Frank Warren: The ring leader is still packing a mighty punch

Britain's greatest boxing promoter has been shot, scuffled with Mike Tyson and lost £7.2m to Don King – now he has a dazzling new line-up of fighters. Alan Hubbard meets... Frank Warren
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The Independent Online

Being on the ropes is an occupational hazard in the hardest game of all. It happens outside the ring, too. The promoter Frank Warren has had to ride with the punches in what has been a roller-coaster year, with his prized fighter, Joe Calzaghe, walking out on him, just as Ricky Hatton did after he had nursed him to a world title, and two more of his marquee luminaries, Enzo Maccarinelli and Amir Khan, getting themselves spectacularly sploshed.

There were sniggers that boxing's ringmaster had lost his clout, but last week Warren bounced back with characteristic panache, unveiling his new signings – Britain's three most talented amateurs, Beijing gold medallist James DeGale, 22, world champion Frankie Gavin, 23, and 19-year-old Billy Joe Saunders, perhaps the most exciting prospect of all.

Never one to knowingly undersell his product, Warren declared the advent of The Olympians as "a fantastic coup". Indeed it is, a £5 million investment that, he hopes, is all about the future without the angst of past fractured relationships. He tells The Independent on Sunday: "I've said to these guys, 'This is the deal but I don't want to be reading in six or seven years' time what a bastard I am, à la Hatton and Calzaghe'."

The bitterness of those break-ups is painfully evident. "I get Hatton seven and a half million quid in the bank, and with me Calzaghe grossed 17 million. And suddenly I'm an arsehole. Fucking hell! When I met Joe, he could not pay his mortgage – I lent him the money. But over 12 long, hard but successful years, I helped make him mega-rich and one of the best-known UK sports figures who is now a CBE and BBC Sports Personality of the Year. In his book, he says signing with me was the best decision he ever made. But he now claims he was held back, 'kept in shackles', and could have had big fights sooner.

"And Hatton said himself that when he started out, he could have packed all his fans in the back of his three-wheeler and taken them to Wythenshawe for his first fight. I built them both up into multi-millionaires. Like Mickey Duff said, 'if you want loyalty, buy a dog'.

"My philosophy with fighters has always been obviously to guide them correctly and to make sure if it all goes tits up, they don't come out of the sport with no money. I think I did an excellent job with both Calzaghe and Hatton, and Naz [Naseem Hamed] too. He's admitted that leaving me was the worst move he ever made. Of course it was galling for me when they walked away. Really galling. But that's how the business is. If boxers want to promote themselves and put their money on the line, fine, let them. Some get greedy and think they'll be better off doing it all themselves. But it doesn't work that way.

"Joe's fight against Roy Jones Jnr bombed. Big time. Joe had sugar blown up his arse saying they were going to cut up $50 million between them. He's ended up with less money than he got to fight [Mikkel] Kessler with me.

"It's always about money. But fall-outs happen in all walks of life, and boxing's a particularly high-octane business. Now getting these kids has renewed my enthusiasm. It's like starting out all over again. We've never had a gold medallist who's gone on to become a world champion, so that's a challenge in itself.

"Some might knock them for not staying on for the London Olympics but why would they want to hang around for another four years? That would be career suicide. If James did not win another gold in 2012, he would be considered a big failure. Billy Joe was really pissed off with what the ABA did to him and I didn't have to convince him to turn pro, while Frankie had made his mind up even before he went to Beijing and had those weight problems."

Warren's coup was celebrated at a lunch in the same fashionable Islington restaurant where he negotiated to get himself into promotion via unlicensed boxing 30 years ago. His first orthodox promotion was at London's Bloomsbury Crest Hotel, on 10 December 1980, featuring two little-known American heavyweights. "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 – 17 and a half grand, a hell of a lot to me then."

But he persevered and in the 28 years since, astutely channel-hopping from ITV, BBC, Sky, back to ITV, Setanta and now to Sky again, he has become one of the world's top impresarios, slugging it out along the way with the taxman, a hitman and allegedly a raging Mike Tyson, though he denies that actual fisticuffs ever took place in their hotel room confrontation after he refused to foot the ex-heavyweight champion's jewellery-buying spree. "There was a bit of scuffling and in the end it was resolved." He also lost a £7.2m contractual lawsuit to Don King, the only defeat in a litany of litigation that equals Calzaghe's 46-fight ring record.

As we reminded him, last week also saw another anniversary, 19 years since he was shot in the chest by a balaclava-wearing would-be assassin outside a theatre in Barking where he was going to watch a fight. One of his former world champions, Terry Marsh, the ex-marine with whom he had a dispute over gate money, was charged with his attempted murder, but acquitted. Warren still bears the scars, mentally and physically, from the .22 bullet fired at close range from a Luger pistol. He says he knows who pulled the trigger. "Course I do, though I didn't at the time. Now I'm 100 per cent sure. He was a coward, an idiot who could not even do that right, from six feet away. I try not to think about it because if I do I get angry.

"At the time I wanted to get even but I had to stop myself. If I had, my life and my kids' lives would have been ruined. I could say who it was, but where I was brought up, you don't grass on people.

"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."

Warren says he is "sick and tired" of hearing that boxing is on the ropes. "It isn't," he insists. "OK, nothing is recession-proof. Restaurants, newspapers, whatever. But the name of the game is to get through it. Boxing has got the appeal and the personalities to do that.

"I never feel sorry for myself but more than anything I get angry when in the eyes of the public, promoters have this Hollywood role where you are fucking the fighter. This doesn't happen. They've got advisers, accountants and lawyers looking after their interests. Strangely enough the lawyer [Gareth Williams] who now advises Hatton and Calzaghe also represents Frankie Gavin. And he didn't say to him 'don't sign for Warren, he's a bastard'. So I can't be that bad a guy."

A fresh-faced 56, Warren has a mind as sharp as his suits. He likes music and fine wine, collects art and his home in Hertfordshire borders on the stately. With his second wife Susan, a former Vogue model and mother of four of his six children, he has interests in two hotel developments in Portugal. The bookie's son also has a £75,000-a-year box at Arsenal, a chauffeured Rolls Royce, plus a Bentley, a share in one of New York's top restaurants, the Michelin-starred 81, off Central Park and supports a dozen charities. His Sports Network organisation employs 15 people, which rises up to 1,000 on the day of a big fight.

His close friends include the chef Gordon Ramsay ("now known as meat and two veg," he laughs) and Andy Coulson, David Cameron's spin doctor – although he is a life-long Labour supporter. Later this month he will be playing tennis with Tony Blair. "But I never forget where I come from." Which was a tenement block across the road in Islington, where he left the local grammar school at 15 and worked in the meat market at Smithfield. He has been a vegetarian ever since.

This year he was elected to the US Boxing Hall of Fame as the youngest – and only active – British promoter, up there rubbing shoulders with 76-year-old Don King. "Despite what happened between us, we still talk and do business and in fact I'm one of the few people who's got a bit of affection for him – because I see the positives of what he does. He's a good visionary and a good businessman. He's got big balls when it comes to doing things. His downside is that he can't get the street out of him."

Last night it was back to what he does best, promoting "Judgement Night" for Khan, Maccarinelli and Audley Harrison (another go-it-aloner who has belatedly turned to Warren for rehab) at London's Excel.

The Olympians were paraded there as testimony that fearless Frank has fought his way off the ropes and rolled with the punches more nimbly than some of his fighters. He takes a good shot, so to speak. "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 but I've never done anything dishonest, although I've made mistakes."

So what was the biggest? "Going to Barking."

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