Julius Francis was always something of a gladiator, so it seems appropriate he should further his fighting days in a cage. Next Saturday he will be the first British boxer to become a Cage Raging bull, making his debut in the virtually no-holds- barred cult sport which has been labelled "human cockfighting".
He returns to one of his more familiar fistic haunts, Wembley Arena, to do combat with one of cage fighting's top scrappers, Gary Turner, a former judo champion. OK, so Francis is 42 and hasn't fought for 16 months, but as an ex-British heavyweight champion he is still something of a coup for the promoters.
Francis is best known, of course, for turning his toes up against Mike Tyson to reveal an advertisement for a national newspaper on his boxing boots. He got 30 grand for selling his soles, and some will now say he has sold his soul to what many consider an ignoble art.
Actually he says it is a matter of heart, not soul, after losing his desire for boxing and packing it in after 14 defeats on the trot. In 48 fights he lost one more than he won, but he was one of the fight game's great old troupers. "Have gumshield will travel," was his maxim, whether it was York Hall or Ukraine.
A gladiator for sure, but the warhorse ended as a trial horse for the likes of Audley Harrison, Matt Skelton and Vitali Klitschko, though in his heyday as British champion from 1997 to 2000 he once boxed the ears off Danny Williams. "At least I was a champion and fought one of the greatest heavyweights who ever lived," he says. "When I die that can be written on my bloody headstone."
So what attracted him to Cage Rage, aka MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), apart from the dosh – he is getting a six-figure sum for a two-bout contract, and has been in training for 10 weeks?
"Well, I was a former kick-boxing champion, and to be honest this sort of thing is something I wish I'd taken up a few years ago," he says. He adds that it suits him down to the ground, which is apt enough, as that is where a lot of the action takes place. "I think it's a natural progression for me. I still feel young, I'm still fit and I'm setting myselfa new challenge. For me, life has always been a challenge."
Although he weighs rather more now than he did in his boxing days – he says he hasn't weighed himself lately, but reckons he is over 19 stones ("I'm a big guy, I carry a bit, but I wouldn't say I'm fat ... I'm nearly 43, for God's sake") – Francis, as we witnessed in a recent workout, still moves well and punches strongly. But it's the legs he has to work on – and watch. One kick from a youthful sparring partner at the famed Peacock Gym in east London had him writhing on the canvas with a twisted knee. Fortunatelyhe recovered, and is looking forward to getting to grips, quite literally, with Turner in Saturday's near-sellout tournament.
"This is not about anybody else, it's about me," he says. "The point is, I love the fight game, whether it's boxing, kick-boxing or this. I'm a fighting man through and through. Right now MMA is a growing thing. I think it's a good sport. I've been to a couple of shows and seen many similarities with boxing – both require a tactical brain as well as a bit of muscle.
"One difference is that in boxing these days, if your face doesn't fit, you don't get a look- in. Promoters have their favourites. That's not so in Cage Rage. I love working out with all these good young guys, some of them 15 or 20 years younger than me. I've got that joy back again. Basically the hand-work and the boxing stuff is the same, but I have specialist coaches for the wrestling, which is the hardest bit, and kick-boxing. It's all about body movement. Maybe if I'd trained like this before it would have made me a better fighter. The first couple of times I started wrestling with one of the guys here, I thought there wasn't a cat's chance in hell I would last five minutes, I was absolutely knackered, breathing like an old carthorse. Blimey it was hard, a real culture shock."
His workouts are overseen by his long-time boxing trainer, Mark Roe, who says: "They first approached us last year. Julius took some time to think about what was involved, but his experience in orthodox boxing and kick-boxing – where he was European champion 17 years ago – gave him two disciplines which stood him in good stead.
"What he has had to learn is the wrestling and the jujitsu. If we had taken on a lesser opponent than Turner, who is a big name in the sport, people would not have looked at this as serious, but he won't be able to match Julius punch-wise, and boy can Julius kick."
As the title suggests, MMA is an amalgam of contact sports, from Thai boxing to taekwondo.Almost anything goes: fists, forearms, hands and knees. No eye gouging or biting is allowed, though it is one activity in which you can legitimately get the elbow. It's been five years since Francis last won a fight, and six since he last topped a Wembley bill. "I'm not going into this thinking it's going to be easy," he says. "It's going to be effing hard."
Since quitting the ring, he has been teaching boxing to kids in south London schools. He says: "Funnily enough, the kids end up teaching you a few things too. When I'm introduced as the former champion Julius Francis, they say, 'Oh yeah, we've seen you on YouTube'. First time I heard it, I didn't know what they meant, because I was completelycomputer illiterate. Kids are a great leveller." He has four of his own, one an IT specialist.
