It’s a little after 7pm on Saturday and the fighter with the Hogwarts notebook is about to open the craziest show in town against the chap who got told off by security. Two alpacas, Sam and George, have a peek at them through the fence, but aren’t so fussed. Nor are the peacocks.
To the left and right as you look down the lawn are the hydrangeas, all pinks and purples, and under foot is the dying grass that broke a mother’s heart. In the distance, past the angry neighbours, is the skyline of London.
After a sprinkling of rain, it’s settling into a nice evening, and ‘thank God for that’, says the man who may or may not have come up with the weirdest of plans.
It cost him £5million, all told, and he’s fairly sure at some point in the next month there is going to be a disaster: a fighter might fail one of those tests, or it will rain, or Dillian Whyte will roll down to the A12 in a death lock with someone who looked at him funny at the Holiday Inn. Or another act of ‘concern’ from a rival.
But those are worries for later. For now, show one of four is here; one of the strangest and most extraordinary sporting projects of a strange and extraordinary time is under way.
And so Eddie Hearn sits back in his chair and behind his Covid mask says to himself: ‘I really hope we haven’t f***** this up.’
A month ago, to quote Hearn, it almost went ‘properly t*** up’.
‘I was close to pulling the plug,’ he tells Sportsmail on Friday.
We are sitting just off junction 28 of the M25, at the Holiday Inn in Brentwood, a mile from the Matchroom mansion and a private garden party. The location of this cramped hotel, where the fighters, teams and organisers are tested for Covid and then isolated, was meant to be a secret as YouTubers had taken to gate-crashing his shows before lockdown. But word got out on Wednesday because Hearn has a tendency to talk. The blessing and the curse.
Sportsmail, having first broken the news of the Matchroom Fight Camp plan, has been given exclusive access to live in the madness for a week. And it is madness, seven shades of it, right from conception of title fights in a back yard to the delivery. But back to the t***.
‘Biggest challenge of my career,’ says Hearn. ‘About a month ago, we were having really difficult conversations with Brentwood Council. A few neighbours had complained — that it was going to be noisy because we once had a party until 5am for my dad’s 70th, lorries will be turning in the lane, stuff like that.
‘The long and short of it, the council initially thought we needed a licence but we didn’t because there weren’t any spectators and this isn’t some kind of illegal rave.
‘It’s been a bit of a thing and we very nearly dropped the whole idea a few weeks ago and took it to York Hall. Only my ego stopped me. I have sung from the rooftops that we would come back with a bang so I would look a right plonker if I pulled out.’
There are a good few in the sport and beyond who say that ship has long since sailed. It’s the trade-off for Hearn’s naked ambition across the past decade to run the loudest and most dominant product in the game.
He’s the Essex boy of Barry, that working-class millionaire of promotion who still calls his 41-year-old son ‘silver spoon’. One after the other they’ve built and expanded a sporting dynasty from snooker to fishing to darts to boxing and they were flying until the day in March when they weren’t.
‘I was angry when it first happened,’ he says. ‘Things were getting cancelled, you’d make new plans and bang, gone again.
‘It’s funny, I was then talking to my dad about it and he just has this smile. He loves it, starts saying, ‘This is aggravation, isn’t it? Problems to solve’. And that’s how we started to approach it. Let’s do the glitziest thing you can do in a disaster of a world where you can’t get fans in and sports could die.
‘I am not saying I was bored with boxing, but I was starting to feel like I had completed it. This refreshed me.’
There is some debate over the origin of the idea to stage fighting in the garden. Hearn has claimed it was his; a member of his staff told Sportsmail one evening last week it may have been Frank Smith, Hearn’s 27-year-old protégé and the CEO of Matchroom Boxing.
‘We argued about that this morning,’ says Hearn. ‘He reckons he said to do it in the garden but I had the idea for Fight Camp, with everyone in the hotel and the razzmatazz. If it is s***, I’m happy to say it was his. If it’s great, then I can promise you it was my idea.’ Hearn laughs.
Another detail comes up. ‘A guy who works for a rival… OK, a guy who works for Frank Warren, has been contacting the British Boxing Board of Control to raise concerns, saying David Diamante, our ring announcer, might not be able to satisfy 14-day quarantine rules (after coming over from the US). We provided flight details showing he was compliant. Apparently he then wanted to see passport stamps.’
