If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools …
From “If” by Rudyard Kipling
In boxing, survival is key. From the ageing four-round journeyman, hugging and slipping his way to a 40-36 points defeat, through to the coiffed young prospect resisting the lure of the nightclub and their leg weakening patrons – its all about getting to the finish line, wherever or whenever that may be.
Promoters, usually lazily labeled the sharks in boxing’s murky waters, like everyone in the sport, struggle for survival too. For most in the boxing fraternity empathy with promoters is rare and, amongst the guerrilla internet forums where opinion is increasingly shaped and originated, nonexistent. But in the “dog-eat-dog” world of boxing promotion, surviving a debut show with the finance and will to plan a second is triumph enough. To survive and endure more than two decades of boxing’s incessant pressure, whilst permanently stalked by financial failure, demonstrates an appetite for survival as insatiable as any of the fighters showcased.
Frank Warren is one such survivor. A man harangued and chastised at every turn, pursued and denounced on a range of issues, most persistently on the contentious and entirely subjective notion that he matches his fighters too cautiously, Warren, for all his experience, remains sensitive to the accusation, and when pressed will vehemently defend his record and the respective wealth and health of his premier fighters.
As the guiding hand in the careers of Britain’s two leading fighters, Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe, his judgement on opponents and the speed of their development has been heavily criticised. Ultimately, many have grown impatient. SKY television grew tired of routine and faceless title defences for Calzaghe, and Hatton expressed concern at his own stagnation through 2003/2004.
But, survivors survive. Warren emerged from the debris of his SKY contract on the crescendo of Hatton’s victory over Kostya Tszyu, his Amir Khan trump card secured and a contract with terrestrial broadcaster ITV freshly signed. Once again, Warren “dusted” himself down and appeared better placed than ever to capitalise on the possibilities within his stable.
In a promotional career encompassing unlicensed fights in the capitol’s gritty “spit and sawdust” small halls to fluctuating roles in the Tyson, Benn and Hamed soap operas, Warren has countered every real and metaphorical bullet the sport has fired at him.
Despite these volumes of experience, Warren has been genuinely stung by the contractual developments that now seem close to depriving him of his prized asset. Embarrassingly, in the week before Calzaghe’s first appearance on ITV – the Welshman faces Evans Ashira, a fighter so obscure even the traditionally eccentric WBO rankings are an unlikely place to find him – Warren looks close to losing Ricky Hatton. The millions that saw Hatton and Warren side by side in the immediate aftermath of the former’s famous victory over Kostya Tszyu will find it hard to fathom the collapse of their relationship. Clearly, Hatton believes he graduated outside the ring as well as in it.
Frank Warren’s Sports Network directed Hatton’s career from the outset in 1997, shrewdly matching the youngster to nurture his natural talent and develop a loyal and mobilised fan base. When Kostya Tszyu failed to emerge for the final round in June, Warren could have been forgiven for glancing around the packed MEN arena and allowing himself a satisfied smile as he contemplated the fight fans across three continents who’d tuned in to witness Hatton’s arrival as a boxing superstar.
Hatton is unquestionably Warren’s defining work. The culmination of eight years management and investment and a lifetime’s experience of the nuances and pitfalls of the boxing business poured into a single career.
But the reality of losing that defining work whilst in the glow of his greatest promotional coup is closer than any informed observer would have dared venture as recently as a week ago. The timing of Hatton’s pursuit of greater control and remuneration could be described as unfortunate or cruel depending on your perspective. Warren’s partnership with ITV is still embryonic and hasn’t started well. Fresh from the disappointment of Danny Williams’ withdrawal from their opening show (and subsequently moderate viewing figures), widespread bemusement at the selection of Evans Ashira for Calzaghe in the second, Scott Harrison’s injury-induced withdrawal from what would have been the third, and the possibility of losing Hatton before he’s ever entertained their terrestrial audience will surely have rung alarm bells with the network. And caused Warren embarrassment too.
Such is the marketability of Hatton; conceivably every major promoter on the planet will seek an audience if his contractual freedom can be confirmed. Presently this remains a topic of passionate claim and counterclaim by Hatton and his father, Ray Hatton, and Frank Warren’s Sports Network stable.
In a fortnight of unprecedented drama, played out in excruciating detail and with the internet’s trademark immediacy, fight fans have been able to track the mood and increasingly bitter path taken by the negotiations (or lack thereof). As recently as mid-August the story could be dispelled as little more than a mischievous rumor, the type reported, discussed and dismissed on message boards and forums in a single afternoon.
But this rumor refused to wilt and Frank Warren, compelled to try and clarify the situation, succeeded in further fueling the credence of the story; speaking to the Steve Bunce on BBC Radio Five Live on August 18th Warren countered, “I've done a magnificent job for Ricky outside the ring and delivered him everything I said I'd do. He fought Kostya Tszyu in his hometown when it was very difficult to get the fight on over here. Ricky's done a fantastic job in the ring. He's a lovely fella. His dad's done a fantastic job advising him. Billy Graham's done a great job. And I don't see why that shouldn't continue to be the case.”
Despite his critics, few could argue with Warren’s view of the situation, but most revealing was Warren’s tone of resignation and the plea to Hatton’s loyalty and principled nature. For a man as seasoned as Warren to concede “I just hope everybody does the right thing” illuminates how serious the prospect of Hatton departing had become. Hearing the traditionally bullish promoter, a man accustomed to the unsavoury rigors of professional boxing, claim the moral high ground and implore the Hatton team to fulfil their obligation reeked of desperation. There was no other word for it.
The story quickly evolved and became a seemingly daily exchange of press releases and quotes as both sides desperately searched for the ethical and legal ascendancy. A key development further stoked the controversy: Ricky Hatton’s brother, welterweight Matthew, withdrew from a Sports Network promotion in which he was to headline against Ross Minter. Matthew now reappears on the Woods vs. Gonzales undercard, promoted by Fight Academy, and explicitly reported the move was to show unity with his brother.
Warren’s reply? To announce that not only did he have a binding three fight agreement with Ricky Hatton that he would legally contest if he had to, but he’d also sealed an exclusive agreement with the MEN Arena, home of Hatton’s greatest nights, for two years. Even if Hatton extricated himself from Warren’s clutches he wouldn’t be conducting his subsequent career at the MEN.
Suddenly, this was no longer a flimsy internet rumor. This story had substance and their relationship was clearly crumbling beyond repair. The cynics sneered; Warren’s failure to advance Hatton fast enough was coming home to roost. But is that really true? Hasn’t Hatton earned handsomely from his career? Hasn’t the level of risk been prudently managed? Hasn’t Hatton enjoyed home comforts for all his fights?
As fans pondered the possibilities, as writers wondered what tomorrow would bring, Hatton landed another punishing broadside. Hatton would seek to fight WBA champion Carlos Maussa with Dennis Hobson as the promoter later in the year.
Which bring the story almost up to date. Yesterday Warren reluctantly moved the argument to a legal level serving papers to prevent Hatton from fighting for any other promoter until he’d proved he was free to do so. A fact Warren vigorously denies.
The soap opera has entertained and sustained fight fans waiting for the return of British boxing to the sporting calendar. Both parties have much to resolve in the days and weeks ahead and boxing observers will hope Ricky Hatton’s career doesn’t suffer as a result. But whatever the outcome, Frank Warren will survive. He always does.
Now, have you heard about this Amir Khan kid? I forget who promotes him.