Interview: Eddie Hearn on boxing, Brentwood & his new book
PUBLISHED: 16:24 08 January 2021 | UPDATED: 10:31 12 January 2021
Mark Robinson Photography Ltd
Sports promoter Eddie Hearn is following in the footsteps of his father, Barry, transforming the image of boxing over the last decade with the likes of British heavyweight Anthony Joshua on his books. But how has Covid-19 rocked the family business?
Following a chance meeting with Audley Harrison at a poker table in Las Vegas back in 2009, Eddie Hearn, managing director of the Matchroom sports empire, has showcased hugely anticipated boxing spectacles around the globe ever since, signing top fighters and attracting an A-list audience.
His profile was raised in December 2019 when he delivered the second title fight between Joshua and Andy Ruiz, controversially hosted in Saudi Arabia, and by the billion-dollar deal he struck with streaming service DAZN in 2018, responding to the online market.
So, when the pandemic hit in March, Eddie had to move fast to honour his commitments. In the summer he pulled off a five-million-pound outdoor boxing series over four weeks, in the grounds of his head office, aired by Sky Sports, an idea his father was initially wary of.
‘I felt the world changed very quickly,’ explains 41-year-old Eddie. ‘We had to adapt from getting as many people as we could into an arena or stadium and creating that great atmosphere with thousands singing Sweet Caroline. Instead, staging this in the back garden was the headline, but it was an outdoor event. When people are tuning in all around the world you have to make them feel it’s a major event and it’s very difficult to do that without fans.’
Eddie laughs when talking about modernising his father’s style of business, such as introducing music between rounds, giving him the edge over seasoned promoters: ‘He’ll say: “Are you sure?” And the next thing he’s in his office looking out telling people it was his idea. When Joshua boxed Dillian Whyte (in 2014), Stormzy rapped Joshua out and he was just breaking through. Everyone was on their feet going mad, so it’s a slightly different audience to my dad’s these days.’
On top of lockdown impacting the Matchroom operation, Eddie had a stark reminder of how quickly the virus can sweep through family groups, when he and his father tested positive for Covid-19 in September.
Barry had also suffered a second heart attack in April, spending a night in intensive care (his first was in 2002), and had to be persuaded to go to hospital, reluctant to burden NHS staff battling the Covid crisis.
‘It’s been a mountain,’ says Eddie. ‘Dad was in Broomfield and moved to Basildon. When he got home it was a horrible two weeks. To be honest with you, if he had had Covid-19 when he had his heart problem, I’m not sure if he would have made it.
‘He wasn’t well when he had Covid. His oxygen levels dropped a bit over three days, and if he had had a weak heart at that time anything could have happened. My grandad passed away as well this year, and we are a very close family.’
Eddie’s career is charted in his latest book, Relentless: 12 Rounds to Success, giving readers tips on how to get ahead. Flitting between jet-set glamour and a tough gritty world of professional fighting from a tender age, Eddie was uninspired at the prestigious Brentwood School he attended, feeling more at home selling double-glazing in a Romford call centre as a teenager.
‘I find it difficult to criticise the school because I was obnoxious, but at the same time it is their job to engage the pupils. It wasn’t like I was a lost cause.
‘There were teachers at the school that could engage me, there just weren’t many of them. The bigger problem I had was that I was living this lifestyle; getting picked up in a limo that had just driven Steve Davis, then I was going to New York to watch Naseem Hamed fight and then I was flying back to a class with a guy I had no respect for, which was my own fault, but I had a problem with authority. Once I got told off I would rebel.
‘Sometimes, when you tell a kid off there’s a way to handle them. You have to motivate them. If someone gave me responsibility and compliments, I would excel, but I wasn’t doing anything to deserve those.’
It was only when the headteacher refused to let him stay on for A Levels that Eddie’s outlook changed. Enrolling at Havering Sixth Form College in nearby Hornchurch, a world away from the sprawling manicured estate of Brentwood, he checked with his tutor what the punishment was for skipping lessons. There was none. Being told straight it was his choice if he wanted to throw away his education, Eddie finally knuckled down to study.
