“Obviously from the point of view of I didn’t know what I was doing, and I winged it into a massive success. But, probably I would say [my most memorable moment in boxing was], Eubank, Benn, in 1990, the first fight. I’d gambled a lot on Eubank being the real deal. I think boxing can make all of us look ridiculous, doesn’t it?”
Barry Hearn founded the biggest sporting company on the planet from conquering the snooker world to boxing to fishing. Hearn is the man behind it all, especially in the British scene, and it all started out with a gamble.
“We make predictions and things like that, but I thought Eubank, with his style, was as good a bet as you could possibly have to beat Nigel Benn and I put everything on him, and it came off. It was very exciting because it was a breakthrough moment for both of us.
“It’s a bit like when Steve Davis won the World Snooker Championships in ’81, that was a breakthrough moment for me of enormous proportion, certainly to have a world champion. And Eubank wasn’t that far away from the same type of thing.
“It was a breakthrough moment against the establishment, against [Micky] Duff, against [Frank] Warren, because then you suddenly had the biggest name in British boxing and actually performed on the big stage. So, you couldn’t underestimate that, that was a quantum moment for me in boxing.”
Growing up Hearn knew that he would have to work hard to live well. Barry instilled in himself the motivation to build a work ethic that couldn’t be bettered by his peers, which has now led him to be the successful businessman he is today.
“I realised quite early I wasn’t a genius. I was smart without being super smart, academically smart, but I had a work ethic, and bearing in mind, I never wasted a moment of my life. That put me in an unassailable position because no one could compete with me because of my relentless approach.”
Barry Hearn realised from a young age that this high professionalism was going to be the foundation on which he would build his eventual empire. Little did he know just how big his empire would turn out.
It wasn’t a privileged upbringing for Hearn, not like the one he had provided for his children, but it was filled with love. “Kids don’t know they’re poor!” Barry recalled, but it was advice from his parents that shaped this young boy’s mindset.
“My father being so ill and having taught me never to waste an hour of my life. That was probably the best life lesson I’ve ever had because you never know… He used to say to me, you never know when it’s your last hour. And he was quite right. He died at 45.
“And the other lesson I learned was no one gives you anything, so you have to go and get it yourself. And I learned there were two or three ways to go and get it. There was the wrong path, which I didn’t take, although I lived in an area where a lot of people did. Then there was the right path, but I was no genius. So, not being a genius, the only thing that was left to me was to develop a work ethic that no one else could match, and that’s what I concentrated on.”
The advice he obtained from his mother was to be just as life-changing.
Mrs Hearn was a charlady, she would go house to house cleaning when one day a client of hers muttered one sentence to her. It was a sentence she would pass on to her, then, 12-year-old son who would revel in the words he would hear.
“I can remember this vividly because it was a quantum moment. She said, ‘I know what you’re going to be when you grow up.’ Now you got to bear in mind where I was living. And I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘You’re going to be a chartered accountant.’ And I said, ‘What do they do?’ Because I’d never even heard of it. And she said, ‘I have no idea, but the man whose house I cleaned said to me today that you never see a poor one?’
“That phrase, you never see a poor one, meant that from 12-years-old, without even knowing what it entailed, was enough for me to say I’m going to be an accountant. So, I never, for one second, looked at going down the wrong path because I had a career path from the age of 12 in my mind.”
Just a simple sentence forged into a successful career. Hearn became the youngest chartered accountant as he went on to say: “It wasn’t difficult, it was just about putting the graft in, learning, learning, learning. Sacrificing your early teens, not going out. I paid the price, but as you can see, it was a price worth paying.
“It gave me a wonderful start in life and something that has been useful to me throughout my career. So, it was a win-win, but I owe it to the fellow that said, you never see a poor one, because that was the phrase that stuck in my mind.”
Hearn went on to own a third of a company that owned a chain of snooker halls where he fell in love with the sport. Little did he know at this stage working as a financial director his future would lie in sports promotions.
Boxing would look very different today without Matchroom and there was a strong possibility of the sporting powerhouse never being founded. Barry sold the string of snooker halls in 1982 and considered an early retirement with all of his riches.
“I made quite a lot of money. I thought it was enough to retire on, but I was only 34 so I thought I’d better do something to add interest.
“By then, I was looking after Steve Davis’ career. He’d won the world championships the year before so I thought, well I’ll form a little company and I’ll just do snooker events and look after a few players, have some fun, make some money, doesn’t really matter because I’ve already got money.”
Snooker brought Hearn his first major sporting success but it was always boxing that lit the sporting fire inside of Barry. Long before he even could imagine the sporting empire he now owns.
