December 1, 2012

Freddie fights the dying of the limelight

Andrew Flintoff won his debut boxing bout and left the ring with body, mind and dignity intact. He doesn't need to do it again

It took just a gesture, and all the old affection came flooding back. With the Manchester Arena dark and Oasis' "Roll With It" pounding through the ears, Andrew Flintoff shuffle-bounced out of the tunnel towards the ring. And what was he wearing for this, his first professional heavyweight boxing bout? An expensive item of streetwear? A silk, be-dragoned robe? No, a red-sleeved, nylon Lancashire Lightning shirt with a number 11 on the back. "Freddie," shouted the crowd, "Freddie". Feel the love, Manchester, feel the love.

This was Flintoff but not quite the one we knew. To start, it was definitely Freddie, not Andrew. Leaner, obviously - he's lost three and a half stone. Gaunter around the cheeks, nose a bit squashed, everything on that handsome face a bit skewiff. His pale Preston hulk had big muscle definition. His arms, tattooed with the three lions and the names of his wife and children: Rachael, Corey, Holly, Rocky, weren't the yeoman oaks of the cricket pitch anymore. Some serious work had gone into this transformation.

But it was the eyes that got you the most. The Flintoff of Old Trafford had laughing eyes. These seemed dazed, bewildered. And why not? This was some new craziness. Twenty-two yards of dirt and grass exchanged for a square of canvas and a 17-stone man in the corner hoping to give him a good punching.

Six thousand people had come to watch, not quite the 20,000 that filled the same space for the Ricky Hatton fight last weekend, but he wasn't doing it for the numbers. Huge swathes of the arena had been cleverly hidden away with draped black cloth, so it didn't seem empty.

His old life and new life were there. His wife, Rachael, Kent's Rob Key, the fast bowlers club: Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Darren Gough, Alex Tudor. The comedians John Bishop and Jack Whitehall from his Sky TV programme, A League of Their Own. All were emitting goodwill.

His opponent was Richard Dawson, a bearded 23-year-old from the streets of Oklahoma. Two fights fresh, only boxing for two years; he'd been handpicked by Flintoff's trainers. There was something of the roly-poly pudding about him. His physique hinted not at hours of dedication in the gym but the bakery. "You fat bastard," shouted the crowd unkindly. Flintoff, if he'd tuned in, might have permitted himself a wry smile.

Four rounds of two minutes were what had been prescribed. At the bell, Flintoff charged at Dawson, a great bear pounding after an irritant bee. His legs seemed extraordinarily lengthy, his long reach caught Dawson around the chops. A few flurries at mid-air followed, and all the time accompanied by roars from 6000 voices. It went okay, just.

Round two, hmmm, not quite so well. Dawson caught Flintoff slightly off balance with a swift left hand and he was unexpectedly on the floor. It was horrible, vulnerable. Arms and legs bickering for space, he got up quickly. The referee counted to eight, the crowd couldn't look, but the fight was to go on.

Rounds three and four involved a lot of wrestling and stumbling around. Flintoff had his head jerked back and then had Dawson faltering on the ropes. At one point he looked over to his corner to say, "What next?" A sharp uppercut from Flintoff and the final bell. It was all over.

There were hugs all round. The referee took both the fighters' hands and announced the winner: Flintoff, by 39 points to 38. He looked overcome, then thrilled. The eyes came alive again. He dropped to his knees in a wicket-taking pose and then, the other side of the ring, swept an imaginary six into the crowd. They lapped it up. You can take the man out of cricket, etc. Irish former featherweight champion Barry McGuigan, neat and tiny, did a delighted jig about the canvas. Flintoff bear-hugged Barry's son Shane, who had trained him, off the ground. And then he went over to Dawson, draped a sympathetic arm over him and had a long, affectionate chat.

Afterwards, in his bare feet and Lancashire shirt, in a windowless room down a concrete corridor, he was his old easy, charming, self-deprecating self. His eyes were bright. "On a global scale, it's obviously nowhere near [cricket]," he buzzed. "I've had a novice heavyweight fight and it was brilliant.

It was the eyes that got you the most. The Flintoff of Old Trafford had laughing eyes. These seemed dazed, bewildered. And why not? This was some new craziness

"When you've had the opportunity to represent what I think is the best county in the world, had the chance to play for England in Ashes series and be successful - I think that is massive. But this is a personal achievement and a personal battle with something that doesn't come that naturally to me.

"The fact that I've mentally broken down barriers every day and tried to improve at something that I don't do has, on a personal level, been as good as anything. I won. I don't want that adulation that we got with open-top buses and things like that, but I can go to bed tonight and close my eyes safe in the knowledge that I've overcome a few things in this process.

"You mention the Ashes and things at international level which were amazing, but as a personal achievement I think this is better. I have had to work so hard. The feeling of being back in there in front of a crowd and winning - I can't describe it."

He left, shaking the hands of everyone he knew, thanking everyone he could name-check.

Whether he will fight again, even he is unsure. It wasn't one for the purists. The boxing journalists were quietly despairing about the whole thing, though one admitted that if it hadn't been for Flintoff none of the other boxers on the bill would have had a pay day before Christmas. And if it was tawdry, then so were boxing's familiar glamour girls in downmarket lads' mag vest-tops, pants and heels, who paraded the ring between rounds.

Outside, on a bitterly cold night, the crowds were turning over trinkets in the Christmas markets and glugging back gluhwein in faux-Bavarian huts. Most will have been oblivious to what was going on metres away from them - but that was never the point.

So what was left at the end? A fondness for a man who had to give up his livelihood because his body failed him; a man whose dream was to come back and captain Lancashire but instead has struggled to find a fulfilling life after cricket. Absolute respect, for someone who put himself through the training, the discipline and the thumping of the boxing ring. Relief that he left with his body, mind and dignity. And hope, that he never does it again.

Tanya Aldred lives in Manchester. She writes occasionally for Telegraph