IN the first a of four-part online series, Eddie Hearn, in his own words, describes his journey from childhood to becoming one of the most influential figures in world boxing…
I NEVER had any interest in working in boxing or being a boxing promoter but I always loved the sport.
From the age of eight to 14 or 15, I was completely obsessed with it. I would study every fighter in the British Boxing Yearbook, I would know their entire records. It would start with Francis Ampofo, who was my favourite, and then I’d study the record of someone he had fought like “Baby” Jake Matlala, for example. Then I’d study the record of someone he had fought, and on and on it went.
I was playing a lot of cricket, I played for Essex, and then I started going out. By the time I was 16 or 17, as other things became important – like growing up – the interest in boxing was starting to fade. My dad [Barry Hearn] was doing less and less boxing and I was going to fewer shows. I still followed it, but that obsession had gone.
Matchroom always retained their position with Sky Sports as one of the four main boxing promoters but, in truth, we weren’t even bothering. My dad had moved into darts and Johnny Wish [Matchroom’s former Head of Boxing, John Wischhusen] was just about holding it together. We were doing eight shows a year in leisure centres, mainly by borrowing other people’s fighters, doing favours for my dad’s old mates, losing 40- or 50-grand a show but almost feeling like it was our duty to keep doing it.
Then we came up with Prizefighter. It was an idea cooked up by Johnny Wish, my dad and myself. We’d seen 20/20 cricket and lot of sports being jazzed up and being speeded up because the attention span of the viewers had changed. It was really successful and made us a load of money. We were still doing the other shows but Prizefighter was starting to take over.
At the same time, I was looking closely at the boom in online gaming and poker. I said we should go into online poker as TV events, I thought there was a big future there. We went in and we completely controlled online TV programming, worldwide, anmade a huge amount of money. It was a changing point for the company. We went to another level with the poker. That was when I met Audley Harrison.
I introduced myself and told him I was Barry Hearn’s son and that I worked for Matchroom.
“Do you still do the boxing?” he asked. “You couldn’t get me a six or eight-rounder could you? I’ve still got something left to give.”
I didn’t know too much about Audley at this point. I knew he’d won a gold at the Olympics and all that, but I didn’t know that he’d done his own promotions, that he was perceived as a bit of a pain in the arse for promoters and networks. But I was impressed with him. Everyone knew who he was, he was huge in stature and he had this big personality. All I could think about was getting him in Prizefighter. I knew it would be massive.
I phoned my dad and told him I’d just been talking to Audley Harrison.
“Oh f**king hell,” he said. “What does he want?”
I told him we’d been talking about Prizefighter and if he was to win that, we could set him up with Albert Sosnowski – who was one of our fighters at the time – for the European title. And then if he wins that, we can put him in with David Haye for the world title.
“Ed, are you f**king mad?” my dad said. “That geezer is a waste of time. Son, you’re on your own with this one, I’m not getting involved.”
So, I’m 30 years old, happy doing the poker and, against my dad’s wishes, I turn my attention to Audley Harrison. I persuade him to go into Prizefighter with the promise of a world title shot.
Audley’s thinking, “This is amazing.”
I’m thinking, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
We sold 6,000 tickets for Prizefighter at the ExCel, which was unbelievable. All the others had been at York Hall or leisure centres. This was unbelievable.
I didn’t necessarily think that Audley would win but I was in full blagger mode. I thought there was no point worrying about getting him the world title shot until he’d actually won Prizefighter. But I was consciously looking at the market, I knew a fight with Haye would do well, I knew Sky would want it and I knew it would be big. Boxing was s**t back then, just look at the shows we were putting on. We’d have a Commonwealth title fight atop the bill and an eight-rounder in support. That was the card.
But Prizefighter was bringing the casual fans back, they were there for a good night. The hardcore fans hated it. There was no social media back then, not really, so there was not the critical voices that exist today. All we could see was the sold-out crowds loving it, the high ratings, the money it was making. So we kept going.
And so did Audley. He won it. I was like, “F**king hell!” The place went mad for him. So it was on to the European title and Sosnowski. But then Albert gets a shot at Vitali Klitschko’s WBC belt so we make Audley versus Michael Sprott for the vacant European title at Alexander Palace.
Darren Barker was also on the card. He was with Mick Hennessy at the time. Darren sold 967 tickets himself for that show. But the problem was Audley was on something like 70-grand. Sprott was on 25 or 30. We were in the Ally Pally and we lost about 90-grand which was a lot of money. And the whole thing was my idea, it was on me.
But as a spectacle, it was great. Audley lost nearly every round, tore his pec and knocked him out in the last round. The ratings were brilliant but all I’m thinking is, “We lost 90-grand. This is a f**king disaster.”
We got 90-grand from Sky as a rights fee. We got 100-grand from tickets but the costs were sky high. It was a disaster. But on we go.
I put it out there that David Haye was next for Audley. I said it was the fight the public wanted. Two Brits, world heavyweight title, blah, blah, blah. Blagger mode, almost out of control. And then it worked. David Haye and Adam Booth reached out to me.
So I went out to Las Vegas to see Audley and Haye was out there. We all sat down together. Audley was very involved in the deal whereas I didn’t know what I was doing – at all. Not. A. F**king. Clue.
I had never negotiated a major fight before, but I can sell, and I can negotiate. In terms of the detail, though, I didn’t know how many flights he should be getting, I didn’t know how sanctioning fees worked. Audley was very involved and he helped to get that deal over the line.
From there it all went mad. I went to the first press conference and I was absolutely s**ting myself. I remember thinking, “F**k”. Now, I can talk, but I could feel that I was shaking, my heart was beating really fast and as they were doing the big intro on Sky Sports I’m sitting there and I don’t know what I’m doing.
“F**k,” I’m thinking, “when do they come to me?” Then they come to me. To Eddie Hearn. To Audley Harrison’s promoter.
And I go off on one. “This is destiny for this man!” I’m really going over the top. Much more than I do now. “He will walk there! This is his moment!”
At the time I was genuinely sold on Audley Harrison. I was in camp with him, I was in Big Bear with him, I was convinced he had an amazing chance to win. But I watch it all back now and I cringe. But you could say I’d done my job. It was sold out almost immediately. It was a massive sell on pay-per-view. It did something like 600,000 buys which at the time was incredible. And it was a complete and utter disaster.
Audley didn’t throw a punch for three rounds. In the changing room everything was fine and then we got into the ring and he was confident. Then David Haye walked out.
Harrison just froze. I remember Haye coming out to Ain’t No Stopping Us Now and I just thought, “F**k.”
When Haye stood on that apron, I looked at Audley and he was gone already. He got knocked out in three.
I was looking round, everyone was booing. All my mates had come and even they turned on me. “F**king hell, Ed, we listened to you! You said he was gonna do it! What the f**k was that?” I remember them all being on the edge of ringside. As I walked out through the archway, and I’ll never forget it, I can still remember what he looks like, this big bloke went, “Hearn! You are a f**king s**t promoter!” I just put my head down.
I went to the changing room and all the journalists were knocking on the door, demanding to speak to Audley. “Mate,” I said to Audley, “you’ve got to go to the press conference. Tell them the truth. Say you froze.” So he gets up and goes to the press conference and takes his seat.
“I thought the referee stopped it too early,” he says. F**k me. What a disaster.
I left that night thinking, “I am never, ever, ever doing another fight again.” But, of course, that was just the start.
THIS IS THE FIRST OF A FOUR-PART SERIES
PART II: Eddie Hearn explains how he salvaged a career as a boxing promoter from the rubble of Haye-Harrison