Boxing promoter hits out over Wembley shambles

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The Independent Online

Wembley has seen some bruising battles in its time, not least the unseemly fight for its future over the past couple of years. So it does not seem inappropriate that a boxing promoter should put in his two penn'orth over the nation's shame because of the failures of government and sports authorities to get any sort of act together.

"They should have got it sorted a long time ago," says Frank Warren. "The fact that they haven't is a bloody disgrace. As a sports fan myself I feel deeply embarrassed by the fiascos of Wembley and Picketts Lock. The whole approach has been totally amateurish. No wonder they are falling about laughing at us overseas."

That, of course, is the view of a pro. Those in Westminster, Whitehall and Soho Square may well sniff disdainfully and ask: "What, pray, does a boxing promoter know about it?" but they would be surprised. Quite a lot, actually.

Warren is Britain's most successful fight impresario. He will be putting on a show at Wembley next Saturday, albeit the Conference Centre, not the now near-derelict stadium, where one of Britain's brightest prospects, Manchester's Ricky Hatton, defends his World Boxing Union light-welterweight title against the Australian Justin Rowsell. It will be Warren's 153rd world title promotion in 16 years, and probably another sell-out.

Last week we half-jokingly suggested that Sport England, after a cock-up over press conference arrangements, should enlist Warren's help. Maybe it is time some more serious thinking was given to using the experience and expertise of Warren, and others like him, as government advisers on sport rather than the bevy of bureaucrats and blazers who seem to have the ear of ministers.

There are brains there to be picked, and Warren's is among the most fertile. But he has never received a call. Pity, because he might have done an instructive bit of card-marking on how we run, or rather, run down, our sport.

"I've made some screw-ups in my time," he admits. "London Arena [which went into receivership when he was involved in 1992] was one of them. But I've learnt from those mistakes. Basically what seems to have been lacking in this whole shambles is common sense. I just can't fathom how they got things so wrong. How can you build a stadium in Cardiff with a retractable roof for about 140 million quid yet you can't build one in London, at Wembley, for less than six or seven hundred million when you own the land?

"Why didn't they use the same architects and constructors who built that stadium? Or copy the Stade de France in Paris? Why try to be clever? It sounds like amateur night. You go to any major country in the world, they've got a decent national stadium. But not here.

"Yet they've spent a billion on that useless Dome. The fact that two governments have been involved meant someone was going to get away with some wrongdoing. If I had been involved in that like I was the London Arena, I'd have been arrested. There seems no accountability in the public sector. An absolute disaster. Crazy. Here we are wasting a billion quid on a poxy upside-down wok when you could have satisfied every sporting need with a multi-purpose stadium that catered for everything, including the World Athletics Championships."

The trouble with our attitude to sport, argues the 49-year-old Warren, is that we are traditionalists. "A lot of tradition is great for sport but a lot drags it down. One of the great stadiums in this country is Twickenham. But getting there is a pain in the arse and you can't use it for anything else because of restrictions by the local council and the objections of the nearby residents.

"Why didn't they knock down Twickenham, knock down Wembley and take them somewhere else? Use the money they could make by developing those sites and combine the two stadiums on a green-field site somewhere near the M1 and M25. There you could have had a state-of-the-art stadium that was accessible by rail and road and, more importantly, you could park. Why didn't they study how they do these things in the States?

The trouble is such projects here are not driven by the right reasons. Mainly, they are driven by profit, and tradition. I'm a Labour supporter and I do like the emphasis they place on sport, getting young people involved. But we're a sports-mad country with Third World facilities."

Warren, an Arsenal fan, is in favour of their proposed new stadium but believes it is in the wrong place. "It should be on the outskirts of London, or even in Docklands, a 70,000-seater stadium that could be shared with Tottenham. Ground sharing works well on the Continent but again, we're hidebound by tradition."

He was briefly involved with rugby union through Bedford, but in the end thought the game was a disaster area. "I love rugby, but you are up against the old boy network. You had people involved who didn't understand what a TV contract was. Ideally, rugby should be played on a Sunday morning, before football comes on TV."

So now he sticks to boxing, a game he knows better than anyone in Britain. No one has managed more world champions or promoted more shows. He has 75 boxers on the books of his promotional company, Sports Network, including a platoon of Britain's finest young prospects, led by Hatton who, he points out, though appearing exclusively on Sky, now draws bigger crowds than Naseem Hamed in his own formative years.

What he doesn't have is a claim on the sport's two biggest names: Hamed, though Warren was principally responsible for the elevation of the former world featherweight champion to superstar status, and Lennox Lewis who, incidentally, he thinks will be knocked out by Mike Tyson.

"Despite all the hype, here we have two guys who are past their sell-by date getting the biggest purses in boxing history. It just shows the state of heavyweight boxing. Personally, heavyweights bore me. I prefer the lighter weights."

Warren has been criticised for taking boxing away from the terrestrial audience but claims the BBC's "arrogance" has cost them a golden opportunity to re-establish themselves. "To do what they are doing with Audley Harrison is a joke. They had the chance to get involved again with quality boxing, sharing my fighters with Sky. Financially, it would have been a good deal for them but they decided to spend all their money on Harrison. Now the guy has got the money in the bank, where is the incentive for him to do the business? He's injured more times than he fights.

"If I had promoted him he would have been on the undercard, not top of the bill, learning the trade. Unfortunately, he is not as good as he thinks he is, especially at the promoting game. Instead of charging fans an arm and a leg for ringside seats which they won't buy, he should be letting them in for twenty quid."

Never a man to pull his punches, Warren has taken on Don King and survived, and, by all accounts, Tyson too. He may have his faults but lack of bottle isn't one of them. Nor, evidently, frank opinions.

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