He reckons it won't be long before MMA gets on the school curriculum, and those who run it are even optimistic enough to believe that one day it will be an Olympic sport. "I don't see why not," argues Francis. "It has all the elements of what the Olympics are about, goingback to the Ancient Greeks. It's not about fighting, it's about discipline and self-awareness."
As a youngster, Francis was something of a tearaway himself, and does not deny his past. The four-inch scar on the left side of his stomach is a reminder of how close he once came to oblivion after being stabbed at a party when he was 21. Francis admits that he had been trying to throwhis assailant over a third-floor balcony a little earlier.
The knife punctured his lung and damaged some of his intestines, so you can understand why Tyson didn't scare him, and he is unlikely to be fazed by Cage Ragers. "I've been on the receiving end and the giving end, I know both sides of it."
Promoters have been accused of cashing in on the yob mentality, though they claim audiences are largely white-collar. The British Medical Association want MMA banned, and the British Boxing Board of Control are keeping a wary eye lest anyone higher-profile than Francis is tempted to jump ship. In the United States, where it is known as UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and was originally outlawed, several have, both boxers and officials. Marc Ratner, the highly rated boxing commissioner of Nevada, and his chief medic took up similar posts with UFC.
Ratner was here for last Saturday's UFC tournament at London's O2 arena and invited the board's general secretary, Simon Block, to see the sport for himself, suggesting that the BBB of C could do worse than take it under their aegis, introducing their own medical and safety standards. In America, particularly in Las Vegas, the debate rages as to whether UFC ultimately will KO boxing. Ratner believes the two can co-exist, but the size of crowds UFC attracts to the casinos, often out-stripping major boxing bouts, is of concern. It is outselling boxing on pay-per-view, and Sports Illustrated magazine recently devoted eight pages to UFC.
Says Ratner: "If the right guys fight each other, boxing still has a great future but, for sure, UFC isn't going away."
In Britain, MMA fighting has become a magnet for satellite television; Setanta screened last Saturday's US-backed O2 show, with Sky televising live the British-based Cage Rage version (there are marginal differences in the rules), with which a leading American boxing promoter, Gary Shaw, has aligned himself.
Meanwhile, the old gladiator who is reviving his career for kicks gears up to grapple with a batch of young lions. MMA is not for the purists who worship at the shrine of the "sweet science"; two men kicking, brawling and rolling around may be a familiar sight in some city centres on a Saturday night, but at Wembley it will all be perfectly legit. And no doubt Nero would have given it the thumbs-up.
What it's like to be there, by Alistair Hayes
Six years ago the casino magnates and brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) franchise for $2m and installed the abrasive Dana White as president. He introduced 31 rules, mandatory drug tests and managed to get the sport sanctioned by boxing's governing bodies in 29 US states. The leading brand of Mixed Martial Arts has now come of age this side of the pond after a spectacular bill at London's O2 Arena last weekend.
According to White, the UFC are anti-drugs; put equally matched fighters up against each other for contests the public wants to see; and claims to be safer than boxing (no deaths or serious injuries thus far).
The 17,000 fans who turned up here to see the winner of the reality TV show 'The Ultimate Fighter', Michael Bisping from Clitheroe, were shocked to see his closest rival on the show, the deaf Olympic wrestler Matt Hamill, put on a display of stand-up fighting few knew was part of his armoury and nearly cause a sensational upset. When the judges announced their split decision, giving the fight to Bisping, even a heavily partisan crowd voiced their disagreement.
In the main event, the Pride Fighting light-heavyweight holder, Dan Henderson, lost in a five-round unification fight to the UFC champion, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, on a unanimous decision.
The UFC staged one of the biggest fight nights in London since Frank Bruno beat Oliver McCall at Wembley in September 1995, breaking attendance and merchandise records, and their bills attract big audiences for satellite television. At this rate, the sport supporters regard as "the sweeter science" will soon have a claim to become part of the sporting mainstream.
Rough guide to rough stuff
Duration: Three five-minute rounds
Weights: Six classes, feather to heavy
Ring: Octagonal metal cage
Scoring: Points awarded by three ringside judges. Victory by points, KO, submission or stoppage by referee or doctor
Attire: Shorts, fingerless four-ounce gloves, no footwear, padding or headguards
Allowed: Kicking (but not to groin or throat), punching, forearm smashes, wrestling
Not allowed: Butting, biting, gouging, hair-pulling, elbowstrikes to a grounded opponent, testicle-grabbingReuse content