British boxing’s biggest battle is outside the ring as an exodus of talent from the old guard to the new sparks a war of words

Evening Standard

Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren do not need to imitate their fighters by donning gloves and getting into the ring. The battle between the promoters is proving more exciting than any recent fight and has the makings of a classic Hollywood script.

Warren, who recently qualified for his bus pass, became a promoter even before 32-year-old Hearn was conceived. Hearn, in contrast, had no thought of becoming a promoter. He was happy looking after poker and other businesses in Matchroom, the family firm run by his father Barry. But, two years ago, after promoting Audley Harrison’s fight against David Haye, he decided to take on Warren.

Since then he has acquired boxers at such speed that, every time he is seen talking to a fighter, the assumption is he is about to make a new signing. And this frenzied activity has led to court battles with Warren.

Three weeks ago, Warren withdrew his case against Hearn and light-heavyweight Tony Bellew after the High Court ruled Warren must provide security of costs. British champion Bellew switched camps over his frustration at failing to get a rematch with another Warren client, Nathan Cleverly, having lost on a majority decision in October 2011.

The exodus to the Hearn stable continued this month with British and Commonwealth super-middleweight champion George Groves moving first to be joined 10 days later by WBO lightweight champion Ricky Burns. While Warren has no issue with Groves, he is incensed with Burns: “What he’s done to me is disgusting.”

The fighter claimed he wanted to get his career “back on track” after his last two fights were postponed but Warren is suing Burns, alleging he is under contract. The promoter pointed out that, under him, Burns had earned almost £750,000 and had seven world title fights in two years.

Warren is confident of winning but Hearn, having read Burns’s termination letter, warns: “If the content of the letter is true, which I have no reason to think it wouldn’t be, then it is going to be very awkward situation for Frank Warren when it does go to court.”

I am sitting in Hearn’s Essex office, what used to be the Hearn family living room when Eddie was growing up.“We have more fighters than Warren, by far the best stable in boxing,” says Hearn. “Lots of people are saying I am the saviour of boxing, a breath of fresh air. We have a big job to really take control of the UK market but we are on the way.”

Then, glancing at a framed pair of Muhammad Ali’s autographed shorts and his picture in the classic pugilist’s pose, Hearn spells out his vision: “There will not be another Muhammad Ali in our lifetime. But what concerns me is that, over the last 10 years, boxing in this country has died. It needs a huge amount of rebuilding to become a mainstream sport again.

“Any sport thrives through personalities. We haven’t got enough of them at the moment. My father promoted Chris Eubank, who was a character. Now you have less stand-out personalities. Promoters haven’t been building fighters to create brands that people can associate with.

“I want to create nights that are special, where people walk away and think, ‘I really enjoyed that.’ The buzz for me is when I take a fighter from a certain stage in his life to walk out in an arena where there are 10,000 people screaming his name and seeing the look on his face.” But, realising how this may be interpreted, he adds: “I know it sounds cheesy.”

Cheesy is not a word Warren uses when I ask him about Hearn. With a twang of his natty braces, he says aggressively: “How is boxing dying? Last year we did the biggest show in the country with David Haye and Dereck Chisora: more than 30,000 people there. In most of our shows, the worst case is 90 per cent capacity, many of them are sold out. If Hearn puts on the rubbish like he did at Wembley, where there were 1,500 people, then boxing is dying. But for him. It’s not dying for me.”

This is a reference to the Sky show two Saturdays ago when three of Hearn’s fighters lost in Southern Areas and English title fights. “So what?” asks Hearn sounding totally unconcerned. “They were in 50-50 fights. Promoters are too afraid of putting their fighters in proper fights and people are bored with fights where you know the result before it has even started. That’s why boxing fans have been turned off.

“Frank Warren has criticised me a lot for throwing fighters into tough fights in America. Losing doesn’t matter. Back when my father promoted Chris Eubank, some of the people he fought were quite frankly embarrassing. The landscape has changed for fans and broadcasters. Fans want to sit down not knowing the result before the fight starts. At all fights they want more music, more interaction with fans, Twitter action. I don’t think older people can understand.”

And while this will be little comfort to Warren, Hearn includes his father, three years older than Warren, in this group.“Even my dad doesn’t understand, they’re not in touch with young people. I relate to them. People coming to my boxing shows are people like me. People criticise me for tweeting. Twitter is important. Warren does not tweet himself. I tweet at least a dozen times a day and interact with 65,000 boxing fans. Boxing News has a readership of 10,000. You can’t bluff the public or broadcasters any more.”

But this talk reminds Warren of how he has seen off many a challenge from other promoters: Frank Maloney, Ricky Hatton, Mick Hennessey and even Barry Hearn. “When I got shot 20-odd years ago [in 1989 in Barking while promoting the bout between Colin McMillan and Sylvester Osuji], within six months most of the fighters jumped ship. I was left trying to keep my business together. [Nigel] Benn went with Hearn from me, so did a few others. Within two years, they all signed again with me. I don’t care what Eddie Hearn does.”

