Buoyed by Anthony Joshua’s success, Eddie Hearn testing his luck in U.S.

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

The guy who will have a major say on if, when and where IBF-WBA heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and WBC champion Deontay Wilder meet in a mega-money unification bout next year is a 30-something second-generation promoter from England who is clever enough to have built something of a boxing dynasty in the U.K. and who is audacious enough to believe he can do the same thing in the U.S.

Eddie Hearn, whose father, Barry, promoted prominent fighters such as Lennox Lewis and Chris Eubank Sr., is promoting Saturday’s card at NYCB Live, home of the Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, featuring middleweights Daniel Jacobs and Luis Arias that will be shown on HBO.

It’s a small, first step in his plan to make an impact in the American market.

It’s one that hasn’t been kind to outsiders, but Hearn is not intimidated by the past or worried about the future.

“This is really to test myself, keep growing the business globally and we’ve obviously taken control of the market over there,” Hearn said. “We’re not taking our eye off the ball. We’re moving into America slowly. We appreciate where it’s not going to be something we just waltz in and take over.

“But I feel there is an opportunity here to work with networks and fighters and start to give them what they need. I know what they need and I know what they want.”

First, they want to be kept active. They want to develop a profile and have a promoter constantly pushing them.

Hearn has been wildly successful in the U.K. over the last seven years, and in 2017, he’s attracted two crowds of 80,000 or more for a Joshua fight and he sold more than 30,000 tickets for a Kell Brook fight. It’s not a stretch to say it would be hard to sell 30,000 tickets in the U.S. for five Kell Brook fights.

That said, boxing occupies a much more significant place in the sporting strata in the U.K. than it does in the U.S.

Eddie Hearn (R) is planning to start talks on a mouth-watering bout between Anthony Joshua (L) and Deontay Wilder. (Reuters)

A sports talk-show host in the Seattle area asked his listeners last week if they had ever heard of Deontay Wilder. Host Jeff “Fish” Aaron said the majority had never heard of him. You didn’t have to be a boxing fan to know Muhammad Ali, or an NBA fan to know Michael Jordan. The poll in Seattle indicates the type of difficulties Hearn will face in this market, but he said the reason for it can be traced back to one source.

A lack of promotion.

The golden era of promotion in the U.S. might have been from the late-to-mid 1970s through the early-to-mid 1990s, when promoters such as Bob Arum, Don King, Dan Duva, Dan Goossen and others were consistently putting on massive shows which did good numbers.

It’s not the case now, and Hearn said it’s something he believes he can remedy.

“The two key words, I think, are hype and perception,” he said. “You have to have hype for a show and you have to create the perception that it’s a major event and you have to be there. That’s what we’ve done in the U.K., particularly at Anthony Joshua events. It’s a must-see. It’s a must-see fight, a must-see event and people clamor for tickets. We’ve been able to create a demand so that when tickets go on sale, you feel like you must get a ticket. There is no denying it.”

Creating that demand is the problem in the U.S. There are many elite American boxers who don’t have much of a profile. And the fight game is one of those where fans need to feel an investment in the athletes before they full commit to supporting him or her.

A fighter like the recently retired light heavyweight champion Andre Ward couldn’t sell on pay-per-view, and the combined total of the two biggest pay-per-view events of his career, bouts against Sergey Kovalev in 2016 and 2017, barely sold a combined 300,000.

This despite it being Ward’s toughest fight and Ward being an undefeated American with a gold medal in his trophy case and a spotless personal history. Attendance was also weak at those fights, relatively speaking.

And that brought Hearn to Wilder, who is managed by Al Haymon and Shelly Finkel and promoted by Lou DiBella. There is no love lost between Hearn and DiBella, and they frequently battle on Twitter.

Asked if the hard feelings that seem to exist between he and DiBella would be an impediment to making a Joshua-Wilder fight, he took a not-so-subtle dig at his rival.

“Lou called me [Tuesday] and he obviously knows I’m around the U.S. media all week,” Hearn said. “He said, ‘We’re only joking, right?’ And, ‘No low blows when you’re in America.’ I’ve known Lou since I was about 8 years old. I have a lot of respect for him in terms of boxing. But he’s a hothead. I don’t want to say too much about Lou, but if Lou came in this room right now, he’d give me a cuddle and so would I, and if there were a fight to be made, we’d make it.

“In terms of the Wilder fight, he’s not involved in any of the discussions, as far as Wilder and Joshua, so that won’t affect that fight at all.”

DiBella said that while Wilder has a strong management team, he, too, will play a strong role in the promotion. He questioned Joshua’s visibility and said he is an unknown in New York now.

“I’m Deontay’s promoter and he and I have a very strong relationship,” DiBella said. “By the way, I think it’s funny that Eddie finds the need to diminish me the same way he finds the need to diminish Deontay. Maybe he should worry about his own backyard, where his contract with Anthony Joshua is not a long-term one. He doesn’t have years to go on his contract with Joshua. He ought to worry more about his own backyard and about selling tickets for his so-called British Invasion than about me, when he has no idea what conversations I’m privy too.

“And here’s the truth: The last time Anthony Joshua fought on Showtime, what did he draw, 300,000 viewers? If [Hearn] thinks his guy is known in this country, he’s out of his [expletive] mind. All this talk Eddie is doing is [expletive]. If Anthony Joshua walked down the street in New York, no one would know who the [expletive] he is. And that’s a fact.”

Meanwhile, Hearn said promoters in the U.S. haven’t done a good job of telling fighters’ personal stories. Everyone in the U.K. knows Joshua’s backstory – he was running with a gang, got arrested, took up boxing in 2009, won an Olympic gold medal in 2012 and is now a massive attraction in England – but he said few in the U.S. know Wilder’s story.

Wilder is a charismatic and outgoing guy who would be a star here if given the opportunity, Hearn said.

“It all comes down to promotion,” Hearn said when asked about the Seattle radio poll in which listeners said they were unaware of who Wilder is. “How can you possibly have an American world heavyweight champion who is as charismatic and talks as well as Deontay Wilder can and that [be true]? And by the way, he can really fight. He can really punch and he’s great to watch.

“Yet, no one knows who he is. That tells you all you need to know about the promotion of Deontay Wilder. I promote a lot of fighters but if I promoted Deontay Wilder, he would not be able to walk down a street without being mobbed. It’s as simple as that.”

Hearn is a big fish in the U.K. pond and is clearly feeling his oats. Whether he’ll be remotely as successful in the U.S. remains to be seen. DiBella puts on numerous shows in Brooklyn and throughout the New York area and knows how to fill seats there.

Hearn is betting that he can do the same on a wider scale in the U.S. The odds would suggest he’s not going to have nearly the same kind of success here that he’s had in England.

But for anyone in boxing, it will be a success if Hearn is able to pull it off. If he can prove boxing can be consistently successful on a week-to-week basis in the U.S., that’s going to only help everyone else involved in the sport here, from promoters to managers to fighters.