Boxing: 'I fought one of the greatest fighters. That can be written on my bloody headstone'

The Interview - Julius Francis: He's in his fortieth year but this old campaigner has the hurt game in his blood and can still be a contender. Alan Hubbard meets him
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The Independent Online

They'd dressed him in camouflage combat fatigues, put him on the top table at a press conference for boxing's heavy mob in front of a name card which read: Julius "Home Guard" Francis. Sitting a couple of feet away his erstwhile manager, Frank Maloney, chortled: "Home Guard, eh Julius? More like Dad's Army, mate."

Francis smiled. The banter was the friendliest of fire at the Imperial War Museum, where the sobriquets were suitably militarised for the occasion. Francis and Maloney parted company in July 2001, 18 months after the night in Manchester exactly four years ago when the then British heavyweight champion was upended in two rounds by Mike Tyson, but they have remained friends, as well as neighbours.

However, these days Maloney is spinning for his new protégé Matt Skelton, aka "The Tank", the undefeated former kick-boxer who defends his recently revived English heavyweight title against Francis at London's York Hall on Saturday week.

All tickets have been sold in anticipation of some flak flying between the wily old soldier of 39 campaigns and as many years and boxing's most dangerous new recruit, albeit himself only a fistful of years younger, whose record of 11 knockouts in as many fights suggests he carries his own weapons of mass destruction.

They say old soldiers never die, but in the fight game these days they seldom even fade away. The fight's promoter, Frank Warren, has made the point that few heavyweights worth their salt are under 30. The division is now an old man's world, inhabited by veterans of ring warfare such as Francis, still earning a crust because, well, what else would they do?

It is Francis's raison d'être for still being in the ring a couple of months into his fortieth year: "When I was 35 I was saying, 'I don't want to be in this game at 40', but I'm still here, and I'm still enjoying it. Age isn't a factor. It doesn't concern me. I'm still fresh as a fighter and the main thing is that I have never taken a lot of punches. I'm still fighting because it's in my heart, it's in my blood. I'm in the fight game, the hurt game. I love being in the gym, I love being in the ring, in the spotlight. I love the thrill and the smell of it all, even the fear. It's what I do.

"If I was a footballer I could retire with millions or go on to a TV career or something. But fighting is what I'm about. Financially I'm OK, but that's not really the point. I never came into boxing to become a millionaire. Right from the start I said if I came out of the game with a house, a car, a few bob in the bank and a couple of holidays a year, I'd be happy.

"I've got that in abundance, but what means most to me is that I've been a champion, and fought all over the world. I've also fought one of the greatest heavyweights ever. When I die that can be written on my bloody headstone."

"Lovely fella," sighs Maloney. "Just wish he would pack it in. I have great respect for him. He's one of the few heavyweights to have won a Lonsdale Belt, and he's been great for the game, but I do think his time is up. After he lost to Danny Williams I told him to retire. But he didn't and he hasn't won a fight since, though he's had a few good paydays so good luck to him. But he's lost the momentum and become a journeyman. It's a shame. I'd hoped that wouldn't happen because he was with me from day one and lives just down the road.

"But I know he really fancies he can win this fight, and that's a bit worrying. He's never been really beat up, a proper old pro who knows how to manoeuvre. He's been in with the best and learned from the best. He could 'old man' Matt out of the fight with his experience and that's something we have to work on. But Julius is up against someone with ambition."

Although he now resides near Maloney in upmarket Chislehurst, like his one-time mentor, Francis was born and raised on a council estate in Peckham, deep in Del Boy country. There he did a bit of this, a bit of that and a considerable amount of "porridge", banged up at one time or another in just about every London prison except Holloway for offences ranging from GBH to drugs. His redemption through boxing and Christianity was well chronicled at the time of the Tyson fight, which earned him some £350,000 plus a good few bob for selling the soles of his ring boots to advertise the Daily Mirror.

