From fighting Mike Tyson to becoming a social media sensation and appearing in the new boxing film ‘Prizefighter’, the life and times of Julius Francis are never dull. Luke G. Williams speaks to the former British heavyweight champion.
Julius Francis has lost none of his capacity for surprise.
Hot on the heels of becoming a social media sensation for flooring an aggressive patron of Wembley BoxPark, Francis will also soon be seen in the upcoming movie ‘Prizefighter’, a biopic of bare-knuckle legend Jem Belcher. In the Amazon Prime released movie the man who once shared a ring with Mike Tyson will be sharing a screen with acting royalty in the form of Ray Winstone and Russell Crowe.
Reflecting on the madness of it all with Boxing Social, his accent as earthy and south London as it gets, Francis proves an honest, engaging and easy-going interviewee. He also possesses insight in abundance.
“I’ll say this about my career and my journey so far,” the 57-year-old shrugged with a smile via an extended Zoom call. “Somehow this kid from the backwaters of south London got his name up in lights in the boxing world and now I’m going to be in a movie that will be seen by millions of people. When I was a kid I could never have imagined such things.”
Boxing Social’s conversation with Francis spanned an hour or so and it would have been remiss, of course, not to ask him for his take on the recent incident that has propelled him to worldwide attention – namely that video footage of the sweet right hand with which he felled a hysterical and aggressive punter while working security at Wembley BoxPark earlier this month.
A composed Francis admitted:
“It was very unfortunate.”
“A very unfortunate bit of business. Security is a job I do on a daily basis and unfortunately this was a situation I had no control over. The guy came at me so I had to defend myself. You don’t think about those things at the time.”
“Sure, afterwards you think to yourself: could I have done anything different to change the situation? But I did everything I could. We were just trying to get the guy out of the building and away from other customers and then he just turned on me. Unfortunately, what happened happened.”
It should be noted that support for Francis’ actions has heavily outweighed condemnation. His employer, BoxPark founder and CEO Roger Wade, released a public statement of support for Francis, the Metropolitan Police have confirmed they will be taking no action and even world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury has spoken out on Francis’ behalf. Nevertheless, his future working in the security industry is in some doubt after the SIA (Security Industry Authority) suspended his licence, presumably pending an investigation of their own.
“This whole thing has gone crazy and sky high,” Francis admitted. “It has been a bit of a shock to me. But the support I have received has really touched to me. It’s been fantastic. I can’t thank all the people that have showed me love enough. It’s been really heart-rending.”
Francis’ new-found social media stardom, and upcoming motion picture debut, are but the latest twists and turns in a remarkable life and career.
Peckham-born in 1964, Francis had a wild youth and looked set for a life of crime and punishment before salvation arrived in the form of boxing and combat sports.
“I didn’t box until I was 18,” Francis explained. “To be honest I wasn’t that interested in the sport as a kid, although Muhammad Ali was around then but I didn’t watch boxing very often really.
“My route into boxing was that I came home one night from work. I had a little black-and-white TV which I switched on and a guy was mentioned by the name of Dave Stewart, who I used to go to school with. Because I recognised the name I stopped and watched.
“Dave had won the ABAs that year with a very good stoppage. Later I bumped into him and thought: ‘boxing, yeah I could do that. I’ve got muscles, I can do that!’ Dave got me along to the gym and I climbed in the ring with him. I don’t know whether he was trying to beat the life out of me or just play with me but I couldn’t touch him! And from that moment on, from that first experience, I was hooked and wanted to learn how to box. That was it! That’s where it started.”
Francis was 28 before he turned pro. During a rollercoaster 48-fight career he succeeded in winning the British heavyweight title, a prized Lonsdale Belt outright and the Commonwealth title. Among the men he bested were James Oyebola, Garry Delaney, Pele Reid, Danny Williams and Scott Welch, while he also shared the ring at one time or another with Matt Skelton, Audley Harrison, John Ruiz, Vitali Klitschko and – oh yes – a certain Mike Tyson…
Reflecting on the experience of fighting ‘Iron Mike’ in Manchester in January 2000, and the hysterical media hoopla that surrounded the event, Francis chuckles deeply: “It was crazy! When Mike Tyson won the world title I was still an amateur. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d end up fighting this guy.
“When my manager at the time asked me: will you fight Mike Tyson?’ without hesitation I said: ‘of course I will!’ There wasn’t a single doubt in my head. In 1999 I’d defended my British title and won a Lonsdale belt outright. I was meant to be fighting around the middle of November but there was talk of Tyson coming over to Europe or England.
“He had a couple of fights that year against Frans Botha and then Orlin Norris, which was very controversial. Then I was asked to fight him and I said: ‘yeah, of course!’ Being involved in that fight was mad. But fortunately for me I had a couple of other distractions; my daughter was born at the end of November and the fight was two months later so she was still very young when I fought Tyson.
