit community and it will need to function efficiently to insulate Lewis from the suffocating forces at work in such a pressurised campaign. Evander Holyfield, the old warrior, has been there before. Lewis, for all his experience, has not. Maloney is undaunted.

"I see Lennox knocking him out in six or seven rounds. He's too big, too strong and he wants to win too badly. I've studied all the tapes and I honestly don't think Lennox can lose." He waits for reality to catch up. "Don't get me wrong, anything can happen, of course. But there's something in the destiny of this fight which says Lennox cannot lose. In 1989 I said he would become the greatest sportsman Britain has ever produced and that his name would rank alongside Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. This is the fight which will do it."

Only mention of his own relationship with Lewis prompts a momentary bout of reflection. It has changed, he says. "We get older and do different things." How often does he call? "As little as possible and I mean that in a nice way. Lennox knows that when I phone him I want him to do an interview. I usually speak to his answerphone."

And Maloney has not forgotten who does the fighting. "I'm still employed by Lennox Lewis, not the other way around. I'm employed by all my fighters. Just because I sit behind a desk doesn't mean anything." There are five generations of the family, from his 93-year-old mother down to a new baby granddaughter to enforce the humility. But 13 March in New York will be a night of destiny for the little man as well. "The minute they put the belt round him and say... 'and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, Lennox Lewis of Great Britain'. No matter what anyone else does to me after that, they can't take that moment away from me."

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