From stripping tomato plants while trying to make ends meet as a teenager to founding Matchroom Sport, Barry Hearn has done it all. The chairman of World Snooker and the Professional Darts Corporation has dramatically shifted the sporting landscape. Nick Friend went to meet him ahead of Anthony Joshua’s fight with Carlos Takam.
“Boxing is unique. In most sports, you have to work consistently to change your life. But in boxing, you can change your life in one night. That quite appeals to me,” Barry Hearn admits as we chat in his beautiful Romford office, the home of Matchroom Sport since 1982.
Hearn, more than most, knows how dramatically a life can transform. Brought up on a Dagenham council estate by his mother after the early death of his father, he would become the youngest audit manager in the history of Thomson McLintock aged just 24. Nearly half a century on, the one-time chartered accountant is one of the most important figures in world sport. Matchroom – named after the Romford snooker hall in which Steve Davis forged his reputation – promotes eleven different sports, while Hearn runs World Snooker and the Professional Darts Corporation.
Yet, it was on boxing where, as a young boy, Hearn first set his sights. “My big dream was always to be the heavyweight champion of the world,” he confesses.
“I really enjoy one-to-one sport. I’m very competitive, although I’m shit at most things. But I’m very competitive – within my family, outside my family – everything is a competition, and a competition to win at all costs relentlessly. Of course, you don’t and you can’t. The fear of failure drives you to try even harder. It’s bizarre and quite stupid in some ways but also great fun.”
To listen to Hearn talk about his desire to win is fascinating. Having been told by his own boss that he would never get beyond life as an audit manager with his background, business has always been about the competition.
Even now, he admits: “My heartbeat goes up on the way to work and it goes up on the way home because I’m happy there as well. I work every night. I do 16-hour days, seven days a week because I’m relentless. I’m not relentless to make money anymore. I’m relentless to win. And that’s where sport comes into business. They are absolutely inseparable.”
So crucial are sport and winning in Hearn’s life that when his son Eddie was 16, the pair fought in their local gym.
“He was the last bloke I actually had a fight with – a proper fight. He dropped me twice in the second round. He was good. It was a proper fight in a gym. He was a public schoolboy and my head was going: ‘I don’t like public schoolboys. What type of kid have I got here?’ I said to the wife: ‘I have to find out.’ I was 45 and still sparring; I was okay – I could look after myself. But he was decent. I hit him with a really good shot in the first round and he didn’t go down and I just thought: ‘I’ve got problem here!’ He dropped me twice in the second and that was the last time I put my gloves on, which I regret.”
The episode speaks volumes for the competitive spirit that drives both Barry and Eddie in Matchroom’s mammoth success.
Of boxing, he says, he had little choice but to take up the sport, such was the environment he grew up in. Not only did it allow him to defend himself, it dangled the life-changing carrot that Hearn sees as so crucial in the creation of a world-class sportsman.
“The idea of going out and becoming the next Rocky Marciano is very appealing because he’s got a big car and girls around him. So that was a driving force. But the other side of it – if you go back into your own psyche – is, how do you become wealthy? How do you change your family’s life? How do you get attention when nobody would normally look at you? Sport does that in spades. And boxing is probably the most obvious example of someone going from zero to hero.”
And in Anthony Joshua, Hearn and Matchroom possess perhaps the closest that Britain has ever come to achieving this superhuman icon that he speaks of.
“Joshua is my most frustrating client I’ve ever had because I cannot find a weakness,” he says.
“Everyone’s got a weakness and when I find it, I can either cure it or I can make it beneficial for marketing. I cannot find a weakness in this kid though. I cannot find one. He’s perfect. I hate to say that because in boxing, you’re only ever one punch away from a disaster.
“I can’t find a weakness. I think he’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
In an era where pre-fight antics have reached preposterous levels and trash talk cobbled together to sell otherwise underwhelming fights, Joshua has provided Hearn with the best marketing tool he could ask for.
“In the same way as Steve Davis was built around being boring, Joshua is built around being so professional. It doesn’t revolve around throwing chairs at people, it doesn’t involve swearing or sexist remarks or racist remarks. It just involves being the best in the world.”
