A little over a year after staging the biggest fight in British boxing history between Carl Froch and George Groves, Eddie Hearn has not downsized the scale of his ambition.
“In six years I think we can make this the number two sport in the country,” the boxing promoter told City A.M.
“We’ve made [UK] boxing trendy again,” he says, reflecting on a year in which he has celebrated world title wins with three of his fighters and staged a number of successful shows throughout the country which have increased the pugilist's pull in stadiums and on TV.
“We’ve made it sexy again, a night out. One of the benefits I’ve got is I’m younger than my dad [Barry Hearn], Frank Warren, Kellie Maloney,” he explains, name-checking the longstanding powerbrokers from the sport’s older generation.
Sanguine, slick and slotted into a slim fit shirt and blazer, Hearn is the template for what he sees as a new generation of fight fans he’s helped foster since taking over from father Barry as chief of Matchroom’s boxing business.
Unlike his dad, the archetypical East End boy done good, Eddie was raised in relative comfort and enjoyed the benefits of the fee-paying Brentwood school. He has inherited his father’s natural gift for sales but led the family company’s boxing revival in his own image, swapping fly posts under tunnels for social media savvy and curating a live fight night experience that entertains beyond the ring.
“My dad couldn’t be as successful as I’m being now because I know the market and he doesn’t. We used to see – and Matchroom were at fault as well – too many shows in small halls and leisure centres, too many empty seats, not enough glamour in the production.
“I used to go to York Hall [the famous East London venue for boxing nights in Bethnal Green] 10 or 20 years ago and it was a roughhouse. Now it’s totally different: there’s people coming down from the City, there’s women, it’s become cool. Boxing is hot.
“It’s just like darts,” he says, pointing to Matchroom Sport’s other primary money-spinner. “Every Thursday you’ll turn on the [Darts] Premier League, there’s 12,000 people and an atmosphere – you’ve never seen anything like it. You’ve bitten. You’ve bought. You’re a buyer.
“The key for us is bigger nights, bigger stadiums and driving ticket sales. You’ve got to work hard on that and create an atmosphere in the arena.”
Of course, Hearn admits, building those matches and filling those stadiums is made all the easier when your fights entertain and your boxers are winning. Luckily then, Matchroom’s stable is currently well stocked with fighters doing just that.
For Hearn and Matchroom, Froch’s Wembley knock-out of Groves in front of a record attendance was followed by Kell Brook winning the World IBF welterweight title in California, James DeGale repeating the trick for the super middleweight title in Boston, Lee Selby picking up the IBF featherweight title and the emergence of Anthony Joshua as the next great heavyweight hope.
Matchroom’s ability to fill an arena was demonstrated at Hearn’s Rule Britannia bash in May, when a young crowd packed out the O2 Arena for the showcase of some of Matchroom’s biggest and best pugilists including Joshua.
Joshua returns to Greenwich on Saturday night for another Matchroom production in which the 2012 Olympic Champion will fight Gary Cornish for the vacant Commonwealth Heavyweight title.
With 13 wins, 13 knockouts and no losses, Hearn is betting on Joshua as a future heavyweight champion of the world.
But what is more, Hearn believes Joshua has the natural charm to be attractive to advertisers and could be the fighter to extend Matchroom’s sponsorship contracts beyond its current staple of gambling, alcohol and sports nutrition.
“There comes a stage when the bigger brands are going to come in and get behind someone like Anthony Joshua,” he explains. “They’ll do that and he will change boxing – if he keeps winning, which I believe he will.”
“In any sport you need role models. The reason golf was so popular in America a few years ago is because young kids wanted to be Tiger Woods. In basketball they wanted to be Michael Jordan. In boxing it’s no different but we haven’t had those breakaway stars for a while.
“We’ve got Floyd Mayweather who walks around spending money – that’s not really the role model I’m after. You look at Joshua and you say ‘This is a guy who was bang in trouble growing up – didn’t really have a future. Started boxing and it changed his life. He became an Olympic champion and he will go on and win a heavyweight title.’”
Yet not every boxing fan is cheering in Hearn’s corner. Some hardcore followers may bemoan Matchroom's penchant for staging its biggest fights behind pay-per-view packages before praising the success Hearn has brought his fighters.
Read more: Hearn – Brook is next Froch
Long gone are the days when Britain’s boxing superstars like Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank would duke it out in front of millions on terrestrial TV.
Hearn has become used to defending the format: “Every person must walk out of that arena or turn their TV off and go ‘You know what? I got value for money.’ When they don’t – and it does happen – it’s not good and it hurts," he says. "It hurts our reputation, it hurts me personally but the bottom line is until we build boxing to a level where the rights fees quadruple, we can’t do those mega-fights outside of pay-per-view.
“Pay-per-view might be two a year, or three a year but it’s never going to be every month. And ultimately you’ve got the choice.
“The good news is the support programming and the way it grows the sport around it, the hype that pay-per-view brings for the sport. The downside is how it limits the audience on the night. People say to me ‘Oh, Rule Britannia, if that was on normal Sky it would have done five times the viewers’. Correct. But we wouldn’t have had two weeks of solid promotion on Sky Sports' Behind the Ropes, Ringside, live weigh-ins, live press conferences. So I don’t mind. Pay-per-view is a part of boxing. It’s never going to go away.”
Instead Hearn’s primary concern is to guide fighters such as Joshua towards a world title and those mega-money sponsorship deals, to perfectly plot his path to the top by giving him the testing experience he needs without sacrificing his perfect record.
In the highly fractious and political world of boxing, that weaving of a fighter’s career requires countless strings to be pulled at once. It’s the thrill of that fight that pushes him on: Hearn may not have the rags-to-riches backstory of some of his fellow promoters, but he shares the same competitive desire to stay at the top.
“I don’t really set goals. I wake up every morning and try and work as hard as I can every single day,” he says. “And I get home at night and I don’t stop. When I go to bed at 11 o’clock my head is like spaghetti junction trying to map out these fights and shows and I don’t get to sleep until three or four in the morning.
“But I wouldn’t have it any other way…Coming from the background that I do but still fighting and working like I haven’t got a penny and that makes me dangerous for competitors. I don’t put my feet up on a boat and say ‘I’ve cracked it – six years with Sky Sports!’ I go: ‘ That’s not good enough’. I’m never happy.”