‘At Brentwood I was always in a fight. A lot of the time I would get blamed for stuff that wasn’t my fault. Maybe it was insecurity. I was in the shadows of my dad and I wanted to be my own person. Now I’m very comfortable in myself, and chilled. I don’t have to scream and shout. I had no choice but to be obnoxious. That was the world I was in – it wasn’t normal, but I certainly didn’t help myself.’
Despite instilling a work ethic by giving Eddie endless chores, didn’t his father worry that he was paying for a top education with no grades to show for it?
‘No, he didn’t because he saw a different side of me. Maybe at 12 or 13 he might have worried a little bit, but then he saw me emerge. I was a good sportsman and I had the gift of the gab always. I don’t believe he thought I’d go on to do what I’ve done, but a lot of that is what I learned from him.’
In October, Eddie accepted an invitation to speak at Cambridge Students Union. Why?
‘Just because it’s unexpected. I suppose a little bit of it goes back to school. I’m saying “can you believe I’m doing this?” to those teachers that really disliked me. It’s just funny. My mum told me not to swear. She tells me off if I swear in interviews. My mum is real old school; full of class and integrity, and she’s the driving force of the family. I take after my dad a lot more.’
He smiles when I point out, Frank Lampard aside, he hasn’t adopted the accent of his privileged classmates.
‘I didn’t grow up around privately educated families and kids. I lived in this other world. I preferred hanging around with the fighters in the changing rooms, and these are tough people. I’ve always been able to go to different environments. I can go to talk at Cambridge, but I can also go to a building site. I’m able to have fun and engage the man in the street, but I can also switch it up in the boardroom. But I won’t change my accent or go all posh.’
Eddie naturally inherited his father’s drive, but youth has been his asset in taking boxing to new levels, something Barry is proud to acknowledge.
‘He’s changed a lot over the years,’ explains Eddie. ‘I’ve sat in his study listening to his arguments and negotiations. Boxing is a horrible business, horrible. It’s full of disappointments and backstabbing. It can make you quite miserable. I saw that when he was in boxing, he could have a temper, be miserable, and that’s the same with me.
‘It’s not a lifestyle you want to lead. Bob Arum (a rival boxing promoter) is 89. This is not where I want to be at 89. I love boxing, but I want to push the boundaries of the business into different sectors. We’ll never neglect the UK, it’s our core market, but I want global domination of boxing.’
Barry affectionately nicknamed Eddie ‘silver spoon’ early on.
‘We laugh about going from me as Barry Hearn’s son to him as Eddie Hearn’s dad. We love each other, but we’re very competitive. Whether its table tennis or golf, we’re always trying to win.’
As interest increases, Eddie has been offered everything from appearances on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity... to a KFC advert, but he’s not set to lose sight of his carefully crafted game plan. A stint on Sky One’s A League of Their Own panel in October made more commercial sense.
‘I think woah, woah,’ laughs Eddie. ‘We love a pound note, but I focus on the core. If it’s constructive partnerships to help the business, fine, but I don’t want to be taking money left, right and centre, plastering my face over everything.’
Eddie lives comfortably in the leafy village of Stock with his wife, Chloe, and their daughters, Sophia and Isabella. Worth an estimated £40m, he was one of many high-profile parents who had to turn their hand to teaching in the spring.
‘I spent more time with my kids than I have for their entire life. I was doing home schooling, which was absolutely brutal, but we jelled. We had a good time.’
The experience forced him to evaluate how his job affects his personal life, but also left him itching to get back to Matchroom headquarters, a stone’s throw from the M25 in Brentwood and the former Hearn family home.
‘It’s hard, as I’m so driven. Lockdown taught me to switch off a bit. I always give the girls time just like my dad did me. I get home and we’re trampolining, over at the park or playing cricket. I don’t see myself moving from Essex. We are an old-school family; home is home. That’s why we kept our old family office in Brentwood. We love the area, we love the house. It’s been lucky for us and it continues to be lucky.’