Fighting his corner: Legendary boxing promoter Frank Warren on being shot, fisticuffs with Mike Tyson, ‘intelligent’ Fury and drinking with Frank Sinatra
- Legendary boxing promoter Frank Warren is still throwing punches
- Warren is still picking big fights, 41 years after his first licensed show
- The 69-year-old has promoted 149 champions during his long career
- He has been shot, had ‘fisticuffs’ with Mike Tyson and drank with Frank Sinatra
The oldest swinger in town is still throwing punches. He’s always had a good dig on him, Frank Warren, but he’s had to take a few as well. Big shots, hard shots, other sorts of shots. Shots that have dropped him but nothing that has stopped him.
And so he spools through a few of the memories. An hour passes and then two, mostly in his grand office, surrounded by treasures.
He’s with Nelson Mandela in one picture, Tony Blair in another, both frames close to his miniature cars, Victorian fight reports and the rare book that sits beneath an inflatable dolphin.
Frank Warren has faced several shots in his career, but nothing that has ever stopped him
His life-size bronze statue of Prince Naseem Hamed mans the entrance.
‘Naz sent it to my house one Christmas,’ he says. ‘I came home and it was in the hallway blocking the door. We couldn’t get in or out. It had to come here.’
He talks and he remembers and he laughs, and then he remembers some more. He knows what it is to have a bullet burn a hole through his lung. He knows what it is to make and lose millions, and to be charmed and roughed up by different Tysons.
He’s also gone drinking with Frank Sinatra, promoted 149 world champions (rowed with a few of them, too) and cancelled his seat on Pan AM Flight 103 two days before it was brought down by a terrorist’s bomb over Lockerbie. He’s been through all of that across his 69 years, with a big climb and a bit of a fall.
But not much has hit him quite like the past 12 months. So he shakes his head and tells a tale.
‘Crap year,’ he says. ‘I’ve had two discs operated on in my neck, a disc replaced in my back, and a shoulder operation a couple of months ago. There was also Covid.’
There was. Brutally and personally. He had eight grim days of it on a ward at Lister Hospital in Stevenage.
‘I know it sounds stupid, but before Covid I almost forgot I had lost half a lung,’ he says. ‘It was from when I got shot (in 1989). It had never bothered me. But then I got Covid and you can imagine.
‘I hadn’t felt too good over Christmas. My wife called an ambulance without me knowing. I didn’t want to go to hospital so they said, “OK, but call if there are any problems”. I deteriorated so the following day she called again.
‘There were six of us on the ward and everyone was really suffering — one had been in five months. Thankfully I didn’t go on the respirator but I felt so weak.
‘The staff were magnificent, really were. But I didn’t want the bed baths, any of that. I wanted to go to the shower and do stuff myself. It was 10 or 20 paces away at the end of the hall and I had this bravado.
The legendary boxing promoter recovered from Covid-19 after a short stay in hospital
Warren is still picking big fights, 41 years after his first licensed show and 19 since he missed his deadline for retirement
‘I was determined to do it every day because I had it in my head that I needed to get my lungs working.
‘The first time I nearly passed out but I kept doing it and the doctor said to me after four days, “You’re going to walk yourself out of here”. On the eighth they let me go.’
‘I couldn’t even walk up the stairs when I got home. Weak as a kitten. But I had to get out.’
Frank Warren, always fighting.
Warren is explaining the dolphin. It’s positioned above a £12,000 limited-edition book signed by Muhammad Ali and the artist Jeff Koons, which itself rests on a blown-up rubber ring.
‘That’s how the artist wanted it displayed,’ says Warren, and it’s probably about right for a sport of chaos and the peculiar. Warren has been navigating those waters longer than most. The younger force of Eddie Hearn has reshaped the scene across the past decade, which in turn mirrors how Warren once broke the old promotional stronghold of Mickey Duff, Jarvis Astaire, Terry Lawless and Mike Barrett way back when.
There are cycles to this business, but Warren is still picking big fights, 41 years after his first licensed show and 19 since he missed his deadline for retirement. ‘I’m like the old fighter that goes, “I’m gonna win a title and be out at 28”,’ he says. ‘But look, I just enjoy the boxing, the journeys with the fighters. There are things I don’t like, but so long as I love the sport I’ll keep on.’
Warren has got a buzz about him at the minute. His flyweight Sunny Edwards recently picked up a world title and Tyson Fury keeps him at the most lucrative table in sport. Those two names have extended an astonishing line of champions that passes through Naseem Hamed, Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe, Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Carl Frampton, Amir Khan and various others, right back to his first, Terry Marsh, who was acquitted of pulling the trigger on that Luger pistol in 1989.
