MATCHROOM BOXING, led by Eddie Hearn, played a promotional blinder last week and barely anyone noticed a game was under way. There was no showdown announced or staged, no new signing confirmed. Quite the contrary, in fact. A British heavyweight title fight collapsed, one that nobody knew they were so eager to see until only recently. Yet out of the wreckage and disappointment, Hearn and Matchroom somehow emerged with their reputations enhanced.
There was something peculiar about the proposed bout between British heavyweight champion Fabio Wardley, 16-0, and Frazer Clarke, 6-0, from the moment it was ordered by the British Boxing Board of Control. Not because it wasn’t an enticing matchup – it certainly was – but because these kinds of fights simply don’t happen very often in this country. Two valuable and unbeaten commodities, who operate under rival promoters and broadcasters in the most lucrative of weight classes, were going to lay it all on the line in a bout that could feasibly have ended or at least thwarted the progression of the loser.
There have been subsequent comparisons to fights like Lennox Lewis-Gary Mason and George Groves-James DeGale. If they could happen, why couldn’t Wardley-Clarke? The big difference would be that Frazer is yet to compete in anything close to championship level as a professional; he hadn’t even been involved in a bout that has been scheduled beyond six rounds.
Let’s make it clear right now, however, that this is the kind of matchup that boxing needs, the kind that Boxing News will always lobby in favour of. Clarke’s amateur pedigree, coupled with Fabio’s lack of top-flight seasoning, meant that this was very much a 50/50 type affair. But we’re also acutely aware that the sport’s politicking, and the way it is run by the most influential, always made this bout – irrespective of its appeal – an unlikely one.
Even on the morning of the scheduled bid, I was highly skeptical about an auction – much less the fight – taking place at this juncture. That skepticism remained, even when Eddie Hearn took to Twitter with excitement mere hours before the purse bid was supposedly due. It was still there when Fabio Wardley, a promotional free agent but with long-standing ties to Matchroom, did the same and the doubt increased further when other influential social media giants joined them. It seemed strange that a promoter like Hearn would be so vocal about a bid he may well lose.
Pertinently, there was nothing whatsoever from Ben Shalom’s Boxxer, the promotional team who beat Matchroom to Clarke’s signature when he turned professional in 2022 after an esteemed amateur career. There was no noise from Clarke, either. In fact, there was not a sound from anyone in the Clarke business. That is because Clarke’s managers had sent an email to the Board the night before, informing them of their decision to withdraw from the process after they had failed to get an independent deal over the line.
“This happens on a regular basis,” the Board’s Robert Smith told Boxing News. “It is not unusual for boxers to pull out of bids on the day of, or the day before, the bids are due to take place. I never know why it takes a month, but it often does.”
Upon reading the email, early on Wednesday morning (May 10), Smith instructed his colleague Dennis Gilmartin to inform Matchroom’s matchmaker, Tom Dallas, that the bids would not be occurring. Dallas then aborted his trip to Cardiff where he was heading to witness the bids being opened.
Hearn broke the news, albeit belatedly. At 11.50am, with fans in a frenzy of anticipation, he tweeted that Boxxer – his promotional rivals – had scuppered everything. Suddenly we were being led to believe, and almost everyone believed it, that Boxxer, and Boxxer alone, had the power and influence to single-handedly ruin a fight that everyone wanted to see.
A month ago, Clarke’s management team, 258 MGT of Anthony Joshua fame, wanted the fight and approached the Board to request that Clarke be Wardley’s next challenger. That was approved, but his promoters wanted Frazer to have one fight in the interim, hence why Boxxer attempted to take control of negotiations prior to the bidding process in order to make that occur. They made an offer to Wardley with the caveat that Clarke would have a 10-rounder in the interim.
Matchroom’s Hearn and Frank Smith quickly called the situation a shambles. Neither could contain their bewilderment that Boxxer, a promotional group who have recently signed former Matchroom stars Lawrence Okolie and Joshua Buatsi, had made such a mockery of a purse bid. Never in all our years have we seen anything handled as badly as this, they said. The horror. The outrage. The joy at seeing another promoter get some serious stick.
And the stick was thick and plentiful. Somehow, this bout, which had come from almost nowhere, had become fans’ symbol of hope. Hope that we were, at long last, going to see two young prospects risk it all after many years of unbeaten records being protected at the expense of good fights being made. Hope that was dashed.
Ben Shalom has worked hard since essentially becoming Hearn’s successor as chief boxing promoter for Sky Sports in late 2021. I want to work with all the promoters, he said back then. That of course is the only way to rid boxing of its constant failure to make the right fights at the right time. Well, we’re not so keen to work with you, sunshine, has been the reply.
Promoters will always bicker, fight, and backstab. But there’s something particularly ugly about seeing them invited to do their worst during YouTube interviews, as was the case again last week. The short-term goal is clear: Loads-a-views. But the long-term implications of constantly adding fuel to the fire between promoters has been clear for many years.
Yet Shalom’s handling screamed of inexperience despite, at the core of this tale, his intentions being wholly understandable. Why on earth would he not want Clarke, a boxer he has promised to guide to the top, to get more rounds before he stepped up? He didn’t lobby the Board for a shot at Wardley, that came from elsewhere. Behind the scenes, one suspects he’s furious to now be the only one with egg all over his face.
Hearn, in contrast, performed like the promotional games master that he is. There is more to promoting than making fights and marketing them to the max. What Hearn did here was show everyone – the fans, the fighters he wants to sign and those who have left him or chosen other promoters in recent years, and his promotional rivals – that he is indeed the very best at what he does. In the process, the message he sent out was clear: Nobody can play this game as well as I can, nobody can do what I can do for you.
And let’s not forget how long he’s been playing this game. It’s a game, frankly, that he invented when he came along in 2010, quickly recognised the power and influence of social media, and refurbished Matchroom Boxing from a flailing outfit into an international powerhouse. In the process, as he persuaded the likes of Darren Barker, Kell Brook, Carl Froch and Ricky Burns to switch their loyalty, he annoyed his promotional rivals to the point they became obsessed with their dislike of him. It distracted them. It stopped them from doing what they’d long been doing. Back then, however, Hearn was very much the new kid on the block. The fresh face, the promoter who could fulfil his promises.
Now that kid is all grown up. Some have been quick to write him off, particularly in the face of newer and fresher kids – like Ben Shalom – coming along and doing exactly what he used to do. There have been accusations, with foundation, that Hearn had lost his way as his handling of contentious issues, and his newfound focus on conquering the world, suggested he had gotten far too big for his boots. And in that period of growth, his critics claimed, he had taken his eye off the ball where it mattered the most, where it all began, back here in Blighty.
Whether he is playing the game honourably is of course another matter. There was unquestionably something cold and calculating about the way he bullied Shalom into submission last week. But after the most difficult period of Hearn’s spell at the top, it was a timely reminder that his desire to stay there, and his competitive streak, remain as strong as ever.