“I like doing things that people wouldn’t expect”: Eddie Hearn at The Cambridge Union

Ryan Coppack 3 November 2020
Image Credits: Nordin Catic

In its attempt to restore a greater semblance of normality, the Cambridge Union hosted another in-person event this week, this time with the boxing promoter and Managing Director of Matchroom Sport, Eddie Hearn. Of course, the usual proceedings were markedly different. Masks were on, tickets were strictly balloted, and the chamber was half-full. But this had no effect on Hearn himself, who still managed to maintain his characteristic blend of frankness and conviviality. Having promoted some of the major fights of the last decade, most notably the much-anticipated contest between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko in 2017, Hearn is arguably the most important figure in boxing today. And now Hearn, 41, has written a book, “Relentless: 12 Rounds to Success”, a rumination on the meaning of success and how to achieve it. Hearn informs the chamber that the book was the product of months of solitude and contemplation during the months in lockdown.

Many who don’t know Eddie Hearn’s name will probably know his face. Often encountered as a meme on social media pages such as “No Context Hearn” – which now has over 360,000 followers on Twitter – the promoter has become something of an internet sensation. Hearn embraces the comical side of the phenomenon, claiming it’s both personally amusing for him and commercially advantageous for the business. Anything that will boost the profile of the boxing industry is only a good thing, he tells the audience. Despite this, it’s difficult to escape the impression that Hearn wants to depart from this internet persona somehow.

Aside from the internet memes and his appearances at heated press conferences, Hearn has been searching for an answer to a more serious question: what does it mean to be happy? This is something that links him far more closely to someone like Aristotle than he possibly realises. The happiness that comes with success, Hearn attests, is often ephemeral. When achieving a remarkable feat – of which he cites several from his own professional career during the evening – it’s not unsurprising if it fails to live up to expectations. With this in mind, he believes it’s important to keep on striving and progressing. In his own words, it’s important to “take each day as it comes”. Success then requires just as much focus on short-term goals as long-term goals. Too many people, he observes, get caught up in quixotic ambitions without getting the fundamentals right.

For Hearn, successful people are those who wake up every day and enjoy what they do. “You shouldn’t want a day off”, he candidly tells the chamber. He expresses his admiration for Katie Taylor, the Current Undisputed Lightweight Champion and Olympic gold medallist, and the “most inspirational” sportsperson he has ever encountered. What sets Taylor apart from the competition, he believes, is a combination of “passion” and “sacrifice”.

Having himself tested positive for Covid-19 in early October, Hearn offers a somewhat sobering assessment of the impact of the pandemic on the boxing industry. While he recognises the commercial advantages that come with hosting televised events during a pandemic, he ultimately mourns the loss of the “spectacle” that a live crowd delivers at a fight. Hearn is of the persuasion that we need to take a sensible approach in tackling the pandemic, allowing the economy to “crack on”, but also caring for the vulnerable and acknowledging the seriousness of the virus.

When I sat down with Hearn in a room above the Union chamber, it was clear he is a man who still feels he has something to prove. The son of Barry Hearn, the founder of Matchroom Sport, Hearn remarks that his personal background has given him a “chip on the shoulder” mentality in which he partly begrudges the fact that, unlike his father, he didn’t get the opportunity to build a sporting empire from scratch. Through a childhood of being recognised as “Barry Hearn’s son”, Hearn feels a sense of kinship with the Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard, the son of the then-famous and widely recognised Frank Lampard Snr. But despite this, Hearn uses the relationship with his father as a motivating force. “The only way I can be perceived as a success”, he informs me, “is to outperform him”. Hearn has made it his mission to bring as much attention to the boxing industry as possible.

Hearn’s entrepreneurial spirit always means he’s searching for the next big commercial break. One idea he has may surprise a few, but he’s adamant about its potential: a contest between Oxford and Cambridge. Hearn recognises the differences the event would have with a sell-out match at Wembley or Madison Square Garden, but he says that the fight would be a “unique” opportunity due to the historic significance of the rivalry. Hearn also believes there is enough fighting quality at both institutions to deliver a stimulating contest. “I know that there are people at both universities who can fight, and who’d fight to the end”, he tells me. From “a selling point, I’d think it’d be great”. What sells, he believes, is something that contains novelty and an element of surprise. As he says, “I like doing things that people wouldn’t expect”.