Boxing: The ring master

The man whose mind is as sharp as his suits reveals how he turned down a King-sized job in America

Never one to miss a promotional trick, Frank Warren hired a former magistrates' court in London's West End last week to publicise his latest big fight venture. He has labelled the world super-middleweight unification title bout between his man Joe Calzaghe and American Jeff Lacy, both undefeated, in Manchester on 4 March as "Judgement Day".

Resisting overtures to don a proffered legal-eagle wig, Warren smiled down from his magisterial perch: "This is the first time that I've sat on this side of the bench."

Actually, he is no stranger to the odd courtroom appearance, though invariably as the plaintiff. There is his litany of libel suits in which his current record reads: won around 40, lost one, the one being to his former fighter Terry Marsh. Next up on his hit list is the venerable Sir Clement Freud, who seemed to suggest in the Racing Post that anyone inviting Warren round to dinner should hide the cutlery. Oh dear, seconds out!

The promoter par excellence will be back in the High Court early next year, taking on another of his now ex-fighters, the newly detached Ricky Hatton, against whom he is claiming breach of contract. There are certainly hard feelings on both sides, though most in the game sympathise with Warren, who still wrote to Hatton before last night's fight with Carlos Maussa in Sheffield, the first of The Hitman's 40 he has not promoted, wishing him well. "I'm still sickened by what Ricky and his father have done. But time will tell if they made the right decision." Not to mention the judge.

A fresh-faced 53, Warren has a mind as sharp as his suits. On 10 December he celebrates 25 years in boxing with the heavyweight fight between Audley Harrison and Danny Williams at London's Excel Centre. Five days earlier the gloved glitterati from both sides of the Atlantic will have attended his silver jubilee bash at the Dorchester. When Warren pushes the boat out it is more Queen Mary II than a Thames tug.

Post-war boxing here has been dominated by a mere fistful of major promoters: Jack Solomons, Harry Levene, Mickey Duff, and now Warren. After organising and cleaning up unlicensed boxing Warren fought and finally broke the cartel of Duff and company to get his Board of Control licence. His first promotion was at London's Bloomsbury Crest Hotel, on 10 December 1980 featuring American heavyweights O T Gordon and Jerry Martin. "It had a lot of publicity, but it didn't sell," he recalls. "If you fired a cannon in the place it wouldn't have hit anyone. I done my money - seventeen and a half grand, a hell of a lot to me then."

But he persevered and eventually managed to get a BBC television date with a contest between Clinton McKenzie and Steve Early despite the efforts of the established promoters to block it. Was he fazed by taking on boxing's big boys? "Nah, I'd been doing unlicensed shows for three years and dealing with tougher people than Jarvis Astaire and Mickey Duff. I was determined to carry on. I'm stubborn and I'm focused. As a kid you had to hit me with a lump of wood to stop me from what I was going to do and I've brought that into my business dealings. Maybe that's why I get litigious. It's my only avenue."

Warren says he'd never have made a fighter. "I didn't have the discipline. I was more into art and doing the things that young men do." It was bringing back Joe Bugner in 1982 for his second coming (later there was to be a third) which put him firmly on boxing's roadmap. It enabled him to make his name with ITV and become an integral mover in boxing's golden era.

Subsequently he took boxing to Sky, which enriched both him and his fighters, but is now back with a commercial channel thanks to their interest in his new protégé Amir Khan . They will be screening the Harrison-Williams bout and Calzaghe v Lacy which Warren claims is shaping up as one the top three he has staged in his 25 years. It will be his 217th world championship.

The best fight he's ever staged - or seen in a British ring - he says, was Nigel Benn against Gerald McClellan. "It was enthralling, raw, brutal, full of courage. An amazing, dramatic fight with a tragic ending." Warren is still scarred by the memory of the way it ended, with McClellan brain-damaged and now paralysed and almost blind. "I sometimes do question the morality of boxing and my place in it. But we know this is a dangerous sport, you only have to ask McClellan's family, and Michael Watson's. Any fighter who is going to turn professional should watch that fight because sometimes you have to dig that deep and there can be consequences. It showed how vulnerable boxers are and what can happen in the game."

He admits he sometimes gets too close to fighters. The two things I should have learned from Mickey Duff were never to fall in love with fighters, and if you want loyalty, buy a dog."

