Making a mega-fight: Wembley and Matchroom bosses reveal the manpower, months of planning and sleepless nights behind Joshua v Klitschko

Joe Hall
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Anthony Joshua v Wladimir Klitschko Wembley
Joshua and Klitschko will be joined by 90,000 others at Wembley on Saturday (Source: Getty)

In essence, boxing remains as simple and stripped down a sport as it has for generations — two men glove up, step into a ring and attempt to knock a few brain cells out of each other.

Yet taking a mega-fight like Anthony Joshua against Wladimir Klitschko out of fans’ fantasies and into a worldwide event on which millions of pounds are at stake? Anything but simple.

Saturday night’s heavyweight clash at Wembley, a crossroads match-up between the division’s new poster boy and its once unimpeachable ruler, marks the culmination of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations and preparations.

From beginning to end the whole cost of staging the event for the promoters and stadium is expected to exceed £1m.

Matchroom, Joshua’s promoters, have experience of staging a fight at the iconic arena in front of a crowd nearly four times as big as an average title fight after successfully pulling off the Carl Froch — George Groves rematch in 2014.

Yet this weekend’s unification fight — Joshua will defend his IBF belt while battling Klitschko for a personalised ‘super’ WBA belt — is bigger by all metrics; a record-breaking 90,000 fans will set a new record for the largest attendance at a British boxing event since the start of the Second World War.

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“The sport has grown, it’s come a long way since 2014 when we did Froch versus Groves,” said Frank Smith, Matchroom’s 24-year-old head of boxing.

“As an event, this is bigger. It’s a huge operation. We’ve got broadcasters coming from all over the world. With Froch - Groves, while it was shown in the US on HBO, the take up wasn’t as large.

Smith with Joshua and his manager Freddie Cunningham (Source: Frank Smith/Twitter)

“This is an event that has captured the imagination of the world rather than just the UK.”

That level of global interest in the fight presented welcome commercial opportunities for Matchroom — and a long list of logistical issues for Smith to solve to ensure the event runs smoothly.

Paramedics, ticketing partners, transport officials, brand managers, pyrotechnics experts, local government, seating specialists and broadcasters are all in liaison with the Matchroom man who has taken the lead in meetings of over 60 people.

“We had a production meeting yesterday that lasted about eight hours,” a surprisingly serene Smith told City A.M. a fortnight before the fight.

“We had one three weeks ago that had 65 people attend. With events on this scale, you’ve got about 900 crew coming into the stadium for the event.

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“Going to a stadium is like building your own venue. You’re putting seats in, putting the floor in, the canopy in. There’s a lot to get done.”

Of all the stakeholders Smith works with, it is the team at Wembley Stadium that function at the centre of the operation.

Wembley staff have been working on the fight a month before it was publicly announced last December, but the process of converting the stadium for boxing began on Sunday night once the last of the giddy Arsenal fans high from beating Manchester City had made their way home.

With their celebrations wrapped up, Budweiser, the beer on sale at the event as a sponsor of the FA Cup, was replaced with Carlsberg, a Wembley partner. A technical conversion team has continued other preparation but it wasn’t until Thursday morning before the pitch was covered and broadcasters get into position. The ring is not built until late Friday night while the final ringside seats go up on Saturday morning as the fighters go through their final preparations.

“From three weeks out, we’re probably working until 10pm each night,” Wembley’s general manager Liam Boylan told City A.M.

“Three days out we’re staying in a hotel near the stadium and doing 16 to 18 hour days just to bring everything in. On the day itself, I’ll be in from about six in the morning working through until I fall over at about 1am.

“There are about four events at Wembley a year that suddenly jump up to a ‘plus’ level and this is definitely one of them.”

Boylan’s attitude towards the fight mirrored that of Matchroom’s; it had to be bigger and better than the Froch — Groves rematch.

Anthony Joshua management team Wembley
Joshua's team - featuring Smith far right - pose for a crew shot at Wembley (Source: Getty)

Two event managers with previous experience in boxing — Lucy Hunt from the Manchester Arena and Darren Booth from the O2 Arena — were headhunted to bring deep expertise of the sport into Wembley’s staff not only for this weekend’s event, but for the future fights the arena hopes to stage under its arch.

“We can’t just keep churning out and thinking that people are going to just keep turning up for football and the odd concert,” says Boylan.

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“We need to show a wide variety of events. Boxing covers all bases, it’s a sport but also carries a showbiz element.

“We want more, we know Eddie’s [Hearn, Matchroom Sport chief] constantly looking for more opportunities especially with this brilliant British stable [we’ve got] at the moment so there’s a few fights that we thought were coming here that went away just for boxing reasons. I definitely feel there’s more coming here.”

Sleepless nights and scores of staff, it's anything but simple. But don't bet on Saturday being the last time Joshua steps into the ring at Wembley.

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