'You have to make it sexy': Eddie Hearn talks transforming boxing in the U.S., next move for Anthony Joshua

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

For years, the television ratings would show a sad story for boxing. Even when the audience size was high, the demographic was the exact opposite of what advertisers were looking for.

The bulk of the audience was primarily men 55 years of age and older.

But in the last nearly two years, that has made a dramatic shift. As boxing promoters made what some perceive as a last-ditch effort to kickstart the sport, they did so by making an effort to attract a younger audience.

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The UFC went from more than $40 million in the hole to being sold for more than $4 billion in a decade primarily because it attracted the 18-to-34-year-old males who were so highly coveted by advertisers.

“Any sport that has an audience of 55-plus is in a terrible, terrible position, to be honest with you,” boxing promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sport said in a video call with Yahoo Sports. “What we’ve done in the U.K. is to completely change the demographic of the sport of boxing. There’s a much younger, more fresher, more vibrant audience now and that makes a big difference to ticket sales, to pay-per-view numbers, to subscription numbers because these are people who have disposable income and are willing to spend.”

Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearn answer questions during a news conference promoting Joshua's June 1 fight vs. Jarrell Miller. (Getty Images)
Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearn answer questions during a news conference promoting Joshua's June 1 fight vs. Jarrell Miller. (Getty Images)

Up until recently, two main problems were plaguing boxing: The atmosphere at the live events was more like a funeral than a party and there were long dead periods with nothing happening, and the best fights weren’t being consistently made.

Progress is being made in both areas, though there remains huge issues in getting the best to fight the best in a timely manner. The heavyweight division has become something of a mess for that very reason, even though there is building excitement among the audience with the potential matches.

The fight nearly everyone wants to see, a unification bout between WBC champion Deontay Wilder and IBF-WBA-WBO champion Anthony Joshua has yet to come close to being made. DAZN, the streaming service for which Hearn provides content, offered Wilder a lucrative deal worth more than $100 million that would have made back-to-back fights between Wilder and Joshua in the U.S. after each took one fight first.

Wilder, though, rejected that.

Tyson Fury, who bravely and dramatically got up from the canvas in the 12th round of his Dec. 1 title fight in Los Angeles with Wilder, had been negotiating a rematch with Wilder that was of high interest to the public.

But Fury in February signed with Top Rank and within a few days, Top Rank said an immediate rematch was off the table. On Friday, news broke that Fury is fighting little-known Tom Schwarz on June 15 in Las Vegas in a bout that has virtual no interest among anything other than the hardest of the hardcore fan base.

Hearn is doing great work on making boxing exciting. He’s arguably the sport’s most accessible promoter and he’s making his shows must-see events with music and pyrotechnics and a nightclub feel.

The stereotypical view of a boxing crowd in the U.S. is an older and staid group with little noise in the arena between fights. Top Rank’s Todd duBoef has been trying to improve the in-arena experience because he recognizes the need to attract a younger demographic.

The atmosphere at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for Vegas Golden Knights’ games was recently voted best in the NHL by a more than 2-to-1 margin in a recent poll conducted by players. That’s because the Knights spare no expense in game presentation and it’s like going to a party and seeing a hockey game break out.

It’s what boxing desperately needs, and it’s not just blaring music over the loudspeakers. Hearn has done yeoman’s work in the U.K. in that regard, though he hasn’t broken through yet in the U.S.

“It’s not rocket science: You have to make it cool again. You have to make it sexy,” Hearn said. “You have to make the kids and the younger generation feel like that’s the place to be. I don’t feel like you have that yet in America. Come over to our shows in the U.K. and it couldn’t be closer on point. It’s almost like a nightclub. ‘We’re going to dress up. We’re going to have a drink. We’re going to go to the fights.’ It’s the same mentality that they’ve had for the UFC. They’ve made it a cool place to be, and I don’t think boxing has that much in America.

“We’re going to try to change that, because the only way you can make it current and trendy and cool is to drive that younger generation and make it a night out.”

A Hearn-promoted Joshua fight is an incredible sight to see. But it’s not fully there yet, because the fights the fans want aren’t regularly made, topped clearly by Wilder-Joshua.

This is the challenge promoters across all television platforms must deal with in order to take boxing to the next level.

We need to see Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jr., the two best welterweights, fight each other in the ring instead of on social media.

We need to see Wilder and Joshua square off to determine the world’s best heavyweight instead of arguing over business terms.

We need to see Jarrett Hurd fight Jaime Munguia for supremacy at 154 pounds instead of letting long-ago business disputes render it impossible to make.

It should start with the heavyweights, because it’s the division that makes even the non-hard core fans take notice. The old adage, “As the heavyweights go, so goes boxing,” still rings true.

Eddie Hearn checks on Tony Bellew after he is knocked out by Oleksandr Usyk during a world cruiserweight title fight at Manchester Arena on Nov. 10, 2018 in Manchester, England. (Getty Images)
Eddie Hearn checks on Tony Bellew after he is knocked out by Oleksandr Usyk during a world cruiserweight title fight at Manchester Arena on Nov. 10, 2018 in Manchester, England. (Getty Images)

That’s what made something Hearn said so encouraging. Wilder, Joshua and Fury are the biggest names in the division, but undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, one of the pound-for-pound best in the world, will make his heavyweight debut in May.

Soon, he’ll be in the mix for major fights along with the Big Three. Hearn promotes Joshua and Usyk, so it would be logical and simple to make.

But when Hearn was asked which of four fights -- Wilder-Joshua, Wilder-Fury, Joshua-Fury or Joshua-Usyk -- would happen first, his answer was instructive.

“Usyk and Joshua both have the same promoter, me, and they’re both quite fearless. They both don’t care who they fight. That fight [Joshua-Usyk], I think actually comes in the spring [of 2020] because Usyk will fight in May and then I think he’ll fight in October-November. I think he’ll fight Joshua in March or April.

“I still think the favorite [to happen next] is Wilder against Joshua because of the amount of money that is involved.”

The bottom line in all of this is simple: Fans don’t care who promotes a fight or who broadcasts it. They want to see fights that are meaningful and which determine who the best is in any division. Having the best regularly fight the best streamlines the championship pictures and minimizes the nonsense of the sanctioning bodies, where there are multiple champions per organization per division and could leave to five or more being regarded as “champions” in the same weight.

Hearn has the right ideas about transforming boxing, but he needs to turn his words into actions in terms of making the fights his customers want.

The majority of fans and media are sick of promoters and managers explaining why fights can’t happen, or why the other guy is wrong.

We have a simple request:

Make the best fights. Make them accessible. And if we attend, make them fun.

Boxing is on the precipice of great things, and Hearn is at the forefront of that. Hopefully he starts a revolution.

These changes won’t work with one promoter or one broadcast service. It needs everyone on all sides to work together for the better of the business.

Boxing people haven’t traditionally played nicely together.

It’s never been more critical to try than it is now.

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