This past quarter-century has had its ups and downs, like some of his fighters, but right now life is cosy and rosy for the bookie's son from a fourth-floor council flat in Islington. The trappings of his success embrace a chauffered Rolls and a Bentley coupé. Both are garaged alongside his wife's Mercedes. Susan Warren is a former Vogue model. There's the family mansion in Hertfordshire, which houses a priceless art collection and where sometimes a helicopter can be seen landing in the garden. Sometimes, too, his pal the master chef Gordon Ramsay's influence can be seen in the kitchen at dinner parties. Then there's the pad in Belgravia, holiday home in Portugal, arguably the best-sited VIP box at Highbury (a lifelong Arsenal fan he will be splashing out on an even bigger box at the new ground for £75,000 a year) and untold millions in the bank. And he still votes Labour.

He loves good restaurants, (though he's a vegetarian and has been since his days as a teenager working at Smithfield meat market), fine wines and talking a good fight. Lunch with him last week at Nolita, a smart new Italian eaterie run by a friend at Brookman's Park, near his home, started at one o'clock and ended at seven. Yet he absorbs the affluence easily, doubtless remembering his roots. "I never planned to be a millionaire," he once said. "I just got on with it."

Having learned to fight his way off the ropes he rolls with the punches more nimbly than some of the fighters he has promoted or managed. He takes a good shot, including, reportedly, one from Mike Tyson, and that 9mm bullet in the chest from a still unidentified masked assailant. Ah yes, that's another pending anniversary, though not one he is celebrating. It happened 16 years ago this Wednesday, when he stepped out of his car and was about to enter the theatre at Barking to watch a fight. Marsh, with whom he had had a contractual dispute, was charged with attempted murder, but cleared. The case remains unsolved.

"Funnily enough, I've always believed that out of bad, some good can come. When they were operating the doctors found a lump in my neck and thought it was another bullet. It turned out to be a tumour which I later had removed." This sums up Warren's bittersweet career. He got his fingers burned over a 70 per cent investment in the London Arena, and lost a £7m lawsuit to Don King. Yet few know that the man who is unquestionably King of the Ring here could have become the King of America.

"When King was in trouble for alleged tax evasion and it looked as if he might be going to jail he asked me to take over from him. I thought about it but refused because I didn't want to live in the US. I was flattered but basically I'm a homebird. I didn't want to uproot my family or upset my kids' education [he has five children]."

A funny old game boxing. Audley Harrison, whom he once slagged off as "Fraudley", is now fighting for him next month and Naseem Hamed, who he helped make Britain's youngest-ever world champion, wants to do so again. The reason, of course, is that when push comes to shove he may not be the only game in town but his Sports Network organisation is by far the biggest and most influential. Which is why Amir Khan signed for him despite bigger offers.

"It's all been fun," Warren added. "Yes, I've made a few enemies but I've also made some great friends, as well as a good living. Look, I'm no angel. I've made mistakes, but I've never done anything dishonest." So what then was his biggest mistake? "Going to Barking."

Warren's five favourites in his 25-year career

1 BENN v McCLELLAN, 1995: "The best and probably most dramatic fight I've promoted. It showed every aspect of what boxing is about. The atmosphere, the willpower, the raw courage of Nigel Benn (above) and Gerald McClellan - a really great fight but ultimately a great tragedy."

2 BRUNO v McCALL, 1995: "Seeing Frank Bruno win the world heavyweight title at Wembley in his fourth attempt probably gave me my greatest pleasure. I had been a critic of Frank, mainly to create publicity, but I thought he'd win. He was a much better fighter than many appreciated."

3 HATTON v TSZYU, 2005: "It was a hard fight to deliver but it sold out within hours of being announced. I fancied Ricky to win because I felt Tszyu was there to be taken. For Ricky it was the right fight in the right place at the right time."

4 KHAN v KINDELAN, 2005: "The only amateur fight I've promoted, one that I promised Amir I would make so he could avenge his Olympic defeat before turning pro. The real fight was with the ABA to get it on. But Amir proved a breath of fresh air."

5 TYSON v FRANCIS, 2000: "Not so much a fight as an event. It was a mismatch yet we sold 20,000 tickets and turned down 55,000 applications. It just showed the fascination with Tyson."

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