Frank Warren, who recently celebrated 40 years in the sport, details his early life and in his own words explains what he went through to become a boxing promoter
WHAT was I like as a kid? Some people said I was shy, a lot of people said I wasn’t. I suppose it depended on the company I was keeping. I lived in a block of flats, then moved over the road to Pentonville Road and another block of flats in an area called Priory Green Estate, which was built after the war.
I can remember playing on the bomb ruins, we used to go out and collect wood to build big fires; there’d be rival estates, we’d go and nick their wood and they’d nick ours.
I was the manager of a football team. We got a little league together. I was 11 or 12 years old when I started managing the team. Eventually we got in the Regents Park Sunday League and a lot of the teams were from the boxing clubs, which was common back then.
I used to have meetings with all the managers of the teams above a pub in Holloway Road. All pubs in those days had those big function rooms upstairs. I’d go up there for the meeting, midweek, when I should have been in bed. They’d all be grown men and there was me with all the managers.
I was lucky as a kid. I had really loving grandparents and I was the favourite grandchild: I’m sure my brothers and cousins would agree with that; my sister would be p**sed off, but I was. When I was young I did well at school, I went to a grammar school. I was always in the top three in the class and I passed my eleven-plus. My mum and dad split up and I never went back to school. I was 14-and-a-half and I was out and about. I worked in Smithfield meat market, I worked down Covent Garden flower market. My first job was as a solicitor, where I was looking to work my way up but I became quite bored with that and jumped ship after a couple of months.
By the age of 20, I was working for myself. I had pubs, nightclubs, a couple of ‘drinkers’; pubs back then used to close in the day. The licensing laws in London would be, midweek, 11am until 3pm and then they’d open up again at about 5:30 and close at 11pm. The weekends would be open at 12, close at 2, then open up again at 7 and close at 10:30. I had a couple of clubs that used to fill in those hours. My family, like my dad and my uncle, they boxed in the army. I’m related to Johnny Wall, an old professional boxer, so I used to go and watch him as an amateur in the late Sixties. He signed with George Francis and if he’d had more discipline, he could have gone on and done some great things. A big friend of the family’s was Terry Govier, who used to fight under the name Terry Allen and he was a world flyweight champion. He’d always be round my nan’s house and my uncle used to go running with him early in the morning when he used to train for fights. You could say that was my grounding in boxing.
But to go from that grounding to being a promoter happened by accident. Lenny McClean was on my Uncle Bob’s side of the family. Lenny was my aunt Kathy’s brother’s son, so he was like my second cousin. My Uncle Bob [Bobby Warren] and I went to watch his first fight with Roy Shaw in place called Sinatras in Croydon. Lenny hadn’t trained a day. Shaw, who was an ex-fighter and managed by Mickey Duff when he was a pro, came out and Lenny clipped him. His legs went but Lenny never threw another punch after that. He just crossed his arms, went back to the corner and motioned for Shaw to hit him. Which of course he did, about 50 times. Eventually Lenny just slid down the ropes. I remember thinking, ‘What was that all about?’ I never got on that well with Lenny but I went back to the dressing room with my uncle and he b*****ked him: ‘Why did you let someone do that to you for?’ A few months later they were going to have a rematch so Lenny went to see my uncle who told him, if he was going to fight, he had to train properly. At the time, Johnny Wall was trained over at Lavender Hill by Freddie Hill – who trained the Finnegan brothers among others – so Freddie trained Lenny. Even then, I had no interest in boxing other than being a fan. Of course, all this stuff was unlicensed. It was pretty dreadful to be honest. It was like what you see today in blue collar and white collar fights, these guys with no experience.
There were also a lot of ex-fighters involved that shouldn’t have been fighting but I had no idea at the time. Anyway, it’s the week of the rematch. Lenny comes to my Uncle and says he’s been warned that if he wins the fight, ‘something will happen’ to him. Well, my uncle was well known and told him not to worry. On the night, he ends up in Lenny’s corner and myself and Johnny Wall were the two seconds; not because we were his ‘trainers’ but in case anything kicked off. Lenny goes out there and does a job on him. A week after that they had a meeting. There was going to be a rubber match. I was sitting in on the meeting not supposed to say anything. They offered him crap money and I said, ‘He’s just beaten you, pay him more.’ They refused so I piped up, ‘Screw you, we’ll promote ourselves.’ My uncle said afterwards, ‘What’s the matter with you? Why are you saying all that for?’ And that was how I got into boxing. The next thing we’re booking the Rainbow [Theatre in Finsbury Park] to fight someone else. We made our money out of side bets, Lenny took whatever the gate money was after all the expenses. We raised money for charity, too – the Freddie Mills Boys Club got a percentage of it. Of course, the first thing you should do when you’re arranging fights is make sure you’ve got some boxing gloves. And I forgot about that. It’s 12 o’clock at night and Ernie Fossey, my dear old mate, came running to the rescue with a suitcase full of boxing gloves. I ended up doing a lot of shows. I formed the National Boxing Council, which had the same standards as the British Boxing Board of Control. Then a few journalists started coming along and taking notice. Nick Pitt at the Sunday Times, he had an open mind to what I was doing.