As talk moves onto Joshua and his personality, however, it is hard not to reminisce of Davis’ era – a time when each sportsman came with their own character, a disposition to set them apart from one another.
“We’ve seen this movement away from characters in sport,” Hearn explains. “Everyone always says that there aren’t enough characters in sport and they’re quite right. There’s a very good reason for that because, to be a character, it means you have a weakness because you’re exciting, it means you actually play the sport in the way that you lead your life.
“When you come out of a working-class background, you live your life very much for today – not for tomorrow. You go into excess – alcohol, drugs, gambling – all the weaknesses of normal people because you’re a normal person. But of course, because they have an inherent weakness in their psyche, they don’t win consistently.
“Today’s sportsmen don’t have the same weaknesses: they’re better schooled, they’re better controlled, they’re better educated. And for that reason, they’re also better at their sport technically because they’re more thorough and they don’t just rely on natural ability. And that means that they don’t have so much personality because personality is a weakness to winners. And there are always going to be exceptions to this but no exception that can last consistently and become a consistent winner.”
The hope is that Joshua, uber-professional but with a jovial relatability that has gathered a worldwide fanbase, can continue to flourish. His fight against Carlos Takam – a late replacement for the injured Kubrat Pulev – will be just his twentieth. Yet, after his victory over Wladimir Klitschko – a fight that Hearn places among his top ten moments in sport – the Matchroom mogul sees the world as Joshua’s oyster.
“I think the boy will go undefeated for ten years if he wants to and if he keeps his feet on the ground,” he declares.
“He’s far better than Lennox Lewis.
“I had Lennox when he first started and he was a good technical boxer but fairly dullish, fairly predictable, almost eastern European by stance. Lennox’s great career record started much later in life when he took big fights and was still capable of winning – you know, like Vitali Klitschko.
“That’s what establishes reputations. Joshua’s last fight was his nineteenth fight. Lennox’s nineteenth was against Levi Billups – just to put that in context. And so, we can’t compare Joshua and Lennox because Joshua is so far more advanced. But, Joshua hasn’t got the longevity yet that will only come by continually winning.
“And of course, along that way, Joshua understands that the best way of doing that is to unify the belts and then to defend those belts. If you can defend and unify those belts over a period of time, your reputation in today’s world will be bigger than Lewis or [Mike] Tyson or anyone else. But he’s only on that journey. He hasn’t got there yet.”
The sixth-round knockdown at the hands of Klitschko was a reminder of the dangers that come with heavyweight boxing – in no sport are the lines finer between victory and defeat. Yet for Hearn, there was a major positive to be taken from it.
“It was a show that people that bought a ticket – in the same way as people that watched Cooper versus Ali – will tell their grandchildren about. It was a similar type of show. It was a great fight, a great occasion. And it had the right winner, who showed some flaws, some vulnerability, which you need to see in great winners.
“Otherwise, the danger with [Steve] Davis after three or four years as a top pro was that he won everything. And there wasn’t the feeling of any doubt. And you need doubt.
“We always say here: ‘We’ll sell you the seat for a sporting event but we can guarantee you’ll only need the edge of it.’ And that edge is the doubt.
“Really, the doubt is that heavyweights can punch. Does Joshua get hit and go over? Because he went over in the Klitschko fight, the edge of the seat is with you. Now probably, Joshua goes out and destroys him in two or three rounds. Probably. Because he’s an animal. He’s a beast. But there’s still that doubt and you need that doubt. When Phil Taylor’s on double 16, does he get it? Well, yeah – nine times out of ten he does. But there’s that doubt.”
It is this entertainment value that Hearn values so greatly across each of his ventures that prevents him from criticising the brains behind Floyd Mayweather’s fight with Conor McGregor.
“I was very proud of myself because I didn’t wake up for the fight and I didn’t buy it,” Hearn says, smiling. “I knew it was going to be rubbish and McGregor can’t fight at all. Street-fighter, tough guy; I wouldn’t want to have a row with him on the cobbles but we’re talking about levels.”
But as Hearn is at pains to reinforce throughout our chat, sport is entertainment.
