London: Former England cricket hero Andrew Flintoff has found himself on the back foot even before he throws his first punch for money in the boxing ring on Friday night. Freddie, as he is fondly known in Britain, is being filmed as part of a documentary series on Sky television, "Flintoff: From Lord's To The Ring", which culminates in his professional boxing debut against American Richard Dawson.
For the past five months the 34-year-old Flintoff has been trained by former world featherweight champion Barry McGuigan and his son, Shane, as he gears up for four two-minute rounds against Dawson, who has won both his previous fights. But he has received criticism that he is not taking boxing seriously and that on Friday will be all about TV, not sport, with British promoter Frank Maloney hitting out at boxing authorities over the decision to grant Flintoff a licence.
Flintoff, who stands an imposing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 metres) tall, insists his new career as a heavyweight boxer is for real and he is not motivated by the intention to make a documentary series about it. "I understand people are protective of the sport, but I'm going in the ring on Friday and that's what all my energy is going into," Flintoff said. "They need to watch me and give me a chance. Through the fight and documentary, I want to show what sacrifices boxers go through and things that your casual sports fan might not necessarily realise about boxing.
"There's no talk of disrespecting boxing but of celebrating boxing, and I hope I manage to do that. I'm a boxing fan and sport has been very good to me over the years.
"The fight came before the TV show — the TV show is a result of getting the fight, but you saw on the TV show... that I've put the hours in." Flintoff retired from cricket two years ago after a colourful career including two Ashes victories over Australia in 2005 and 2009.
When he steps into the ring at the Manchester Arena, the venue will look a lot emptier than it was last weekend, when 20,000 people watched former world champion Ricky Hatton make an unsuccessful comeback.
Ticket sales have been slow for Flintoff's professional boxing bow, but he hopes those who do turn up or watch on television take him seriously. "I didn't do this as a gimmick, he said. "There's too much at stake. When you get in that ring and there's someone coming at you, you've got to do it for real.
"Hopefully at the end of it people can say, 'You know what? He's had a go and done well there', but that's not my motivation behind it."
As a morale booster for Flintoff, and to make the documentary series more interesting, ring legends Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Leonard have come into the gym to offer advice.
"I was fortunate enough to have Sugar Ray Leonard pop down and spend an hour with us," Flintoff said. "I think most fellas my age always remember Tyson and he came down to the gym the other week and told me about the mindset of boxing and what he went through as a fighter, and to hear it from Mike Tyson someone as a kid I watched and loved to watch fight was amazing."
Flintoff, who has eschewed the traditional route of learning to box as an amateur before entering the professional business, is not committing himself to boxing beyond on Friday.