“They symbolism of boxing does not allow for ambiguity…” writes Kasia Boddy, “the boxing match has served as a metaphor for opposition- the struggle between two bodies before an audience, usually for money, representing struggles between opposing qualities, ideas and values… nationality, class, race, ethnicity, religion, politics and different versions of masculinity…” (Boxing: A Cultural History – 2008).
Boxing has been with us for most of civilization. Evidence of the sport can be found as far back as 4000 B.C, and today boxing is not just one of the most financially powerful sports on the planet- but one which retains a deep purpose and impact in the community. As Andy Ruiz Jr. once said, “Boxing gave me the discipline and took me away from the streets and away from the corners. It changed my life, you know. Boxing dragging me away from all the bad potential I had.”
Few individuals have had as much of an impact on modern boxing as Frank Warren. In a career spanning over 35 years, Frank has worked with some of the biggest fighters in boxing history – Hamed, Bruno, Tyson, Calzaghe, Benn, Collins, Eubank, Khan and Hatton. Warren and his son own and run Queensberry Promotions, he is also founder of the British boxing television channel BoxNation and was inducted into the international boxing hall of fame in 2008. In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Frank about his life in boxing, what it takes to be a great fighter, and how boxing can impact the community, and our lives.
Q: How did boxing promotion come into your life?
[Frank Warren]: I got into boxing promotion by accident. Growing-up, my dad was a big boxing fan, and my uncles too- they all boxed in the army. One of my cousins was a boxer, so I used to go watch him fight as an amateur and then when he turned pro. My second cousin Lenny McLean was a boxer who was in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (they dedicated the film to him). He got involved in what they used to call unlicensed fights. He had a fight, I went to watch it… he got beat and had a return match… he beat the guy… they had another match, but they wanted to pay them crap money. I went to the meeting, turned around and said, ‘…I don’t need you, we’ll promote it…’ I don’t know why I even said that! The next minute, I was in the promotion business and helping to get this thing together; I got bitten by the bug, and it went from there.
Q: Why has boxing become such a powerful global sport?
[Frank Warren]: There is a tradition to boxing that taps into the natural fighting instinct of man- it was even present at the original Olympic Games.
When it was originally put together under the Queensberry Rules, boxing became a spectacle that people could buy tickets for- until then, it was illegal. There were a lot of bareknuckle and bare fisted fights going on, like raves. People were told where to go and got the message a day before… they converged, watched the fight and often placed big stakes. The Marquess of Queensberry rules came out, and eventually the British Board of Boxing Control was formed and that’s when the sport started to really grow in the UK.
Heavyweight fighters have always been some of the most famous sportsmen on the planet. Just go back through the history of boxing, you have people like Gentleman Jim Corbett, Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson… you then go all the way through to Marciano, Ali and Mike Tyson. It’s happening in other weight divisions now too. Look at Floyd Mayweather, for 7 of the last 12 years he’s been the highest earning athlete in the world.
People are drawn to boxing- it’s two men baring their souls in a ring over 12 rounds, and the greatest fights are remembered for decades. It’s the 35th anniversary of the Hagler vs. Hearns fight- which only lasted 3 rounds, but was amazing. If you speak to any sports-writer, like the late Hugh McIlvanney, they’ll tell you they all love to write about boxing- it was the ultimate sport to write about.
Q: What does it take to make a great fighter?
[Frank Warren]: To be a great fighter you obviously have to have talent, but what really matters is dedication and discipline. I’ve seen so many guys with talent where I’ve thought, ‘this guy’s going to be a world champion…’ but they’ve not had the dedication. They’ve not given what you had to give, which is everything. To succeed as a boxer, you have to dedicate your life to it… it’s a very short career for a professional fighter.
They obviously fight from when they’re kids, and through their amateur careers, but you have to dedicate your life to it. The ones who dedicate themselves, who live the life, come through. Look at George Best, his career was over when he was 27-28 – it was nosediving because he didn’t have the dedication. He had tremendous talent, but you can’t get-by on talent. Hurricane Higgins was a great snooker player, but he only got so far and then got let down because he never had the dedication that Steve Davis had.
