"We understand that Mr Flintoff is well-known here," said Gary Higginbotham, the manager of Richard Dawson, the 23-year-old bruiser from Oklahoma who will fight the former Lancashire and England all-rounder at the Manchester Arena on Friday night. Dawson, having scoffed at being tarred by the same novice brush as Flintoff by Barry McGuigan, referred to his opponent mockingly as "Mr Freddie".
But the man sitting at the top table in meeting room eight of Manchester's posh Deansgate Hilton did not look like Freddie, who from his earliest days as a gangling youth at Old Trafford had charmed as much with his amiability and even vulnerability as he had with bat and ball. This was a strikingly lean, determinedly mean Flintoff, in scruffy grey jogging pants with a visibly bashed-up face – the bent nose and swollen lip made him look more like a rugby league forward than the type of big-hitter he used to be.
The 34-year-old looked thoroughly unimpressed as Jim Rosenthal, compering the press conference as smoothly as ever, asked Dawson if he had ever heard of silly mid-off or fine leg. Friday's fight may clash with David Price's defence of his British and Commonwealth titles against Matt Skelton in Liverpool, while in Belfast on Saturday the unbeaten Tyson Fury will take on Kevin Johnson in an attempt to earn a fight against one of the Klitschko brothers, but Flintoff has taken this heavyweight debut very seriously indeed, and is understandably keen for others to do likewise.
"I understand that there are a lot of passionate people about boxing, and they want to protect it," he said. "Hopefully they'll see that I'm serious. You've got to respect the sport. Things can happen. Shane [McGuigan, Barry's son, who has supervised Flintoff's training throughout the summer and autumn] said I was going to get hurt. I got hurt, and here I am. When I walk out there, I know that everything Shane and Barry have asked me to do, I've done."
"The effort he's put in has been extraordinary," confirmed McGuigan Sr. "He's boxed 300 rounds, lost three and a half stone – he's grafted all the way through. He's a decent heavyweight."
McGuigan had wondered aloud during the buildup whether the good old Fred in Flintoff might make him just a little bit too nice. "He's moved on from that now," said the Irish great. How, exactly? "His distance control, he's able to hit a fighter and step back and not get hit himself," answered Shane. "He's got a very good jab. We've done a lot of work on the basic shots, that's our gameplan – keep it really simple. He's trained really hard, like a professional fighter, and he's going to hopefully show the critics what he can do."
So far, so intense. But fortunately, Flintoff relaxed and allowed a bit of the old Freddie to be teased out. "I took one on the nose and the chin in the nets in Lahore," he said when asked about the hardest blow he had received from a cricket ball. "But not too many in the nuts, fortunately."
He was asked how he had managed to restrain the appetite for which he was once infamous. "I've not sewn my mouth up or 'owt like that. Contrary to popular belief when I played cricket I used to train as well, and I did have a diet of sorts."
Then there was a question about his family's reaction to this latest masochistic challenge, which goes well beyond even the daredevil stunts to which he agreed during a previous television series. "My wife's fine with it," he said. "But my mum I must admit has taken some convincing. It's one thing seeing your son walk out on a cricket field, it will be different when I'm out there in a boxing ring."
Flintoff had already referred to Michael Vaughan, his former England captain, and the surprising progress he has been making as the latest of several Test cricketers to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. The old, amiable Freddie may not be much of a dancer – although Vaughan's progress has surely provided hope for anyone – but how his mum, his mates and many others must wish he had opted to foxtrot and not to box.
"That wasn't for me – I wanted a real challenge," he explained simply. "This was the one thing that got the beans going and the juices going. I felt like I needed something, I was drifting."
Whatever happens to Freddie on fight night, you can only admire his radical response.
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