It was a crap level, a bit like what Danny Williams is doing now, it was all wrong but that’s what was going on. It was what it was. But it was doing well. It was getting big crowds. At the time, Mickey Duff and the Cartel, they put a few bum shows on, most famously the night of the ‘Tijuana Tumblers’ when all the fights were over in about six rounds. The late great Reg Gutteridge, who was from Islington, he started coming to my shows too. The catalyst to me taking the [Board] licence was the late Wally Bartleman who was a well-respected [Evening Standard] journalist. He was tank commander in the war and he had a gruff old voice. I’ll never forget, he was at one of my shows and he said, ‘Why are you f**king about with this for? Why don’t you get a licence and get involved with some proper boxing?’ The next thing I know I’m being invited by the Southern Area council to take out a licence. They probably thought it was better that I was in the tent rather than out of it.
I lost a lot of money on my first show. Topping the bill was Jerry Martin vs Otis Gordon in Bloomsbury (December 1, 1980). We hoped to get TV for it but unbeknownst to me, the Board had a rule where you had to do so many shows before you could get TV. I got hit with all these regulations that I wasn’t used to. To be quite honest, I hadn’t even read the regulations book; I was used to doing what I was doing.
The main two venues, the only two venues really being used in London at that time, were Wembley and the Royal Albert Hall. I couldn’t get a foothold in either of them. Jarvis Astaire was chairman at Wembley or on the board and Mike Barrett, also part of the Cartel, had exclusivity of the Albert Hall so I’m up against it. The Board had to start making decisions and they inevitably favoured them. There were policies like, ‘No major shows to be within 14 days of each other in London’. But why? And what constituted a ‘major show’? So I had to start asking some serious questions of The Board. But I couldn’t get any answers from them.
I put my show on. It was empty. I barely sold any tickets. If someone came in with a blunderbuss and started shooting they wouldn’t have hit anyone, it was that bad. Which is quite ironic really, now I’m promoting on my 40th anniversary and there’s still no one there!
I was a young fella who thought I knew it all and I got my arse smacked. It was a huge lesson and I learned quickly. I started to take The Board on, I was at war with them. As far as I was concerned, they were trying to knock me off the box so I rose to the challenge. Nobody was going to do that to me. They’d done it to other people, a few who had to tried to break in got rolled over. I got my head down, worked out how much it was going to cost me, threw the money in the pot and did what I had to do.
But it was tough. I was putting on dinner shows which was hard. But I was doing okay: I was running a nightclub in the Barbican – me and Frank McLintock, the old Arsenal captain, were partners. I had other interests. I was in the machine business with pool tables, cigarette machines and gambling machines that we were putting into a lot of pubs in London.
I would wake up with a spring in my step. ‘What have we got to do today?’ I put a little team together, I got Ernie Fossey to be my chief matchmaker. There was only four of us in the office but everyone was engaged with it and up for the fight. They were great days.
I went out and signed some ABA champions, I got TV when I moved heaven and earth to outbid the Cartel to get Steve Early vs Clinton McKenzie (February 1982). I managed to get it on the BBC, even though they didn’t want it at first because they had an exclusive with Mickey Duff. That broke the façade that they were the only game in town. I signed more fighters, I brought Joe Bugner back, I approached ITV through Thames Televsion and I got live television on. Prior to that, if you wanted to watch boxing it would be recorded on the Tuesday night, then be shown on Sportsnight on Wednesday and Grandstand on the Saturday.
Then The Board didn’t want live television. They tried to throw that at me. In fact, they threw everything. You name it, they threw it. I was even told that the Board would withdraw officials for a Keith Wallace fight on the day if I went through with my plans but my two lawyers laid into them. It was a war.
Gradually, they realised I wasn’t going away.