Boxing Innovators

Frank Warren: "I lost a lot of money on my first licensed boxing show"

For the second of our Boxing Innovators series, Hall of Fame promotor Frank Warren relives four decades at the forefront of British boxing – from staging unlicensed shows to his biggest mistake as a promotor...  

Frank Warren

"The fact that I got shot didn't help," says Frank Warren, reminiscing on his time as owner of the London Arena and the problems that beset the project. 

He founded the Docklands venue in the 1980s. It hosted Nigel Benn's legendary fight against Gerald McClellan but Warren was forced to sell his ownership in 1996 – partly because his 1989 shooting scared off the banks and their promised financial support. No matter. The Hall of Fame promoter is still going strong, currently working with Bob Arum and Eddie Hearn to finalise one of the biggest fights in boxing history – Anthony Joshua vs Tyson Fury.

Warren has been at the forefront of British boxing for more than four decades. His innovations and business acumen helped usher the sport into the golden age of the 1990s. Long before Eddie Hearn, Warren understood the importance of putting on a show, of making an event feel like An Event.

The edited extracts below offer a small taster of a freewheeling conversation that takes us from the unlicensed shows of the 1970s to the rise of social media.

Warren is boxing's great survivor. Have a listen and find out why. 

Listen to the interview

Frank Warren on the unlicensed shows...

I went to see [his second cousin] Lenny McLean fight in a nightclub called Cinatras in Croydon, they probably had about 1,200 people in there. When I got involved, I got it into bigger venues, we had a 3,000 seater. The Royal Albert Hall and Wembley were the two venues in London... They'd got some stick from some bad matches: there was an infamous night called The Night of the Tijuana Tumblers. Four Mexicans fighters against British fighters with a total of six or seven rounds over the whole night. My shows were quite competitive: not great standard but they were a bit like Donkey Derbys – at least they were exciting to watch! 

On cornering Lenny McLean...

If I knew what I knew now, I wouldn't have done the unlicensed shows. I got involved because of Lenny. He made this rematch with Roy Shaw, having lost the first fight – and went to see it and it was terrible! Lenny never trained for it... On the night of the fight, my uncle and myself were in his corner. I knew nothing about corner work whatsoever! For the rubber match, they offered Lenny derisory money. I piped up saying we'll do it ourselves!

On his first professional event...

I lost a lot of money! The guys on my first shows were quite big ticket sellers but they never had BBoC licenses. A few people brought their fighters along, claiming to be big ticket sellers. None of them sold any tickets! I had these two Americans on, I was gonna get TV from the States... Everyone said it was gonna be a great fight – it was a stinker! I could have driven a double-decker bus around the arena and not knocked anyone over. It was empty. I got my arse kicked! It was quite a learning experience for me but painful lessons are often the best ones and if you don't learn from them you're a fool.

On helping to pay Michael Watson's settlement after his paralysis...

I never promoted Michael Watson. Obviously he was wheelchair-bound and the BBoC was fighting this case that he had brought against them. He was successful in the case, and the Board of Control were appealing that decision. If they weren't going to win they'd go into administration. I couldn't believe what was going on! At the end of the day, right's right and wrong's wrong. They'd screwed up. Michael was lucky to be alive. I felt that something should be done.

On promotional rivalries...

At the time, I had the best relationship with Don King. I've known Bob Arum for a long time: the first time we did a fight together was in 1985. We've been going a long time... Me and Eddie Hearn don't have a relationship cos I've never spoke with him! His dad Barry and I were partners in snooker for a while. I was never a big fan of Barry and he's probably never been a big fan of myself... But to be quite honest, I never think about it. I just get on and do my own thing. 

On reimagining the boxing show...

When I got into boxing, you'd go to the Royal Albert Hall. The main event would glove up in the ring. You can imagine how long that would take! The shows were broadcast on a delayed basis – they'd take place on Tuesday, be shown on a Wednesday and have highlights on Grandstand on Saturday. Only one fight would come in to a fanfare, which would be some scratchy old record. That was it! I thought I'd raise a bit of razzmatazz – the music, the lights. We brought advertising on the canvas, the ring post. It brought my income and thus enabled us to put on better quality fights. 

On launching BoxNation, the dedicated boxing channel...

It was great fun but it was tough! You're up against Sky – everyone said, it'll only last three months and they'll go skint. It was tough times! But I was determined that everyone did get paid and it'd be a success. The first four or five months, all the shows went out free to air. Every show, we had no TV income! We invested many millions of pounds and it's still running now.

On how boxing has changed...

The big difference is social media. Some of it is good, some of it is not good. There's more boxing on TV now: when I started out it was BBC and that was it. I had to get ITV onboard and they were the only two channels. There was only one game in town back then. There were no venues – you couldn't even book a venue. All those doors have been kicked down now. It's a level-playing field for everybody... As you get old, everyone harps back to the good old days but they are good days today.

Make It Or Die Trying: The Frank Warren Story is currently available on BT Sport

Want more boxing innovators? Check out our interview with Jake Paul