It has been eventful, full of belts and a good few writs, and Warren is in the mood to reminisce on an overcast Wednesday in Hertfordshire. ‘Early days of Naz was my best time in boxing,’ he says. There’s always a story when it comes to Prince Naseem Hamed, that 5ft 4in superstar of the Nineties.
Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury (right) keeps Warren at the most lucrative table in sport
Warren’s flyweight Sunny Edwards (above) also recently picked up a world title in April
‘One of the craziest experiences I had was probably in Yemen with him,’ he says. ‘It’s where his parents were from and they had him on stamps over there. I was saying that was the only way he was ever going to get licked.
‘We went out to the capital, Sana’a. The people saw him and it was like The Beatles so we had to take refuge on the roof of a shop. At one point we are pinned against the car, mobbed, and I remember I put my hand in my pocket, got a handful of the local currency and threw it in the air. A bunch of people ran for it and we got into the car. Surreal.’
Warren’s smiling. ‘He was so athletic. But with Naz it was about keeping him in the gym because if he wasn’t in the gym he was stuffing himself.’
It’s been almost 20 years since that brilliant comet burnt out. Warren and Hamed still speak on the phone from time to time, but had their disagreements, which is no unusual thing in boxing. Some of Warren’s have been spectacular.
‘The Tyson thing was over jewellery,’ Warren says. The Mike Tyson tale relates to a hefty bill racked up by that most complex of figures in 2000, when Warren brought him over here for two fights. He went for a shopping trip prior to his demolition of Julius Francis, and was then asked to settle up when he came back to face Lou Savarese a few months later.
‘I think the bill was something like $3.5million,’ Warren says. ‘He had been in Laurence Graff’s (jewellers) and he is picking all this jewellery out and I’m like, “What the f***, go down Hatton Garden”. He’s just picking, “This is a million dollars, this is 500 grand”. He thinks I’m going to pick up the bill and I don’t know where he got that from.’
After some unpaid invoices, the matter reached a head on the second visit. Descriptions of what then happened in a London hotel room have tended to vary.
‘There was a moment, there wasn’t a fight,’ Warren says. ‘There was supposed to be broken ribs, broken jaws or I was hung out the window by my feet. No.
‘You just say there was fisticuffs. It was something I totally did not expect.’
The 69-year-old boasts an incredible list of champions including Naseem Hamed, Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe, Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Carl Frampton, Amir Khan
Tyson never was predictable.
‘Don King and I did the Frank Bruno-Tyson rematch in Las Vegas. Talking with him (Tyson), you could sit and think he was misunderstood but he was a great manipulator.’
Don King. Now that was an interesting pairing. He and Warren ruled together in a four-year cross-Atlantic partnership until it ended up in court in 1999 over some contractual tiff, like a few others in the wasp nest of boxing.
Warren paid King a £7m settlement at the conclusion of that process, and still has the tiniest points of contention preserved in his mind. ‘Afterwards, outside he said, “Frank…”, and I was, “No, no, you know what’s happened now, you lost the best friend you’ve ever had”. Because I’m loyal. When I’m with somebody, I’m with somebody.’
These days they’re back on OK terms, and there’s a picture of King in this office. Sporadically there will also be a call from the 89-year-old.
‘I haven’t spoken to him in well over a year now,’ Warren says. ‘It would have been about us taking over the world, the usual bulls***.’
For all the aggression with which Warren is known for fighting his corner, the bookmaker’s son tends to put a philosophical front on the wins and losses of his trade.
He came up from a council flat in Islington (not the ‘gutter’, as one old profile put it, costing that paper £10,000 when he took offence) and he left school at 14, so he likes to project himself as being quite high-minded about the lows between the peaks. The latter include his staging of Joe Calzaghe-Jeff Lacy and Ricky Hatton-Kostya Tszyu, which were the defining fights for two British legends, and the night in 1995 at Wembley when Frank Bruno finally became a world champion.
He also took Hamed to Madison Square Garden and a fight for the ages with Kevin Kelley.
In the other column, he brings up the ‘£1.5m, £2m’ he lost on Hamed’s 93-second fight with Billy Hardy in 1997. ‘It’s the business we are in,’ he says. ‘I can’t cry about it.’
