Jumping off cliffs in Acapulco, riding bulls in Texas, capsizing pedalos in the Caribbean. There have been many diversions in the career of Andrew Flintoff, none of which ended with an invitation to “get your n*b out” in front of the cameras. That was Flintoff’s fate yesterday as his foray into professional boxing fell under the scrutiny of hard lads from Manchester who do this stuff for a living.
There he was, this great legend of English cricket stripped to his underpants, presenting his honed physique on a set of scales. Before him sat an eclectic mix of boxing folk, professional voyeurs fascinated by this mad flirtation with the sweet science and a ribald retinue attached to Manchester welterweight prospect Ronnie Heffron.
Emboldened by an audience they otherwise would not draw, the Heffron posse tickled Flintoff’s ribs with the standard gym banter. “Bang him out,” they shouted as he posed nose to nose with his American opponent Richard Dawson. For them Flintoff’s appearance is a curiosity, a sideshow, a bit of candy floss to be consumed at the interval.
His 23-year-old adversary did not seem overly concerned either about tonight’s engagement at the Manchester Arena. He dismissed cricket as a “female sport” and smirked when Flintoff’s mentor Barry McGuigan described him as a novice. He has been fighting since he could walk. Both parents served jail sentences, an experience he shared for three months last year after a conviction for aggravated assault and battery.
Dawson claimed to be breaking up a fight. The truth is he has been involved in petty crime since the age of five. According to his legal adviser, Michael Johnson, Dawson’s adolescence was typical of the disenfranchised African-American experience in Okmulgee, stealing cars and running drugs just to survive in a nowhere town in the Oklahoma hinterland 40 miles from Tulsa.
Five years ago, Dawson saw his best friend murdered in the same drugs trade that resulted in him taking four bullets in the back, the scars of which were visible at the weigh-in. Dawson has been hand-picked for this duty by a McGuigan associate in the United States. His record boasts two wins in as many fights, though he claims to have had three as a pro. In one he broke his opponent’s rib, in the other he knocked him out inside 90 seconds.
Johnson said he would be surprised were Flintoff to survive a round. Who knows? This is the world of the untestable claim, where the credibility of the men Dawson beat can hardly be verified. Flintoff has trained for four and a half months, shedding 20 kilos. He had his last spar on Monday. The difference between that and his first spar was, claimed McGuigan, night and day.
“Freddie is up against an opponent who has had a handful of amateur fights and a couple as a pro. He weighs 241 pounds and stand 6ft 3 ins. We don’t know whether Freddie is going to win. Hand on heart. All I’m hoping is that he doesn’t get hurt. That has always been my main objective, to get him as fit as possible, make him mobile and tighten his defences and hope he gets through without any damage. If he is beaten but comes out unscathed then I have still achieved my objective.”
Flintoff said the hardest punch he has taken was in the nets in Lahore when a frisky young Pakistani let a quick one go that smashed into his nose and cheek. Dawson was unmoved. “I looked at some tapes of that cricket,” he said. “It don’t mean nothing to me. It looks like a female sport, you know, cissy stuff. But we ain’t here to play cricket.
“I grew up in a real rough neighbourhood close to Tulsa, fighting my whole life. You had to be in the gangs, because every time you walked to a new block there was another gang waiting to get you. I only stopped fighting on the streets when I went to the gym and learned to box. There was drug dealings and shootings happening the whole time. It was happening everywhere you went.
“My best friend got shot and killed by drug dealers. I was doing the driving and I got shot in the back four times. They were trying to kill me too, and when I was lying in the hospital I was sure I was going to die.
“That made me want to change, and getting into boxing was my way out”.
The rough and tumble of Flintoff’s teenage oppression in Preston comes a distant second in comparison. He says he is ready, and trusts that his career playing cricket for Lancashire and England has prepared him for the walk to the ring and the interest it has attracted.
“You’ve got to put all the time in so when you walk out there you’re comfortable knowing you’ve done everything that Barry asked me to do,” said Flintoff.
“The first two weeks were probably the hardest. But when you start seeing the results and feeling better, it just drives you on to stick with it.”
There is a deal of authenticity about this project. Flintoff has done the work. The British Boxing Board passed him fit to box. He is not facing Muhammad Ali tonight but an opponent with similarly shallow exposure to the rigours of the game. Yet still some want to see him fail.
“People wanted me to get out first ball when I played cricket. I didn’t know how many people wanted to punch me. There are a lot of people passionate about boxing, and they want to protect it. But maybe this will attract a different audience to boxing, who will see how hard it is, the sacrifices boxers make.
“I can’t worry about outside pressure. It’s just the pressure you put on yourself. This is so far out of my comfort zone and such a big challenge I find it a much harder thing to do. I have felt real fear. It is about using your nerves and your emotions to your advantage and not letting them take over.”