Boxing: The man who makes the cards sharp

The untold stories in a year of buried treasure: PHILIPPE FONDU
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The Independent Online
Philippe Fondu, a wiry, restless Belgian of 51, slots perfectly into boxing's bizarre world. An international agent - that is, a purveyor of fighting men from one country to another - he is one of the prime movers behind the rise of professional boxing in the old eastern bloc.

He works primarily in Britain with Frank Maloney, supplying boxers of varying degrees of skill and ambition to fit "the right-hand side of the card", which means he usually brings in men who are cast as opponents against the promoter's stars. Occasionally, they win.

He also handles quality fighters like his present star, the Bulgarian gypsy Tontcho Tontchev, who won a silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics and who is now unbeaten as a professional. Fondu has managed three European champions.

Maloney first set eyes on the Belgian in Jamaica at the annual conference of a world governing body. He was dressed in a loud check jacket. "I thought he was an eccentric millionaire," said Maloney. "He reminded me of Inspector Clouseau."

They first worked together in 1989 when Fondu, then a manager, was asked to bring a fighter named Saturnin Cabanas from Brussels to Hull. It was a disaster. Cabanas fitted Maloney's requirements perfectly; he lost inside two rounds to a prospect named Allan Hall. But Fondu remembers it all too well. "It was a nightmare," he said. "Frank was a small-time promoter then. We were picked up at the airport in London and we were driven to Hull in a van without seats. We arrived, and there was nowhere for us to rest and no hotel room. They put us back in the van and drove us back to catch the nine o'clock flight the next morning. I said `I swear to God I will never work with that ... Maloney again'."

Now they get on. Fondu, whose first trade was as a dentist, is rated by Maloney as one of the most valuable agents in the business. Fondu left his dentistry practice in Brussels three times - twice to become a big game hunter, in Alaska and then Zaire, and then to concentrate on boxing. Two incidents made up his mind for him. "I was taking an impression of an old girl's mouth to fit her some teeth, and put the mould into her mouth. Then the phone rang and I was discussing boxing for about half an hour. I forgot all about her until I heard her gagging.

"Then I had to pull the teeth of a friend and gave him the injection. The phone rang - boxing again - and I thought I'd not been long. When I started to pull the teeth the anaesthetic had worn off and he shouted like mad."

He carries with him a picture of himself with a grizzly bear he killed in Alaska. When he worked in Zaire he helped set up a base for wealthy safari hunters from Belgium. "We had the rights to shoot, agreements on how many animals we could kill, but we had trouble with poachers coming over the borders from Sudan and the Central African Republic." It was with quiet reluctance that he added: "We had to scare them a little bit." No more details are offered.

His love of hunting took a more bizarre turn in Balkyria, in the mountains that border Chechnya. One of his better boxers, Ahmet Dottuev, who fought for European and world titles, invited Fondu to visit the family. They got on so well he was invited to go hunting wild boar. "They gave me a gun - a Kalashnikov. They said, `If you don't get the pig with the first shot, maybe the third or the fifth.' They also gave me a small bag. When I looked inside there were hand grenades."

Fondu is proud of his capacity to bring tough, honest boxers into British rings. "My guys don't fall over," he said. "They come to do a job and are proud. And when I have a good fighter, I know Frank well enough to work with him on building him up."

So far, it has not proved easy for them to sell east European stars in England. British television executives have not been keen to get involved. Fondu understands, but remains persistent. "Cantona and Maradona are popular in England. So can foreign boxers be. But it will take time."