You have to have dedication, and a lot of that is self-belief. You can’t just succeed with talent.
Q: How do you build the right mindset in a fighter?
[Frank Warren]: Anyone can have a good trainer; you can learn the moves and get fit. Any boxer or athlete can get super fit – the edge is mental ability – It’s having the self-belief. If you’re not right in the head? You’ll never do it. I’ve seen guys getting beaten mentally. Mike Tyson beat a lot of fighters mentally before they even got in the ring, Tyson Fury does the same thing – they get in people’s minds. To do that, their own minds have to be finely honed, and they have to be absolutely spot-on. Boxing is the most dangerous of sports- it’s not about who punches the hardest (why would you need judges otherwise?), it’s about the art of hitting and not being hit… it’s about brains, and the knowledge of ring-craft.
Q: How do boxers cope with defeat?
[Frank Warren]: You can narrowly lose a fight because of a bad decision, or you could get annihilated, destroyed, in the ring… and never recover from that, perhaps that’s the time to retire. It’s our job outside the ring to sit with the fighter and figure out what happened. There’s an old adage that the boxer is the last one to know – it’s not true, he’s the first one to know, but the last to acknowledge it. Look at Tyson Fury and that first fight he had with Wilder– he won that fight, he got robbed. The rematch? He done a job on Wilder, destroyed him. How’s Wilder going to come back from that for a third fight? How’s he going to do it? It’ll be very interesting to see how, mentally, he gets over that – it’s a big thing. Should he even be fighting him again? …but he wants it, it’s contracted to happen… but I just don’t know how he’s going to get over those losses.
It’s our job to bring fighters back – I’ve done it time and time again with guys who’ve been beaten. I remember Amir Khan got knocked out in one round, two fights later – he won the World Title. We picked the right fights and got him back in there.
You can learn from defeat – it’s not the end of the world, but you have to learn from it and realise that there are times when you can come back, and times where you have to say, ‘enough… enough…. You’re getting too hurt… you’re just not the guy you were…’
Q: How do you spot talent early?
[Frank Warren]: People think that the Olympic Games are a yardstick for boxing talent, they think someone goes to the Olympics, wins a gold medal, and that means that they’re going to win the World Title. Until James DeGale won a World Title, no-one who’d won a gold medal for Britain in the Olympic Games had ever won a professional World Title, which is quite amazing when you think about that. Think of the guys that didn’t even get to the Olympic Games like Naseem Hamed, Nigel Benn, Eubank, Joe Calzaghe, Tyson Fury, Ricky Hatton. Sometimes the greatest boxers get overlooked- or maybe it’s because of whoever is picking the amateur team… or maybe there are politics involved…. Sometimes you may just come across guys who are hungrier!
You can start-off with somebody quite young in their career, and you can bring them through, and I’ve invested in a lot of fighters with time and money to bring them through – it’s an investment of probably 3 years before you start getting them to where you want them to be. There have been a lot of guys in recent years like Mitchell Smith who looked a million dollars. TV loved him, he looked like he was going to be the next big thing, but outside the ring all he kept doing was getting into trouble. He was boozing, he was messing around, he got arrested. It was just a waste of a career. When you see people with potential, you have to be really hard with yourself and hard with them too. If it doesn’t work, you have to let them go – you can see quickly whether people are dedicated or not, whether they’re going to be bad lads or not (I don’t mean bad lads in terms of being horrible people, but more in terms of their professionalism). People could have given up on Tyson Fury when he went off the rails – he was suicidal, he blew up in weight, and everyone thought it was over. We sat down together, spoke, and I could see there and then that he could go through it mentally – he was strong enough to come through and look where he is now!
Q: What is the relationship between boxing and the media?