Losing the great Calzaghe in 2008 left a larger bruise than most after 12 years of facilitating his rise — to this day Warren maintains that the Welshman was ‘disloyal’ — and of course there was the unsolved mystery of the masked gunman who fired two 9mm bullets into his chest in 1989. He won’t ever ‘grass’ on the shooter, whose identity Warren has long known, but he’s open on the £14m he subsequently missed out on when his investors lost confidence in a deal around his London Arena project.
‘I discharged myself after nine days and went to work to get confidence back,’ he says. ‘Getting shot scared everyone off when we were 10 days away from signing.
‘That was tough.’
Down but not out.
Warren is laughing. He is remembering a good night and it’s to do with the other Frank in one of his pictures. Warren brought Sinatra to London Arena to perform in 1990.
Warren recalled his ‘fisticuffs’ with Mike Tyson after he racked up a hefty jewellery bill
‘I had known him years,’ Warren says. ‘He was great fun. He could drink. One night we took over this restaurant after his show. There was a knock on the door, and his minder tells this fella to sod off. Turned out the fella was the Duke of Westminster. He owned the building.’
He’s also got a memory about Billy Joe Saunders asking for a caravan as an ‘advance’ on a £5m fee in talks to make a fight with Gennady Golovkin, and then there’s the story of the old Argentine world champion, Julio Cesar Vasquez, who came over for a bout in Belfast in 1994.
‘He lost his kit so went to a sports shop and bought himself some gear and went for a run,’ Warren says. ‘He was picked up by a cabbie looking terrified. He’d gone running up the Falls Road in The Troubles wearing a Glasgow Rangers shirt.’
Warren is on good form over this old ground. He says his ‘glass is always half full’, and has been throughout his battles in an abrasive, muddled, brilliant sport that has its share of shady characters.
If there was one time when he seemed uncomfortable in that world, it was in the soul-searching aftermath of the Nigel Benn-Gerald McClellan war in 1995 that left McClellan’s brain damaged. It’s as close as Warren has come to quitting.
He was told by the British Boxing Board of Control’s former medical chief Adrian Whiteson he could ‘do more good from within’, so he stayed. He has done more than most to improve safety in a dangerous sport — something even his detractors are unlikely to contest.
The only area where he wishes he had acted differently concerned a personal topic. It’s Warren who brings up the subject of his younger brother, Mark, who killed himself in 2010.
‘I am not saying I could have stopped it from happening, but I could have given more of my time,’ Warren says. ‘He would maybe ring now when we are doing this interview. Not his fault but I would say, “I’ll call you back”, and that call back would probably be after I have looked at all my calls from the day, when really I should have phoned him and had a chat.’
All roads with Warren lead to Tyson Fury eventually. The promoter was having a ropey time at the start of the last decade, between his departure from Sky Sports and the commencement of his deal with BT in 2016.
Eddie Hearn had risen on his own mission of global domination in the same period, and there is no great affection between them, but Warren has had a piece of Fury since 2018 and on boxing’s monopoly board, it’s a very strong property.
What has played out with Fury over the past few months has been a snapshot of the maddening business of this sport, with the WBC world champion’s fight against Anthony Joshua close and then suddenly very far away again.
Now Fury is poised to face Deontay Wilder instead, and even by the standards of his trade Warren says it has been ‘complicated’.
The promoter remains a salesman for Fury, who divides opinion in the boxing world
So is Fury. There are plenty who don’t like him and he has certainly provided ample opportunity for folk to board that train. Warren says he is no ‘apologist’ for Fury’s previous remarks, but he remains a salesman for a figure who will never unite opinion.
‘I remember taking him for a meeting with BT,’ he says. ‘It was around the comeback after all his problems. BT sit down with the Premier League and the Champions League and all of a sudden we are in there, with a fighter. He was just being himself and he bared his heart. They loved him.
‘I like him. He’s funny, unique, and he’s very intelligent. I went up to Morecambe to see him a year ago. You’re thinking it’s a meeting, lunch, but he brought his kids and everything. It was great. Another time I was doing a charity dinner for Nordoff Robbins (music therapy centre) and Tyson came along as the guest. He put 10 grand in. He didn’t have to do that.’
It remains to be seen if the fight with Joshua happens, and likewise if Warren and Hearn will ever sit together at ringside.
They are yet to meet in person and rarely have a good word for one another, particularly at the moment. But as this conversation approaches its close, Warren does have a couple, and says the younger promoter ‘has done well’, spoken in the context of building on ‘his dad’s business’.
Of course, if you look at it, there’s possibly a little dig in there, too. Not a wild swing or a body shot, but maybe a nudge. A soft jab. The habit of a lifetime, if you prefer.
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