Boardroom tagged along ahead of a New York fight night to get an inside look at the business of a boxing promoter, Saudi billions, the future of the sport, and more.
“Sometimes, the lights come up and I don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna say.”
Visibly amused, the Ringmaster’s East London accent helps the expletive stick a cheeky landing as we make our way out of Madison Square Garden onto 8th Avenue. We’re enjoying a Midtown Manhattan walk-and-talk. Flanked by a cadre of comms pros, a bejeweled professional violence merchant, and assorted cornermen, however, the tableau on this summertime Thursday is less Aaron Sorkin and more Guy Ritchie Entourage reboot.
I’ve asked him to evaluate his latest performance: Emceeing a televised pre-fight press conference for a boxing event to be held two evenings from now at the Hulu Theater adjoining the World’s Most Famous Arena. It’s to be headlined by our accompanying violence merchant, Brooklyn’s Edgar Berlanga, and 168-pound challenger Jason Quigley. The Ringmaster has apparently run the whole show live on DAZN with no notes, teleprompter, or any truly dedicated prep time at all.
“I don’t actually know how I do it, but that’s my talent. I’m not a genius. I’m not, like, some academic. I’m just so invested that it kind of sits there, and once it starts–“
The Ringmaster trails off as he notes his smooth but unscripted work under the hot stage lights, leaving a punctuating voila! unsaid while his white Converse kicks crow their daring indifference to the threat of rained-on New York streets.
This man is Eddie Hearn, Chairman of Matchroom Sport, a global player in not just boxing, but games like darts and pool known to rock the British Isles like Iron Maiden blasting through “2 Minutes to Midnight.” Depending on whom you ask, the energetic exec is one of the two or three most influential boxing promoters in the world, but given his surprisingly natural dual role as an on-air face of the business, he’s the undisputed champ among his peers where visibility is concerned.
And in the marketplace of professional pugilism, that’s an intriguing wild card whenever a sweet scientist goes comparison-shopping.
“Man, everything,” Edgar Berlanga tells Boardroom of what he appreciates most about the man tasked with building up his name and reputation. As he quickly, sarcastically amends with a laugh, “Money. Money, mainly. Money.”
I needed to know, however, what made the undefeated Nuyorican NABO super middleweight titlist — who’d go on to win Saturday night by unanimous decision — and the ever-buzzing Brit such a productive match.
“He loves his fighters, man. He loves boxing, he loves to change his fighters’ lives, so that’s what it is, you know? I’m just happy to be with him.”
But does this jet-setting Londoner really get New York? I pose it to the fighter, whose diamond necklace is gaudy enough to deflect laser beams, like this: If Hearn himself were to take your place Saturday night and lace up the gloves, what’s the sort of walkout song that ties up his oeuvre with a bow?
“Fat Joe. ‘My Lifestyle,'” Berlanga says with minimal hesitation.
The Ringmaster, never expected to be at a loss for words, even when he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s gonna say, instead voices his approval with a knowing grin.
I’m seated at a hotel conference room table on West 35th Street. It’s Friday, fight eve. Mere stumbling distance away, Madison Square Garden could cast a shadow over us if the sun wasn’t already booked. Opposite me is Frank Smith, CEO of Matchroom Boxing. If he said he was Eddie’s younger cousin, I’d believe him, as the flavor of their rapport is lyrical yin and logistical yang.
(He is not Hearn’s cousin; their origin story is actually less believable by comparison and involves raffle tickets, a Bentley, and East London greyhound racing.)
“I work with the showman of all showmen, He’s out there, we wheel him out to go and do a lot of talking,” Smith says of his boss. “He comes up with wacky ideas, and then we have to go and actually make them happen. Most of the time, he says things and then turns around and says, ‘good luck.'”
Smith, more amenable to spreadsheets than spotlights, explains that the Matchroom Boxing team makes those things happen today with a team of about 40 spread around the globe, which is also the approximate number of boxing events they put on each year — and from Manhattan to Manchester to Malaysia, the Ringmaster’s show must go on.