“In camp everyone was going crazy around me – the whole experience was like being in the eye of a storm, but you’ve got to remember that the eye of the storm, which is where I was, is calm – it was everything else that was going crazy! The media were all over the fight – there were reports that Tyson had said this or said that, or that he wouldn’t be allowed to come to England. The fight was even talked about in the Houses of Parliament! They were crazy times!”
If sharing a prize ring with Mike Tyson was a surreal experience for Francis, then appearing in a film whose cast includes the likes of Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone is another level of the unexpected altogether.
In ‘Prizefighter’ Francis plays one of the early opponents of Jem Belcher, the legendary but largely forgotten boxing champion of England who reigned from 1800 until 1805. The film is the product of ten years of devotion and hard work by its star, writer and producer, Welshman Matt Hookings, who himself has a familial connection to boxing, his father being the late and much loved former British heavyweight champion David ‘The Bomber’ Pearce.
Francis explained how he came to be involved in the project: “Matt and I have a mutual friend, a guy called Maurice Lee. He was one of my friends growing up, we used to train kickboxing together. Then he became a stuntman. Maurice would often tell me about all the stuff he did – jumping out of planes and so on!
“He’s been in some big movies – James Bonds and stuff like that. He was always saying to me: ‘you should get involved in films!’ Anyway, Maurice came to me one day and said: ‘come down and check out this boxing film I’m doing.’”
The film was a 2016 short entitled ‘The Birth of Boxing’ which Hookings made as a calling card to raise interest – and money – for his planned full length feature based on Belcher’s life.
“I went to Maurice’s garden and we worked out a fight scene for the short film,” Francis recalled. “It was interesting because it wasn’t the sort of boxing I was used to – it was old school boxing, bare knuckles. Filming was very interesting too. It took a long time because when you’re on set you’re constantly stopping and starting again and then filming again and again from different angles. It was fascinating to me how the process worked. It really intrigued me how it was all put together.”
Six long years later, Hookings came calling again – he had raised the funds to make ‘Prizefighter’, and wanted to fulfil a promise to Julius to cast him in the full-length film as a thank you for his faith in making the short all those years earlier.
A keen student of boxing history, Francis leapt at the chance. “I’ve always been fascinated with the history of boxing,” he said. “Before this project my knowledge went back to the time of Jack Johnson and to the late 1800s and early 1900s, but with this film we’ve gone another hundred years back to when the 1700s moved into the 1800s.
“Back then people got into boxing not only as a way of fighting for a living, or to be recognised as the hardest man in their area or country, but because it was also a way of moving up in society. It was the noble art of pugilism. Ladies of the day, countesses, royalty and so on would be seen at major boxing events. It was somewhere noblemen and gentlemen were seen – it wasn’t just for the rag tag members of society – it was considered the noble art and was recognised as such.
“To be recognised as the champion of England was something very special – and something which to a certain extent has disappeared today. I’ve done my research on Jem Belcher and that in itself was fascinating – it’s brilliant that Matt has brought his story to life. Belcher was a great fighter – because there weren’t really weight divisions back then, Jem fought big men, small men, short men, tall men. Sometimes he would fight guys that were five or six stone heavier than him. It didn’t make any difference to him!”
The shoot for ‘Prizefighter’ – which took place largely in Lithuania in the midst of the pandemic – was a challenge but one that Francis relished. “What with the pandemic we were being tested every day and that sort of stuff,” he recalled. “Being on set, what I was afraid of, and this might sound a little crazy, but I was afraid of messing up.
“I didn’t have anything really to say, but I had a lot of things to do and I had to have this presence about me. I had to be angry among all these really nice people! I had to show a really horrible, nasty side to myself and that was quite hard to get that sort of emotion out.
“It was intense. I ended up breaking one of the stunt guy’s fingers and cut him over his eye. I was horrified by that! But it was all to make the film as good as it could be and from what I’ve seen in terms of a couple of trailers of the film and so on I have been so impressed. It looks fantastic and I can’t wait until it comes out!
“I didn’t meet Russell Crowe, his part was filmed at a different time to mine, but Ray Winstone was there. I can remember first watching Ray in ‘Scum’ and over the years I’ve met him at different boxing events, so to sit down with him and the other guys on set and have the most fantastic laughs with them was just brilliant. The memories I have are of being on set, getting advice on how to play my part, will always stay with me.
Although ‘Prizefighter’ dramatises a boxing world that no longer exists, Francis discerns one major connection between the sport then and now.
“Yes, boxing has changed but the main quality fighters need hasn’t changed; it’s dedication. 100 per cent. Regardless of whether you’re fighting with bare knuckles like they did back then or gloves like we do now, you have to be dedicated.
“The other thing about boxers is you have to be a bit crazy as well. Even more so back in the bare-knuckle days. I mean you had to come up to that line, come up to scratch and if you didn’t you were seen as being weak.
“And I mean, you have to be a bit crazy to be willing to take a punch in the face, don’t you? That was true then and now.”
With his modest manner, sense of humour and evident good nature, Julius Francis certainly doesn’t come across as crazy.
But his life and career have sure been one crazy ride.
‘Prizefighter’ is released via Amazon Prime on 22 July.