He agrees with Hearn that the viewing public’s culture has changed but is keen to emphasise that he too has moved with the times. “In the last 18 months in the worst economic climate, we have built the only TV channel in the world that specialises in boxing.”

This is BoxNation, a subscription station that Warren set up in 2011 after leaving Sky. But, for Hearn, this is not a Warren trump card but just emphasises how his rival has got it all wrong. “BoxNation does a good job but it is fundamentally flawed.”

Warren claims 120,000 subscribers paying £10 a month but Hearn insists: “There isn’t a demand for a subscription boxing channel. The hard-core audience — someone who would buy a subscription channel — is too small. Warren recently issued his financial statements, which are grim reading: Frank Warren’s W. Promotions had accumulated losses of £4.36million, net current liabilities of £3.7m. In Matchroom, we have net assets of £15.6m and profits of £5m.”

However, it should be pointed out Warren’s figures are for 12 months while Matchroom’s are for 18 month and include all of Hearn’s businesses. And while Hearn’s accounts say profit growth was helped by the “resurgence in the promotion of boxing shows”, no separate boxing figures are shown.

For Hearn, this broad basis is his strength. “We can sustain a bad night. If you are just a boxing promoter and you have a bad night when you lose 50 or 60 grand, which is quite standard, followed by another one, then you have a huge problem. Warren needs to be concerned.”

But, far from being concerned, when I quiz Warren about his figures, he goes on the offensive: “How many businesses made a loss in the last couple of years? How many banks, how many high street shops have gone bust? We have a formidable board of directors and a channel sponsor in Rainham Steel, one of the most successful steel companies in the UK. They have put a lot of money into the channel and so have other investors.”

And, to rub it in, Warren adds: “I don’t have to go to Sky cap in hand, worry about the whims of a Head of Sport, whether he wants to be in boxing or not. Channel 5 have just walked away from boxing. I’m spending my money. Hearn’s spending Sky TV’s boxing budget. He’s not having to put his hand in his pocket.”

Hearn counters: “I don’t really want to be spending my own money on shows. We’re the only promoter with regular TV dates from a broadcaster. Our Sky platform leads to increased gates, increased sponsorship, so we don’t have to keep putting in money. I’d only have put money in if I was losing on shows. I’d rather be creating enough revenue streams to make [my boxing business] self sufficient, which it is now. If you are spending your own money funding shows, your business isn’t going to last very long. What Frank is trying to get at is that he’s investing in the fighters. We’re all investing in fighters but some of us are cleverer in getting other people to pay for that.”

Hearn claims he is closing in on another signing from the Warren stable but adds: “We’ve told him what we tell everyone — ‘Until you give us proof that you aren’t under contract, we can’t make an offer.’ We’ll not give Warren an opportunity to get litigious with us.”

The two men may not end up in court but they are clearly in for a long fight. Warren has seen off many competitors but the old champion might find the new pretender poses a very different challenge.

Hearn’s camp

Carl Froch

IBF super-middleweight champion is the stellar star in the Hearn camp and faces a career-defining rematch against Denmark’s Mikkel Kessler at the O2 Arena on May 25

Kell Brook

Undefeated welterweight has twice seen his fight with Devon Alexander for the IBF title postponed but is set to finally get it on with the American in May

George Groves

Commonwealth champion humbled James DeGale two years ago and is hoping to fight WBO super-middleweight belt holder Robert Stieglitz at the end of the year

Gavin Rees

Welshman is the former WBA light-welterweight champion and still has a future after his gutsy defeat against American Adrien Broner in Atlantic City last month

Tony Bellew

Light-heavyweight suffered his only defeat in 20 bouts against Nathan Cleverly two years ago but is now making progress towards another world title fight

Warren’s camp

Ricky Burns

WBO lightweight champion and former WBO super-featherweight belt holder has won 35 of his 37 fights and was last seen beating Dagenham’s Kevin Mitchell in September

Nathan Cleverly

WBO light-heavyweight champion lives up to his name as he also has a degree in mathematics. Watch out for a possible showdown with Bernard Hopkins in the summer

Dereck Chisora

Former British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion returns to the ring at Wembley on April 20 after regaining his licence following a press conference brawl with David Haye

Denis Lebedev

Russian is the WBA cruiserweight champion and has beaten former American greats Roy Jones Jr and James Toney as well as Welshman Enzo Maccarinelli

Frankie Gavin

World Amateur Championship and Commonwealth gold medal winner is a real prospect at welterweight having won all of his 15 fights, including 11 knock-outs

Billy Joe Saunders

Forget the sideshow about his Romany background, Saunders is the British and Commonwealth middleweight champion who is undefeated in 17 fights


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