“My job is to be the sensible one, to try and make things happen, oversee the business day-to-day,” he says. “I think for us now, it’s doubling down the growth of boxing on an international scale and partnering up with governments,” noting ongoing conversations in particular with Monaco, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
A second straight morning of hotel ballroom coffee has me feeling fairly shot out of a cannon, so while I was always going to ask about the Saudi of it all, it’s welcome that Smith mentions the uneasy topic unprompted. There’s an oil-backed wealth fund tidal wave crashing through global sports straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s Blood Elevator; right on cue, the two of us are speaking the same day the $475 billion Qatar Investment Authority’s sporting arm agreed to invest in the NBA’s Washington Wizards.
Barely two weeks later, heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury and former MMA world champ Francis Ngannou would agree to an October ring date in Riyadh enabled by a presumably exorbitant site fee sipped from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign Public Investment Fund.
Smith is more bullish than skeptical about doing business with the Saudi aristocracy and their PIF, whose portfolio famously includes the controversial LIV Golf League. This is less a Matchroom stance, however, as an acknowledgment of how money will inevitably flow through a sport that is truly global in scale but effectively impossible to regulate globally in any meaningful way.
“I think it’s brilliant. They’re obviously looking to diversify outside of just oil,” Smith says of the authoritarian monarchy’s burgeoning emphasis on live events. “They make a lot of money but they need to think longer-term.”
So, was Logan Roy right? Money wins, and that’s all there is to it?
“You only have to look at the difference compared to a player in the Premier League and the numbers being touted to move to the Saudi football league,” Smith says, noting the latter’s eye-popping swoop for Cristiano Ronaldo. “It’s a similar comparison for boxing. There’s such a huge gulf in the numbers.”
Yes, a Persian Gulf.
While acknowledging the very real threat of a PR backlash over negotiating with a repressive regime with a shambolic human rights record, risk management contributes to these decisions, too. A sovereign wealth fund’s willingness to offer a massive one-time payment to secure hosting rights for a major event takes a whole lot of pressure off promoters and TV partners that would otherwise need to hit an impressive threshold of pay-per-view buys just to break even.
“When we go to Saudi, they’re essentially buying the event and saying, ‘Right, here’s your money. Thanks very much. Turn up on X day and we’ll pay you your money,'” Smith says, a factor that is not to be ignored in a sport as dangerous and chaotic as boxing in which so much ultimately feels left up to chance.
From where you sit, this paradigm may either represent sports’ way of the future or a moral and ethical retreat to the Middle Ages. No matter how loud the allegations of “sportwashing” become, however, the trend is not about to subside — it’s expanding with or without you.
Eddie Hearn, who has promoted Saudi Arabian fight cards starring world champions like Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk, is not about to allow Matchroom Boxing to be left behind.
“Sport is worldwide, and we can’t be naive enough to just think that the big fights happen in America or, you know, the major darts events happen in Holland or Germany,” he tells me back at Madison Square Garden before weigh-ins. “These places, as they have commercial growth, wanting to change the perception of their countries, the visual impact that we see across broadcast, they’re going to want to use sport to showcase that.”
As with my conversation with Frank Smith, Hearn alludes to the moral risk inextricable from the sovereign wealth fund era unprompted.
“The one thing that I’m finding more and more is we get asked questions all the time. ‘Oh, what do you think? Do you think this is sportswashing?’,” he says, smoothly elongating the buzzword’s first syllable as if to slip a jab. “The answer is, in my opinion, they are using sport to change the mindset of the people, but also to showcase the changes. I don’t see it as like, you know, they’re bringing sports events there to cover up some negativity or bad things that happen in the country.”
The Ringmaster additionally notes something Smith flagged earlier in the day — a country like Saudi Arabia has big (and bigger) problems beyond sports, but that public participation in boxing is up about 600% in the last several years. For this reason, likening the PIF’s ongoing investments to similar multibillion-dollar efforts that landed the 2022 FIFA World Cup in nearby Qatar, he’s unconvinced that papering over human rights failings is the primary motivation behind these moves.
“I think what it actually comes from, the more I deal in these places, is actually individuals who have a passion for something,” specifically naming Prince Khalid bin Salman as both a friend and a driving force behind Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz’s 2019 heavyweight title rematch landing in Diriyah just west of Riyadh.
But of course, even as these seemingly blank checks alter the global complexion of boxing, New York is still New York and MSG is still MSG.
