Boxing: From sole man to star turn in Othello

Julius Francis once got flattened by Mike Tyson – now he's treading the boards. Isn't life strange?

Julius Francis, the former heavyweight champion, best known for turning up his toes against Mike Tyson to reveal an advertisement on his boxing boots, is back in the ring. Or rather, the round.

He is currently starring in a modern version of Shakespeare's Othello, staged in a boxing gym in a church just behind Harrods in London's Knightsbridge. It is, he says, the scariest thing he's ever done. "Every night my knees are knocking. I'm far more nervous than I ever was going into the ring against Tyson."

He's an unlikely recruit to luvvie-land, yet his debutant thespian skills have won praise from the veteran film and television star Sylvia Syms, who says: "He's a darn fine actor and can have a great future in the theatre."

Boxing's old-stager tops an under-card of a dozen talented youngsters, aged between 14 and 22, most from troubled backgrounds, including former gang members. They are now acting with the Intermission Youth Theatre (of which Syms is patron) in Ring Envy, a play based on Othello which translates Shakespeare's theme and language, interspersed with street-talk and gangsta rap, into a similar tale of rage, jealousy, betrayal and ultimate tragedy, in which Othello is portrayed as a pro fighter, along with rivals Iago and Cassio.

Francis was initially approached to be their boxing advisor and play the father of Desdemona, Othello's tragic wife, by the Rev Rob Gillion, himself a jobbing actor for 15 years and now minister at St Saviour's Church which regularly stages Shakespeare-based productions by the youth theatre group under the direction of Darren Raymond.

"We needed an authoritative figure from boxing for the part," says Raymond. "We had to persuade Julius to do it because he was so nervous but he was amazing, he's a natural. I saw his potential on the first day of rehearsal. He knows how to move, how to work the audience and has great resonance in his voice."

How the Bard's aficionados would receive lines like "Tell Iago, Othello is banging his sister" or "Things are kicking off between Desdemona and her bruvver" is open to question. But learning his lines, says Francis, was the hardest part. "Really difficult – I've done a bit of TV work but this has been the biggest challenge I've ever faced. I'm out of my comfort zone. I never read Shakespeare at school. To be honest it was a bit of a turn-off because it was all a foreign language to me. But the way Darren has adapted it really works.

"Going on stage gives me the same adrenaline rush I had when I was fighting. I've sweated, oh boy have I sweated. Sometimes the words have got stuck, but when you hear the applause and take your bow at the end you are buzzing.

"The kids are the real stars. They're terrific. We all say a prayer together before going on, just as I did when I was fighting."

The last time I interviewed Francis, five years ago, he was embarking on a short-lived stint as a cage fighter, landing flat on his back just as he did after two rounds against Tyson. That fight 12 years ago earned him £350,000 plus another £30,000 for deploying the soles of his ring boots to advertise a newspaper. It paid off when he was knocked down five times. "I sold my soles, but never my soul," he grins.

In 48 fights, the former British and Commonwealth champion lost one more than he won, 14 in succession as his career ended. The old warhorse may have ended up a trial horse but he can say: "I was a champion and fought two of the greatest heavyweights who ever lived [Tyson and Vitali Klitschko]. When I die that can be written on my bloody headstone."

The 48-year-old Francis of today is unrecognisable from the young south London tearaway who admits he did time in every London prison except Holloway. He was even shot at and ran riot as a Millwall football hooligan before boxing rescued him. 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 throw his assailant over a third-floor balcony a little earlier.

The knife punctured one of his lungs and damaged part of his intestines, so you can understand why Tyson didn't scare him, and he is unlikely to be fazed by the footlights for long. Since quitting the ring he has been working as a fitness trainer, teaching boxing to kids in inner-city London schools and occasionally reciting poetry to them.

He is not the first boxing champion to tread the boards. Tyson currently performs in stand-up and his old spar-mate Frank Bruno has been a panto regular, something Francis says he might consider himself. Or even more Shakespeare. "This has given me the taste for doing something bigger," he says.

Julius as Caesar? Or a latter-day Cinderella Man? As long as he can get over the stage fright.

Ring Envy is playing at St Saviour's Church, Knightsbridge, until 17 November. For tickets: 0207 581 4260 or www.iyt.com

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