To mark Frank Warren’s 70th birthday and his four decades in boxing, the Boxing Writers’ Club hosted a lunch at which the promoter was the guest of honour. After being read a tribute from none other than Don King, he duly revisited a lifetime as one of the sport’s most influential figures – and his recollections of working with Tyson Fury, Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton, Prince Naseem Hamed, King, Bob Arum, and more.

Who, out of all of the fighters you’ve promoted, has given you the most satisfaction?

Warren: Tyson Fury’s given me the most satisfaction, because of where he came from. He was a total outcast, as far as boxing’s concerned. He was in the depths of despair, and weighing around 28st – everyone had given up on him. I sat with him, looked him in the eyes, and knew that he had the hunger there, and the need for boxing. Boxing saved him. If it weren’t for boxing – as he said, he could have suicided – boxing gave him a sense of direction, and it’s been a privilege to be a part of. He was 28st – he lost 11st – and the rest is history. I’ve really enjoyed it – I’ve been very fortunate. He’s a unique character. He’s a one-off. 

…and the most disappointing?

Warren: There’s an old adage in boxing. “Never fall in love with a fighter.” They can start believing the hype. The biggest disappointment is a guy called Tony Collins, a light-middleweight from Yateley in the late 80s. At 18 he turned professional, and I remember watching him spar with Lloyd Honeyghan, who’d either just won the world title or was fighting for the world title. He stood Lloyd Honeyghan on his head. That happens sometimes in sparring, but they went back the next day, and obviously Honeyghan’s looking to… he done the same thing again. He turned professional, and had quite a few wins, but he was a bad lad outside of the ring. He didn’t live the life, always getting in trouble – the week of a fight he got arrested and we had to get him out of jail. It was just the total waste of a career, and I really do feel he would have been one of our best. Talent gets you so far; dedication, commitment gets you over the line, and he didn’t have either of those.

Who would you most like to have promoted?

Warren: [Muhammad] Ali. He would have promoted me. There’s a scene in When We Were Kings – it’s a great, great movie – Ali’s talking away to all the journalists, and [eventually] the conversation runs out. He says, “I’m going to bed”; five minutes later his head comes round the door and he wants to talk. I thought to myself: “This is Muhammad Ali – what is it like to get a boxer to do anything?” The greatest fighter in the world made himself available to everybody. He was a man of the people. Some guys now distance themselves. Tyson Fury’s a man of the people – he was in a pub with his shirt off the last I saw him…

If you could change one thing – perhaps the outcome of a fight, or a negotiation – what would it be?

Warren: I wouldn’t change anything. Everything happens for a reason. Whatever happens you have to make the best of a situation and learn from the situation and move on. I wish I weren’t in Barking [when I got shot] one night…[laughs]. But you move on to the next fight.

What was the greatest fight you’ve promoted?

Warren: Each year you get involved in something great. [Joe] Calzaghe and Jeff Lacy [in 2006] was a great night. He was a massive underdog – the majority didn’t give him a chance. I really did fancy him. They should have pulled Jeff Lacy out, but that was a great night. Calzaghe against [Mikkel] Kessler [in 2007] – a really good Kessler. It was a brilliant night – a great night’s boxing. The three different fights with Tyson – I keep coming back to Tyson – [and Deontay Wilder], they were brilliant nights, every single one of them, and the last one [in 2021, after 2018 and 2020], for a heavyweight fight I’ve actually been at and seen, was the most amazing night. 

Ricky Hatton-[Kostya] Tszyu [in 2005]. Naz [Naseem Hamed], when we took him out to Madison Square Garden and he fought Kevin Kelley. That fight was so exciting – they were up and down like anything. No Brits had ever promoted a fight at Madison Square Garden. It was about eight days [actually six] before Christmas [in 1997] and Bob Arum said, “You’ll do your money”, and it was the highest grossing featherweight fight that had ever taken place at The Garden. I’ve been blessed. I’m lucky – I come from council flats in Islington. I never thought for a minute I’d be doing these things. I’ve been so lucky, in a sport I never thought I’d be involved in. I remember watching Muhammad Ali fight Cleveland Williams on television, and being totally enthralled watching this handsome, athletic, graceful black guy doing the shuffle… Bob Arum; Don King; I’ve had the best life.

Warren with Ricky Hatton in 2001 following Hatton’s win against Freddie Pendleton (Gary M. Prior/ALLSPORT)

Do you think you’ll emulate Bob Arum and Don King and be promoting when you’re 90?

Warren: No. Please God I’m alive at 90. But no. That’s not what I’m looking to do. 

When Gerald McClellan fought Nigel Benn, did you have any inkling something was wrong?

Warren: Everybody thought he was going to knock Nigel out. It was one of the most brutal, tragic, compelling fights I’ve ever promoted. You guys were all standing on your seats watching it – I’ve never seen anything like it – it was just electric. 

Before the fight he fired Manny Steward, who trained and managed him, and he brought these two guys. They all thought it was going to be a formality – that he’d get in the ring and knock out Nigel. To be honest, in the first round, he [essentially] did. The referee could have stopped that, but he let it go on. As the fight went on, and he was blinking, I’m sure an experienced trainer would have looked and said, “Something’s wrong here”, and hopefully would have pulled him out. 