“At the same time, we don’t wanna take our entire business and every big fight to the Middle East because that’s not part of our strategy,” he says. “If we didn’t have strategy for global growth, I’d probably be more inclined to do so, but having that global strategy means that boxing in the Middle East is very important to us, and we are actually the only promotional company that’s done a significant boxing event in the Middle East or in Saudi Arabia.”
He separately notes a recent Matchroom bout in Abu Dhabi and future plans for Qatar.
Beyond the Persian Gulf, Smith mentioned Southeast Asia as an area of emphasis. Mixed martial arts, particularly the Professional Fighters League, has big plans for multiple African nations, and with sufficient infrastructure and investment, boxing will find its way to the party.
But what happens when there are no more continents left to conquer?
I mention something the Hearn said to me on our Friday walk-and-talk about not waiting to stick around in the promoter game nearly as long as, say, Top Rank’s Bob Arum, who turns 92 later this year, or the similarly aged Don King, whose ongoing participation of the sport is as offensive as it is inexplicable. Even Eddie’s father, Barry — Matchroom Sport’s founder and inimitably quotable like his son, but with an old-school tough guy aura that whippersnappers like us would marvel at semi-nervously — stuck around the business well past middle age before calling it a day.
“You know, every day is questioning. Interrogation,” he says, letting me off the hook as a friendly as I sheepishly point at myself. “I’ve gotta go and do that lot out there — the rottweilers — in a minute. You know, ‘He said, Oscar De La Hoya said, Bob Arum said,’ oh my god, it’s so painful. It’s like, ‘What’s the update on Anthony Joshua?’ Fuck me, you asked me that yesterday. Still nothing.”
That the mental and emotional wear and tear of the business have not wounded or disillusioned him by now is perhaps a testament to his chin for such punishment; he stops short of telling me he enjoys the sniping, the clickbaity games, the fuckery endemic to boxing thanks to its sundry rottweilers and De La Hoyas, but Hearn approaches it all with a trademark zest that’s refreshing for such a merciless, chaotic thing as boxing.
In mere minutes as ceremonial weigh-ins go live on DAZN, he’ll smile through an endless stream of five-minute interviews mostly recorded on iPhone cameras by men in cargo shorts.
His disposition will be animated and his coffee will be hot, but his cup won’t have a lid. Much like the sport he adores, it wouldn’t all be such a thrill without at least a spatter of danger.
“I am addicted and I love it more than anything. So, it’s getting the balance of saying you need to go and live your life,” he says of how his present pivots to future. “I’ve got two daughters, you know? It’s trying to get some time with them, seeing them play their sports, but also, like anything, if you want to be at the top, you have to be incredibly selfish and you have to make sacrifices — and you can’t have it either way.”
There’s no way in hell that the Ringmaster drops the mic before he has a chance to promote the superfight of all superfights, though, right? RIGHT?!?
On the heady subject of misshapenly boxy Elon Musk vs. apparent jiu-jitsu guy Mark Zuckerberg, Hearn begins with two words: “We’re ready.”
Boom. The sales pitch is on and I’m listening.
As for handicapping this stupefying hypothetical scrap, he only sees things going one way.
“I don’t know anything about Elon Musk’s training regime, but if I was Elon Musk, I’d be staying well away from it. If you go in a cage with someone that knows how to do Brazilian jiu-jitsu, like, it’s over,” Hearn says, imagining every ridiculous scenario behind his eyes. “But I know that being a competitive businessman, you like weird challenges outside of your comfort zone, right? Whether they do it in a cage or a ring, it would be massive. I must have had a dozen requests from media yesterday for comments on Elon Musk and Zuckerberg from outlets that never, that never wanna speak to me.”
I’m having too much fun with this, so I ask for a reality check: What are the actual chances two tech billionaires strap on gloves and wail on each other in an all-world spectacle promoted by Matchroom Boxing?
“I can’t see us doing it, but we would do it,” Hearn says with a laugh.
On this fitting note on which to end, it’s time to wrap and head to ceremonial weigh-ins for Saturday’s Edgar Berlanga-Jason Quigley card.
Time for another sip of that rocket fuel — I’m not a daredevil so I’ll drink mine with a lid, thanks — and watch the Ringmaster take the rottweilers for a walk.
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