[Frank Warren]: The traditional media always worked through newspapers – and when I started-out in boxing, and probably until about 15 years ago, newspapers had a dedicated boxing writer. They employed somebody to write about boxing… that changed with layoffs, the growth of the internet and social media – we’ve lost that now. Sports editors are only interested in the big names – it’s increasingly difficult to bring through the young guys – and we have to be very innovative with how we do that. Today, we have to use a lot of social media to build the profile of people, but the internet can be good or bad, right? If you try and bring whoever it is to the attention of the public, you have to decide whether people will buy tickets, will they watch it on BT or other portfolio companies, or are they just nerdy guys who want to engage on social and nothing more or those who steal the signal and don’t pay! In this day and age, if you say you’re putting on an Anthony Joshua fight or a Tyson Fury, or a Mayweather, it doesn’t take a lot to bring it to the public’s attention; but other shows do, and it takes a lot of planning – if we’re trying to bring-through the younger fighters, we put them on one of these big shows so they get exposure. I can remember audiences of 15 million watching fights…. In those days, Coronation Street or EastEnders got 18-20 million people watching. Today, everything is fragmented – the audience is fragmented – people are selecting what they want to watch – so if I want to watch a gardening show, I go to the gardening channel… or I find it on the internet… If I want to watch something about DIY, I can do the same thing, and it’s the same with sport. If you want to watch sport, they have dedicated sports platforms… it’s fragmented. One big benefit now is being able to identify audiences because we know more about them now – so we can then market our fighters better. With Ricky Hatton for example, he was a massive Man City fan, so we really targeted Man City supporters and he developed a huge fanbase from that.
Q: How is social media impacting fighters?
[Frank Warren]: You do what you can to advise; but the problem is that if you’re a professional boxer, you have a lot of time on your hands. You go to the gym, you spar, and then what? If you’re not married… if you’re on your own or whatever… how do you use your time? Some people can deal with it, some people get themselves in trouble… which is what Billy Joel Saunders does… somebody should get his phone and drop it down a drain. He gets himself in trouble. Fighters have to be adult and mature enough to understand the internet and today’s communications.
Q: What is the power of boxing in society?
[Frank Warren]: Most boxing clubs and amateur clubs are full of kids off the streets. It’s not about whether they’re good or bad, but that’s the reality.
In London, there’s a place called Hackney Boxing Academy – it’s a school run by one of the most important people I’ve ever met. 90% of the kids there are kids who’ve been excluded from schools, they’ve been troublemakers… She lets them into the school on the basis that they can train, and most of them are interested in boxing. They train twice a day, they have a mentor in the class such as an amateur or pro boxer who sits in class with them and sits with them. When they get to school, they have their phones taken off them and they have lessons, they get results. This school has found a way to engage them, and they’ve done that through boxing. Boxing is not just about being a professional fighter; if you are an amateur, and you go to the gym and train, you’re improving your life… you’re interacting with people… you’re learning about discipline and respect. Remember, if you’re in the ring sparring and the bell rings, you stop… it’s discipline.
Community boxing clubs reach out to street kids, and reach out to the parts of society where most of our crime emanates from. It gives people a sense of purpose, and has a massive role. Look – it won’t work for everyone, some kids are bad, they’re going to be bad, and we’re not going to change them… but the majority of the kids come through this, and they learn and it’s great for them.
If we really want to tackle the challenges in our cities – we need more of this kind of work being done.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Frank Warren]: I come from a block of council flats in Islington- that’s where I was brought up. It was a tough-old estate, I wasn’t born with a silver-spoon in my mouth. When I got into boxing, it was a closed-shop – it was run by a cartel, and I think one of the things I was really pleased with was that I managed to break that cartel and change boxing, so it was more open for promoters and competitions. I like to think I’ve also contributed to the health-side of it- it’s really important to me- we’ve started doing regular MRI scans and many other initiatives. I’d like to think I’ve also been able to help some young kids make it who had aspirations to go on to do some great things with their lives, I’ve been able to make it happen for them, and secure them and their families future, and that makes me feel really proud.
Q: What can we learn from boxing to apply to our own lives?
[Frank Warren]: The most important things we can learn from boxing are discipline and respect.
When you see boxers badmouthing each other and all that crap- you need to realise that 95% of the time, after the fight, they have their arms around each other. They’ve had a real ding-dong of a battle, they’ve given it everything, but they’re friends for life because they’ve been part of this epic event together.