Afterwards we were in the hospital – he had a blood clot on the brain – and the guy with the sailor’s hat come in. The trainer [Stan Johnson]. Don King and I were sitting there, and he said to Don King, “I can’t do nothing for him, I’m going home tomorrow – can I get paid?” Then he said to Don, “Gerald’s a bad man – he beats me up”. It was a strange conversation. Don said, “Who’s the other guy in the corner?” “He met him at a dog fight a couple of weeks ago. He had a bet on a fight; Gerald’s dog got beat, he went to his car, went to the glove compartment, got a gun and shot the dog, and then he opened the boot and got another dog out for another fight, and they became great friends.” It was like a horror story. Don King said to him, “Well how much you gotta get?” “Five thousand dollars.” Five thousand dollars! But that’s what he did. He brought a guy in for $5,000, rather than have a proper trainer in there – somebody who may have made the difference and could have pulled him out of that fight. That referee could have stopped that fight in the first round and nobody would have complained, but he didn’t, and it went on. But I don’t blame the ref. When he went down on one knee and he was really blinking badly – at that stage you could see that something wasn’t right. If [the trainer] can’t pick up on that then there’s a problem.

Do you give Anthony Joshua any chance in Saudi Arabia against Oleksandr Usyk?

Warren: He’s got a puncher’s chance – I can’t see him outboxing him. Usyk came up, against [Derek] Chisora and [Chazz] Witherspoon, and he didn’t look exceptional in either of those fights, and I thought [Joshua] would be too big for him. I thought he’d control his fight with the jab as the bigger guy, and keep him on the outside. But what happened, as it unfolded, was the smaller guy was out-jabbing him and beating him on the outside. He boxed to order, and the last round, the corner could have chucked the towel in. If that had been the 11th round it’d have been all over. [Usyk] said to the interpreter that he was told not to take him out. This time round he knows he can knock him over, and more importantly [Joshua’s] not got home advantage. He’s in a neutral situation. He’s a consummate professional.

If you’re right, can a fight between Joshua and Fury still happen?

Warren: Yeah, people would buy that. All day long. It’s a story – people will buy into it. Tyson’s head and shoulders above all of them at the moment. I don’t want him to retire, and the reason I don’t want him to retire is ‘cause I don’t want him to come back in two or three years’ time when he’s at his peak now. Every day’s a different story [with Tyson] and you just walk with it. No one’s going to tell him anything – it’s what he wants to do.

If you’d continued to promote Ricky Hatton, would you have matched him with Floyd Mayweather?

Warren: Yeah – I think it would have happened earlier. Ricky was in an unfortunate position. He beat the pound-for-pound No 1 [Tszyu]. They all thought it was going to be a knockover job, but I’m a great believer in timing. We agreed the fight around January, and it went on in the summer. If it weren’t for Mayweather and [Manny] Pacquiao he’d have reigned for a while, but they were great fighters – not just for that era, but the stand-out fighters of their generation. I’d have taken him in a little bit of a different direction; we’d have made the fights, but I don’t think there’d have been any difference in the results. They’d have been too good for him. It’d have been the same [outcome if Mayweather-Hatton happened in the UK] – and the money was in Vegas. 

It’s a fantasy fight, but Mayweather would have been much too big for Naz. There was a moment in time where I thought anyone we could have put him against, he’d have done a job. But then he stopped training. That time we were in Atlantic City [for the Wayne McCullough fight in 1998], he was out of control – Adam Smith started crying, and he was rude to you [Colin Hart] – and I was pulling him up and having words with him. His dad was a lovely man, but the reason he was out of control was because of his brothers. It was crazy. The characters around boxing are amazing.

How do you feel when people call Daniel Dubois a quitter?

Warren: It’s disgraceful. He broke four bones in his eye socket – he can’t see. In UFC or MMA they tap out if they’re hurt. A guy can’t see. You’re throwing punches, your eyesight’s that bad you’re missing, and the punches coming towards you, you can’t get out of the way. He did the right thing. He’s a young man. I’ve got the written report – the doctor said if he’d carried on he’d have [risked] a detached retina and going blind in one eye. And he was in front on the scorecards. 

Do you ever see yourself doing a co-promotion with Eddie Hearn?

Warren: If [Joshua] wins a title again, yeah. If he wins. 

By taking on “The Cartel” do you think you ended up getting British boxers a better deal?

Warren: At the time BBC television was the only game in town, and The Cartel [of Terry Lawless, Jarvis Astaire, Mickey Duff and Mike Barrett] were the only game in town. Terry Lawless was a good trainer; if he’d said to his fighters, “I’m part of the promotion”, that’d have been fair enough but a lot of fighters were unaware of that. Him and Jarvis said at a [British] Boxing Board of Control hearing, “You’re a manager and promoter”, and I said, “Yeah, but the fighters know that”, and that’s the difference. They were different times and a different era – it doesn’t make it right or wrong.

What would you like your legacy to be?

Warren: I just want my kids [Francis, George and Christine] to be happy, and to be proud of me. That’s all that matters to me. Anybody else – somebody here will say I’m an old bloke and somebody else will say I’m an arsehole. That’s the way the world is. I believe I opened doors up, made it easier for other people with promotion, and got TV companies involved – so much so it’s on five or six channels now. There was no live boxing [when I was starting]. And: “He liked a glass of wine.”