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Why Frank Warren has been at war with the Hearns for 50 years

Frank Warren and Eddie Hearn
Before promoting this event, Frank Warren, left, says he had never been in the same room as Eddie Hearn, right - Getty Images/Mark Robinson

It says something about the internecine rivalry between two promotional dynasties that when Frank Warren was shot in 1989 by an unknown assailant, Barry Hearn claims that police came knocking at his front door the next morning.

It may be an apocryphal tale from Hearn, who says he had an alibi watching Steve Davis playing snooker in Preston, but it is a measure of the intense competition that has existed between two sporting organisations going back at least 30 years in boxing, and 50 years if you delve deep into history of two young men, both from London, who knew how to build businesses, be tough, and graft their way upwards.

On Saturday night, here in Riyadh, for the first time ever, two titans of British sport pitch five of their best boxers against each other, all watched by the current emperor of fight sports, His Excellency Turki Alalshikh, a Saudi Arabian Minister who has changed the face of boxing with investment over the last ten months.

It brought about an entente cordiale – of sorts – between Warren and Hearn, their companies Queensberry and Matchroom, which has created a ‘5 vs 5’ event that is close, outside the very biggest fights, to fantasy match-making.

Working with both Frank and Eddie Hearn, in charge of Hearn Snr’s boxing empire for the past 14 years, the Minister Alalshikh, simply said “work together, make it happen.”

Such a bitter rivalry had developed over the years that the promoters themselves had never considered it as they vied for airtime and broadcasters. And control. Nothing new in boxing. But Alalshikh, and the investment, of course, created the catalyst for co-operation.

Warren and Hearn
Warren and Hearn have been brought together by Saudi money - Getty Images/Mark Robinson

‘This is like a car park fist fight for us’

“We mean business, it’s genuine bragging rights,” explains Warren, 72, the head of Queensberry Promotions. “It is good that that we are working together, but I’m hell bent on winning this 5-0.”

He means it, too, behind the friendly handshakes with Eddie Hearn, the cordial smiles, and their many joint interviews. Boxing promoters are some of the thickest-skinned characters in sport. “This is like a car park fist fight for us,” Barry Hearn, 75, the president of Matchroom Sports told Telegraph Sport.

Warren from Islington and Hearn from East London were once cocksure streetwise hustlers who have now become hugely wealthy and respected powerful sporting and business figures.

Warren was initially a solicitor’s clerk, and Hearn an accountant. They have never forgotten their humble roots, and are driven workaholics. And winners. Like their champions. Hearn explains: “I was always a boxing fan, but I wanted to be a sports promoter.

“Frank’s a boxing promoter, and a very good one. We had a different vision.”

They came across each other first of all in the seventies. “We ran 2,000 machines in the East End, Frank had cigarettes in pubs and pool tables.”

Warren explained: “Freddie King had his business, and I didn’t like him. He was a bully. Hearn was his accountant and then King’s business partner. I wasn’t selling,” explained Warren, who would not budge.

“Freddie wanted to buy Frank out but he wanted too much for them,” is Hearn’s version of the story.

‘Frank broke the boxing cartel’

Warren, the more thoroughbred boxing man at the time, was about to start up unlicensed boxing, because there was no other option as there is today.

The Boxing Board of Control only recognised one promotional group, as did the BBC. It meant a stranglehold on the sport. In time, Warren broke the mould and ‘the cartel’ – as they were known – and with the assistance of innovative executives Trevor East and Bob Borroughs from ITV, brought licensed boxing to another channel.

“Frank did us all a favour, he broke the cartel,” Hearn told The Telegraph. “ITV put us together but it was like HBO putting Bob Arum and Don King together in the USA – it didn’t work. And it was never going to work. And yes, we wanted to nick each other’s fighters.”

The ITV deal for boxing and snooker was one thing, but both promoters had different ambitions and one station was not big enough for both of them. For their egos, at the time, allied with their ambition.

Warren was involved in a huge project with the London Arena in 1989, and when he was shot outside the Barking Theatre in 1989, it cost him millions as he recovered, and some of his boxers left to join Hearn’s Matchroom stable.

“But they all came back,” Warren is quick to remind us, and his resume of fighters is indeed extraordinary, from Frank Bruno to Naseem Hamed, Ricky Hatton to Tyson Fury. There is the sense that Warren may never have forgiven Hearn Snr for that period, when he moved his promotional tanks into boxing as Warren – hit by a 9mm bullet from a Luger pistol, which missed Warren’s heart by an inch – lost half a lung and parts of his ribs.

Warren always survived though, and was always building his boxing empire. Warren explained of Hearn Jr: “Eddie Hearn’s big break came when Barney Francis the head of Sky Sports was going to pull out of boxing, I created BoxNation and then BT Sport came along and wanted to have boxing themselves.”

BT Sport, known now as TNT Sports, completed a deal with Warren – a deal that still exists – and he was flying.

“Sky were fearful of the broadband war, and that’s how Eddie got in with Sky,” explained Warren. Hearn of course, then had Anthony Joshua and Sky drove up the numbers.

Barry Hearn and Eddie Hearn
The Hearn dynasty started with Barry, left, and has been passed down to Eddie, right - Getty Images/Alex Livesey

‘My respect for him has grown - and he’s great company’

There is a solidarity between Warren and Eddie Hearn going into this event, a double hitting power with both men behind the promotion. They do it brilliantly and the double act is selling hard.

“Frank and I had never spoken or been in the same room until we came to the first press conference together,” explained Hearn. “My respect for him has grown, and he’s also great company.”

Hearn Snr explained his view. “5 vs 5 is fascinating – it is making a lot of money and it is good for boxing. We want to win. It’s real. It’s like we were back in the streets in our 30s. This is about bragging rights. Frank is a great survivor, he has had financial troubles he was shot – he is a survivor off the streets.

“We are billionaires, but I want humiliation. If we get defeated it hurts. We’ll compete to the end.

“I respect what Frank has done. It’s like the old days. We are sorting it out in the car park. It doesn’t matter how many millions you have I don’t think he’ll mind me saying he’s a better boxing promoter I’m a better sports promoter.

“Frank and me are cut from the same cloth. Eddie and George [Warren] found it hilarious when me and Frank were in the same room together for the first time in 14 or 15 years, but we were fine. The 5 vs 5 encapsulates the rivalry and I think we’ll do it again.”

As the two titans of British sports promoting prepare to do battle on very rich foreign soil, Warren, 46 years in the sport, allows himself a smile. “The rivalry works, the promotion works, and we have discovered something here that is ultimately for the benefit of all of us – the fighters, the fans and the promoters. But it is no joke that we are taking this very seriously indeed. I’ve never been involved in a team event like this, and the camaraderie is phenomenal.”

The 5 v 5 card, Saturday June 1, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

On Saturday night, five of Frank Warren’s Queensberry fighters face five of Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom boxers. The

1. Deontay Wilder (Matchroom) vs Zhilei Zhang (Queensberry) Heavyweight
2. Daniel Dubois (Queensberry) vs Filip Hrgovic (Matchroom) Heavyweight
3. Hamzah Sheeraz (Queensberry) vs Austin Williams (Matchroom) Middleweight
4. Nick Ball (Queensberry) vs Raymond Ford (Matchroom) Featherweight
5. Willy Hutchinson (Queensberry) vs Craig Richards (Matchroom) Light-heavyweight

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