Frank Warren on the night he was shot and the Tyson Fury ‘gamble’ with a pay-off like no other

Frank Warren, owner of Queensberry Promotions, has been in boxing for four decades

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Somehow, Frank Warren chuckles as he recalls the moment a bullet shattered his ribs, ripped through his lung, and burst out the side of his torso. “I could feel this gurgling, like I was drowning,” he remembers. “All this blood was coming up.”

Warren was 37 when he was shot on a cold November night in Barking, outside one of his boxing shows. Just days removed from his 34th anniversary of losing half a lung, the promoter sits across from me in his office in Hertfordshire. Warren, now 71, is in significantly greater health and comfort this afternoon, as he relaxes in a brown leather chair at Queensberry Promotion’s headquarters. Still, he transports us back to east London, 1989, with ease.

“I wasn’t even meant to be at the show,” Warren says. “As we get out the car, I hear a bang. I think it’s a car backfiring. I look around and see this fella with a balaclava, and I hear a click. I think it’s a joke. Next minute, there’s another bang, and I feel this pain in my side.” At the time, Warren was with a friend, a barrister named John Buttress. “John says [to the assailant], ‘What the f*** are you doing?!’ and jumps on him. They’re on the floor, I’m on one knee. The fella runs off, and people start coming out of the show – my dad, uncle, brothers, a doctor.

“The ambulances are on strike, so they bundle me into a police van. As the driver’s reversing, I’m hitting my head; he’s killing me! I can hear sirens outside, and they take me to this appropriately named hospital in Shooters Hill. Next thing, I’m on a trolley, and fluorescent lights are strobing [overhead] like in the films. I can feel them cutting my clothes off, brand new bloody suit I’ve got on. I say to my uncle, ‘Don’t let them knock me out!’ I felt if I’d got knocked out… That was the only time I thought I was going to die.”

Warren with Welsh boxing icon Joe Calzaghe in 2003

What next?

“I’m out.”

Police visited Warren’s pregnant wife at home, telling Susan there was a “50/50 chance” that Frank would survive. “I wake up with all these tubes draining my lungs,” Warren says, “and my first thought is: ‘What a dump!’ There’s all these cardboard boxes. The staff were bloody brilliant, but…

“I’ve got a couple of armed coppers guarding me, and my family are keeping the newspapers from me, because a lot of them are reporting that it’s a gang shooting, that the gun had been used in a previous shooting. It was all crap. I discharged myself from hospital and was back to work within about two-and-a-half weeks. I shouldn’t have been; I’d lost about three stone. My wife was going berserk.” Former world champion Terry Marsh later went on trial over the attack, but was acquitted.

Like anyone immersed in a sport so brutal, Warren has had his share of tough nights, particularly 30 November 1989. He has had his share of triumphant nights, too, dating back to his game-changing, unlicenced shows in the 1970s. The north Londoner went on to work with “Prince” Naseem Hamed, Chris Eubank Sr, Ricky Hatton, Amir Khan, and Joe Calzaghe, among numerous other stars. But when Warren eventually leaves boxing (no time soon, he insists), he might be remembered best for his partnership with Tyson Fury.

When Fury returned from a two-year hiatus in 2018, it was Warren who took a chance on the former heavyweight champion. Eddie Hearn, Warren’s chief rival in recent years, has often admitted his regret at not signing Fury. “He called it a gamble; I’m a gambler by nature,” Warren says with a smirk. “As a kid, I worked with my dad at the races, where he was a bookmaker. Later, I was a degenerate gambler. I don’t do it much with horses and cards nowadays, but I back my judgement elsewhere.”

Warren with WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury in 2022

Warren had worked indirectly with Fury before, making a collaboration viable in 2018. Even so, Warren admits he underestimated Fury’s sheer talent. “He had some terrible problems. He had addictions, he was suicidal. When I met him again, he was 11 stone overweight, and a couple of things he said were misconstrued or he shouldn’t have said. That frightened a lot of people off, but I know what he’s really like.

“I took him into BT Sports [now TNT], and they loved him, but he needed focus. Boxing was his saviour.” After two “knockover” fights, Fury was already capable of becoming a world champion again, Warren believed. The main obstacle was a unique one, though: the frightening Deontay Wilder, holding a professional record of 40-0 with 39 KOs.

Warren with Deontay Wilder and Fury ahead of the heavyweights’ first clash in 2018

“I pushed for the Wilder fight, knowing his team would see it as an easy job but that it wouldn’t be,” Warren explains. “Tyson fancied it, but everyone around him weren’t on it.” Fury was also unbeaten and rated himself more highly than the American. Three years on from the Briton’s masterclass against Wladimir Klitschko, Fury was sublime again. There was a scare in round nine, when Wilder finally displayed his signature power to drop Fury, but the challenger found the resilience to continue. Then, in the final round, Wilder produced the shot to surely end it.

“Jesus. I thought it was over, hand on my heart,” Warren admits. “Suddenly, when the referee got to ‘six’, Tyson started to get up. He said to me afterwards: ‘I couldn’t feel my legs. If I’d have got up [earlier], I’d have wobbled all over the place.’” Despite the knockdowns, Fury was unlucky to leave Las Vegas with just a draw, but he left no doubt in his rematches with Wilder, stopping him in 2020 and 2021 to win and retain the WBC belt.

Fury had to climb off the canvas twice in his first bout with Wilder

Fury holds the gold to this day, but two potentially career-defining fights have eluded him: an all-British clash with Anthony Joshua, and an undisputed title fight with Oleksandr Usyk. At last, however, the latter is set for February, in Saudi Arabia.

That breakthrough is a testament to Warren but also the Saudis’ voracious entry into boxing. The state is pouring in money to force through the biggest fights of this generation – just when they seemed more elusive than ever. Many critics see this Saudi venture as a form of sportswashing, but for a promoter, it is common sense to get involved.

Before Fury vs Usyk takes place, a mega-card will be staged this Saturday, with Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder the headline names in a star-studded line-up. The concentration of profiles and talent is unprecedented, as is the promotional partnership between Warren and Hearn. Warren has been appointed as host of the pugilistic festivities, allowing him bragging rights over the 44-year-old.

Warren in the corner of a beaten Nigel Benn in 1996

“They’ve changed the face of most sports, and it’s not a flash in the pan,” Warren says. “I’ve been around for a while, maybe they liked that about me, and they also like [Warren’s son and business partner] George. A lot of the fights are just put together by [the Saudis], truthfully. Nobody else could put that card together; it wouldn’t be financially viable.”

Despite increasingly frequent visits to Saudi Arabia, Warren remains invested in British boxing. In early 2024, rising middleweight Hamzah Sheeraz faces a step-up in competition against Liam Williams, and an update on light-heavyweight contender Anthony Yarde is due.

And when Warren next finds a moment away from boxing, whenever that is, he’ll be at Ronnie Scott’s, his box at Arsenal, or maybe the opera. “I am having the time of my life,” he grins. “But you know what? Even when things are bad, I’m having the time of my life.”

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