“I’ve always had a fascination with boxing even when I was seven, eight, nine years old. I’d be listening to my little radio underneath my bed, four o’clock in the morning with fights coming in from America. The early [Muhammad] Ali fights and Archie Moore fights and things like that.
“I don’t know why, because my dad was never a physical type of person, but I just liked… I don’t know. [But,] every time I saw it on the news I found it fascinating and I developed a love for it.
“I mean in those days you might have had a few problems on the street, but I didn’t join a boxing club until I was 27, so I was a bit of a late developer because I concentrated on my career first.”
Encouraged into the sport by his good friend Freddie King, who trained Paul Jones, Herbie Hide and Steve Collins to championship glory, also, who had a reputation as a fearsome amateur in the Lightweight division.
“Freddie King from Oxton was a decent Lightweight. We had a food machine business we owned in the East End. He said to me when I was about 27, ‘You’re getting fat, you’re smoking, come down to the gym.’ Immediately, when I walked in, I just loved it, and I stayed there a couple of years, just enjoyed myself, and Freddie trained me.”
20 years on from clutching the radio and shadow boxing under his quilt, listening to the great fights from across the pond, to walking into a gym and seeing firsthand what it was like to train like a champion.
“And then 1987, Terry Lawless, who’s looking after Bruno and worked with Duff and all that, as you probably know, said to me, ‘You’re promoting snooker events, I know you love the boxing, why don’t you do a boxing event?’”
The cogs started turning, what could go wrong? Hearn decided to turn his passion into his work and has never looked back since.
“I did a couple of small shows with Gary Mason, God rest his soul, and then I thought I need to do something big to keep my interest, and somehow or the other, I threw Frank Bruno against Joe Bugner, which ended up being one of the biggest watched shows in the history of boxing in the U.K.
“Then the die was cast. The drug had been injected into my veins and I love it. I mean, of all the 12 sports I currently promote, boxing still gives you that one night special that nothing else touches.”
From Gary Mason to Frank Bruno to Anthony Joshua. Matchroom Boxing has delivered time and time again for over 30 years but is now in the ownership of Barry’s son, Eddie Hearn. It wasn’t the first time Barry had hung up his gloves to make way for Eddie.
“In the last session I had, you must know it was against Eddie. 16 [year-old], six-foot-something and a heavyweight. I thought he was getting a little bit of a nippy, rich kid. I took him down to the gym for three rounds of proper. I said we’ll have a proper tear up. And he dropped me twice in the second round, and I was 45 at the time, I thought this is not good. And that was the last time I put the gloves on.
“When he came to me, I don’t know, was it now 10 years ago, and said, ‘I want to run the boxing,’ it was quite difficult for me to give up the reins because of my personality, I like to control things. But I decided to give him his chance and he surpassed any expectation I might have had.”
Eddie had to prove his worth to his father, he wasn’t going to get the business just because he was Barry’s son. Firstly, Eddie looked after the golfing side of the company. Eddie was managing golfers on the U.S. tour and the U.K. PGA tour. Barry then bought the PGA Euro Pro tour.
After a few years of that, Hearn was having a “poker explosion”, online poker. Matchroom were the dominant world providers of poker programs Barry decided to move Eddie over to run the poker division, which he made very successful. So, Eddie now had proven himself over a number of years that he could run businesses.
“But, boxing, it’s a standalone unique business, quite unlike anything else out there, but he always had a passion. I mean from seven years old, eight years old, I’d be on the phone arguing with Don King or Bob Arum and Eddie would be always there.
“When we went to shows from nine, 10-years-old, he would nearly always come with me. He was passionate about boxing; he had a go himself. He was decent without being spectacular, but he knows enough about it to hold his hands up, which is important. So, he’s been destined to do it and I’m very, very proud of the job he’s done.”
Approaching 72-years-old, two heart attacks and almost filing for bankruptcy Barry Hearn is still as ambitious as ever. Will he ever fully retire, doubtful. One thing is for sure, the Hearn name will forever have its legacy within the sporting world.
“I have ambition for all of the companies in the Matchroom group. It’s a huge family business. I think we’ve got the best reputation of anybody in boxing and have had for the last 30 odd years, in terms of integrity and honesty. Paying their fighters, paying everybody on time, doing the right thing. It doesn’t mean we’re an easy touch. It just means that we’re honest and we tell the truth.
“So, I look at boxing’s future as I don’t know how it’s going to go. I mean, goodness me, you’re picking a good time to talk about boxing at the moment, we’re starved of it, aren’t we? I can’t wait for it to get back into action and it will one day, I’m not sure when. And when it does, we will be positioned to be as we are, the number one global player in the industry, and I think under Eddie’s leadership and his team, that’s something that would be very difficult for anyone to dislodge us from.”