Matchroom Boxing CEO Frank Smith on rising the ranks from Leyton Orient mascot to running the world-leading promotion, riding horses with Canelo Alvarez and Anthony Joshua’s future.
At the age of 31, Frank Smith has started to keep a journal. It is the Matchroom Boxing CEO’s way of ensuring that he remembers all the “mad stuff” that comes with running the biggest promotion in the sport, home to more than 100 fighters including Anthony Joshua, Katie Taylor and Gennadiy Golovkin.
Recent highlights include “spending time round [Mexican superstar] Canelo’s house, riding one of his horses; we were in Detroit the other day with Ed Sheeran,” and rubbing shoulders with NBA royalty LeBron James on the red carpet at the ESPY Awards – the Oscars of sport – in Los Angeles. They are moments worth preserving for the self-deprecating Smith, who calls himself “just a fat kid from Romford who’s had a touch and worked hard”.
His globetrotting lifestyle is a far cry from his beginnings as a 15-year-old work experience boy at Matchroom, the Essex-based empire founded by impresario Barry Hearn and now run by his smooth-talking son, Eddie. Since then Smith has worked across the business and its diverse portfolio of sports, taking in darts, snooker, football, poker — and competitive fishing.
“I used to go to Leyton Orient and dress up in the mascot’s outfit. I used to be at the poker tournaments giving out teas and coffees and pizzas,” he says. “When I started it was boxing at Goresbrook Leisure Centre in Dagenham; now we’re flying to New York. I remember doing FishOMania a few times. It has changed a lot.”
Smith admits he wasn’t a sport fan when he began badgering Hearn Jr for a job at Matchroom, having met him while selling raffle tickets at Romford greyhound track. “I met Eddie at a time when I think all I cared about was people with money.” Aged 26, he was named CEO. “I’m living my dream. I get to do things I never imagined. But it’s a crazy, stressful business.”
Smith on Joshua v Whyte and lining up Fury
Putting on shows is what gets Smith out of bed and few are bigger than those involving Joshua. Last month at the O2 the former world heavyweight champion returned to form with a savage knockout of last-minute opponent Robert Helenius. “The way he won will give him a lot of confidence,” says Smith. “He hasn’t had a finish like that in a few years. It shows it’s still there.”
Talks are now underway for Joshua to fight Deontay Wilder in December or January – a potential step closer to a showdown with fellow Briton and current world champion Tyson Fury. With both men approaching their mid-30s, time is running out to make a match fans have long demanded. “He’s got a huge desire to still be in the biggest fights,” says Smith, who is engaged to Emily Eubank, daughter of Chris Eubank Sr.
Helenius stood in to face Joshua after Dillian Whyte failed a drug test. Days after the fight it emerged Helenius had failed one too. Does boxing have a doping problem? “There has always been a problem. It’s a problem across a number of sports,” says Smith. “Notable athletes have recently tested positive, hence people are talking about it more. The increase in testing is a key reason for all the positive tests, and I think the safer we can make the sport the better.”
Matchroom and Joshua have been a golden match, raising each other’s profile as he went from London 2012 champion to commercial juggernaut. Still, eyebrows were raised when they signed a career-long contract worth a reported £100m two years ago, and subsequent defeats have only thrown up more questions about that commitment.
“That was a decision made as a group and it’s great to have him on board for the rest of his career,” says Smith. “He’s a huge part of why the sport is where it is today. A lot of fighters have got him to thank in a lot of ways.” He adds that Joshua could have a role at Matchroom when he does eventually hang up his gloves, too.
Smith on Dazn deal and future of pay-per-view
Smith also defends Matchroom’s 2021 decision to end a 30-year partnership with Sky Sports and hitch its wagon to streaming-led subscription platform Dazn. The challenger sport broadcaster has grown revenues and is a major player in some territories but remains loss-making and bankrolled by a billionaire owner.
“We heavily believe in the Dazn product and that streaming is the future of broadcasting,” he says. “We didn’t make the move for the short term; we signed a five-year [global] deal and we’ve been with them in the US for five years now. They’re moving in the right direction and we 100 per cent believe it was the right decision to make the move.”
Dazn has had to backtrack on its early promise that the pay-per-view model was toast and Joshua-Whyte will be shown on its PPV channel at a price of £26.99. If rival promoters continue to offer big purses inflated by PPV buys, Matchroom has to follow suit, argues Smith.
“To be in the conversation for these mega-fights, that’s what we need to do. At the same time we need to deliver strong shows as part of the subscription model [for Dazn]. We’re not going to do 10-15 pay-per-view shows a year, but you will see it where it’s required for the size of the fight.”
Matchroom targeting fights in Australia and Far East
Smith’s focus now is on expanding Matchroom Boxing’s business beyond its core markets of the UK, US and Mexico. They have made inroads in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, but Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Monaco can add another 10 shows, he says. “That takes you to 46 events a year. Six weekends off would be nice.”
Women’s boxing is a major growth area. “We see huge potential. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. It’s about: do they bring in an audience?” Influencer fights have a place, too, he says, even if they upset purists. “We have to separate it. I’m not quite as against it as others. I think there is a space for it.”
Matchroom’s growth into a £200m business has accelerated in the last decade, in no small part thanks to its boxing arm, but it remains true to its 75-year-old founder’s principles. “It’s constantly drilled into us that we have to keep building,” says Smith. “It comes from the top and that is Barry.”
Smith is one of several Matchroom lifers, along with the Hearns and Matt Porter, who runs the promoter’s darts arm. Having come this far, there isn’t too much higher he can go – unless he succeeds Eddie Hearn, that is.
“Maybe one day. He’s going to be around for a long time,” he says. “I get compared to Eddie a lot but we’re quite different. I like Excel spreadsheets and he is the showman. We make a good team. I’d quite like to bow out when he does. I don’t want to be in boxing when I’m 75.”