“Now, two donkeys make a great race,” he explains. “Just because you’re not great, it can still be exciting. So, it made everybody a fortune. Did Mayweather hold him up? Almost certainly, because I think Mayweather could have taken him out whenever he fancied it. But he’s a great fighter, Mayweather.
“And McGregor – you watch him on the pads and the heavy bag; he can’t fight! I’ve got kids in the gym who’d bash him up but they wouldn’t get 60 or 70 million for doing it, which is sadness for them. But I don’t look down my nose at it. I think it’s entertainment and people had their value. Sky did a bigger pay-per-view audience for that than for Joshua vs Klitschko.
“We’re in this business and we mustn’t be snobbish about this business, whatever business we’re in. And it’s not about the moral high-ground of sport. It’s about entertainment.
“It’s about the casual fan. So therefore, it becomes more of a marketing exercise than it does a dissection of professional sport or whether this is a lovely left jab. Who gives a shit?
“What do people want to see? 90% of people want to see a big knockout. But there’s 500 people at every show that want to see something really technically beautiful and we need them as well. But the bigger audience is the casual fan. Joshua, as you can see by his ticket sales, becomes the king of the casual fan.”
With Joshua the king, where does that leave the division’s pretenders, I ask. Joseph Parker, the undefeated New Zealander, holds the WBO belt but has flattered to deceive in recent victories. The American Deontay Wilder holds the WBC title and has claimed that Joshua will need to conquer the USA before he can seek greatness.
Hearn only has to cite Joshua’s ticket sales to quash Wilder’s theory: “Deontay Wilder is skint. That’s why he says that,” he says, frankly.
“Wilder is getting a million and a quarter dollars a fight and doesn’t get asked for his autograph in his own house.
“But he’s WBC champion and he wants a payday. Where’s he going to get a payday? Well, Anthony Joshua. He’d much rather have the fight in America but Deontay Wilder will go where he’s told to go and, basically, he’ll earn a load of money.
“It’s a fight we really like but, unfortunately, what’s really holding us back on that is that Wilder isn’t big enough in America to justify it.”
Of his commitment to Britain’s great sporting hope, he states: “Our duty to Anthony Joshua is to maximise his revenue because it’s a tough game and every fight could be your last.”
“You could be brilliant and still fail a brain scan and lose your licence, for example.
“Anthony is desperate to fight Parker and Wilder and we’re desperate to make Anthony Joshua more money than he’s ever seen in his life. And the money has to take priority because of the dangers of the sport.”
As we speak, the emphasis on money is impossible to ignore – whether in Hearn’s own life or in that of the athletes whose livelihoods have blossomed thanks to his and Matchroom’s unparalleled acumen. Yet, it is not a financial greed that acts as motivation.
The link between business, winning and money is intrinsic; a successful business, by the nature of society, results in financial gain. And that desire to dominate commercially reflects in Matchroom’s remarkable figures. At the last count, Matchroom – a private company without shareholders – turned over £70m, making a profit of £7m.
“We have companies all the time that want to buy us for hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds,” Hearn says. “And I just tell them to fuck off. I’m not interested. Now, when I die, Eddie may well sell it and buy an island somewhere and I’ll shoot the bastard from upstairs!”, he jokes.
“But we had one offer from a big Chinese consortium to buy us and they couldn’t believe that I just said that it wasn’t up for discussion. They said: ‘we haven’t even talked about the price! It’s a lot of money!’ I just went: ‘I don’t care how much money it is. This is my life, I don’t need the money and I’m happy doing what I do.’
“And Eddie leant forward and said: ‘But, the moment he dies, you ring me!’”
The anecdote is a fitting finish to our conversation. It encapsulates everything that Hearn’s lifetime in business has been – the importance of family, the tough businessman, the utter commitment to his company.
Having worked his way up from the bottom, Hearn is well aware that hard work alone is not always enough.
“I’ve always had the phrase that ‘it’s better to be born lucky than good-looking.’ I’ve had an amazing run for the last 60 years of being amazingly lucky.”
Featured photograph: Matchroom Sport