"That was down to me," says Maloney. "Julius didn't really want to do it, but I thought, why not?" It proved a prescient piece of promotion, for Francis, watched by a crowd of 21,000 who applauded his bottle, inevitably turned his toes up in the second, going down fighting under a typical Tysonesque assault and battery. But that Mirror plug was not the only inscription he carried with him into the ring that night in Manchester. His shorts bore the message "RIP, John" in memory of his closest friend, who had died of cancer.

On the quiet. Francis is something of a sentimentalist, and still speaks movingly about the death of his mother nearly 25 years ago, when he was a teenager. It was that, he reckons, which plunged him into his emotional vortex. "I thought, 'God, you've taken away my mum'. So after that it was 'screw the world', basically."

Francis hasn't been off the rails since he took up boxing at 25, initially for a few hundred pounds on unlicensed shows, including one in a Maidstone cattle market, before Maloney persuaded him that his future lay in a more legitimate theatre. The Francis of today is unrecognisable from the young tearaway who had more convictions than he cares to remember, had been shot at, almost stabbed to death and ran riot as a Millwall football hooligan. His has been the sort of life which lends itself to celluloid drama, a combination of Rocky and On the Waterfront, perhaps.

But unlike Marlon Brando's washed-up pug Terry in the latter, Francis not only "coulda been a contender", he was one, is one again and has also been a champion. But recently he has been strictly an opponent, one who has lost his last five fights and won only one in the 10 since Tyson. Have gumshield, will travel. He hasn't fought in England for nearly two years. The self-managed war horse has become a trial horse for Continental up-and-comers.

"Yeah, they call me a trial horse now, but it doesn't faze me. They said the same thing about Seabiscuit, didn't they? And he became one of the greatest of all time. Let them keep saying it. I don't mind. Nothing bothers me any more about this business because I've done it all. Many times throughout my career I've been told, 'You're finished, you've nowhere to go'. Frank Maloney said it, but I'm still up there on the top table with him when they call the press conferences.

"Skelton's his boy now, and I'm supposed to be the 'dead body', but there's life in me yet. I know I can beat him. He's big, strong and has quick hands. But that's really about it. There's nothing about him that I haven't seen in any other fighter - and unless he can box like Lewis and punch like Tyson there's just no way he can beat me. No disrespect. He's a nice lad, but a novice, and I don't get beat by novices."

Francis is currently training in Germany where, he says, he can better prepare mentally as well as physically, "because I won't have people getting on my back. telling me I've got no chance".

"For me, life has always been a challenge. If people keep telling me, 'No you can't', I go out of my way to make sure I can. I believe I can be British champion again. And if Audley Harrison fancies his chances, I'm happy to accommodate him, though he'll probably want to wait till I've turned 40. Even then I'd box his ears off."

Those of us who have few hobbies can empathise with Francis. If you don't DIY, play golf or mow the lawn there isn't much else to do but walk the dog or watch the box. Or, in Francis's case, keep on rucking.

"There's a few other things I do outside boxing [like reciting poetry to inner-city schoolkids] but nothing else really satisfies me like this game. But if I lose to Skelton I will quit, because then there really will be nowhere else to go."

Is that a promise? His laugh suggests he may be coming the Old Soldier again. But Maloney has a promise, too. "When this fight is over, me and Julius will go out on the town, have a meal and a few laughs and talk about old times." It may be the hardest game, but at least between two old comrades there are no hard feelings.

Biography: Julius Francis

Born: 8 December 1964, Peckham.

Boxing career: Turned pro 1993. Won Southern Area heavyweight title in February 1995 and Commonwealth title in June 1997, becoming British champion by beating Belfast's Garry Delaney for vacant title two months later. Won Lonsdale Belt with defences against Pele Reid, Danny Williams and Scott Welch in 1999. Lost British title to Michael Holden in March 2000, two months after being ko'd in two rounds by Mike Tyson in Manchester. Has twice challenged for the European championship. Self-managed after splitting with Frank Maloney in 2001.

Record: 39 bouts: 23 wins, 15 losses, 1 draw, 12 ko's.

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