The individual in question, Andy Ayling, a Brentwood resident and Warren’s events manager, later told Sportsmail he was acting in a personal capacity and that he is ‘wholly unconvinced evidence exists to support the claim he was in the country by the 18th (of July) as claimed by Matchroom and the Board of Control’.
Hearn’s conversation moves on to the fights. At that moment, Tony Dunlop and Chris Sanigar, trainers from opposing corners — their men, James Tennyson and Gavin Gwynne, clash for the British lightweight title — join each other for a walk on a scrap of scorched grass in the hotel.
Forty paces one way, forty paces back, over and again, next to a fence separating them from the M25. ‘Their fighters are going to bash each other up tomorrow and they’re having a stroll — seriously this whole place is mental.’ Yes. Yes, it is.
The psychological grind for most started upon arrival at the hotel on Tuesday. The bubble rules meant a Covid test for all 90 or so in the Fight Camp circus and then staying alone in their rooms until given the all clear — a wait of up to 18 hours. Once cleared, a wristband and freedom to the rest of the hotel was granted.
When Reece Bellotti got a knock on his door on Wednesday from security, he had been cleared but did not have his new wristband. The mild discomfort arose from the fact that one of his trainers was already in his room talking tactics. ‘We just said sorry,’ smirks Bellotti.
The wait for a result was particularly uncomfortable for Hearn. ‘I’d started to think I had it,’ he says. ‘My grandad died a fortnight ago and I spent three days with him in a hospice. Although I was in mask, gloves, gown, a few days later I had a bit of a cold. I’m thinking, ‘S***’. As the test got closer my throat was getting sorer. Sure enough since I had the test it has all disappeared, so I think it was in my head.’
The Holiday Inn has cost Hearn £250,000 to cover the four weekends of shows. It is basic and yet ticks the complicated requirements of the situation.
Aside from the rooms, there is a small outdoor space, a weights gym, a function room that a week earlier was used for a speed awareness course and is now fitted with a ring. There is also a room for weigh-ins and virtual press conferences and a man hired solely to disinfect scales and equipment after use.
The early talking point around camp is food. The hotel menu is not geared for fighters cutting weight, which was alarming for former world-title contender Tennyson, who had to shift his last pounds to get to lightweight.
‘I didn’t bring my own food,’ he says. ‘I called the front desk and asked if I could have a couple of poached eggs but because there was no chef they said I could have a panini.’
Dalton Smith, a former British international amateur for whom Hearn is predicting big things, brought a portable cooker and had salmon on day two. The corridor stank for a day.
The close confines work with this group, which is largely sedate, barring the mysterious heavyweight Simon Vallily, whose past includes prison time for a knife attack in 2006 and a Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2010.
He called his opponent for the English heavyweight title, Fabio Wardley, a ‘c***’ and a ‘lesbian’ at a media session on Thursday, but he hasn’t been spotted outside of his obligations all week.
‘I think he just headbutts the wall in his room all day,’ suggests Wardley. Vallily later tells Sportsmail he just likes the isolation. ‘I have always been a loner,’ he says. ‘But I don’t think I like Fabio.’
All others mingle calmly in a potentially combustible environment. Jordan Gill has forgone a haircut for fear of Covid and makes tactical notes in his Harry Potter journal before his fight with Bellotti.
Sam Eggington, a kind-natured soul who headlines against Ted Cheeseman, has ‘savage’ tattooed on his chest but mostly wants to talk about his kids to his trainer, Jon Pegg.
Pegg, a lovely man, writes award-winning screenplays in his spare time. His frustration is that Eggington doesn’t want to play Monopoly. As ever, boxing throws up the most delightfully diverse group of characters.
‘It’ll be different when Dillian Whyte gets here for week four,’ says Hearn. ‘He’ll need a bigger room, better food. I can picture it now — someone from Alexander Povetkin’s team looks at him funny and they are suddenly rolling down to the A12.
‘There is so much that can go wrong in this project and that it is just one. Rain, positive tests, Whyte attacking someone. Above all else, we need good fights, especially first night. Let’s face it, the card isn’t Ali-Frazier so it must be competitive.’
It’s close to midnight on Saturday. Hearn is shouting ‘shamone mother******’ into a variety of cameras, having blundered with the term live on Sky Sports on Friday while believing he was off air. By the close of his first show for five months, Hearn got his wish for good fights.
Cheeseman beat Eggington on points in a brilliant slugfest, Tennyson, Smith and Wardley all secured stoppage wins and Gill got a verdict over Bellotti. After all that, Vallily even gave Wardley a hug; a familiar end to a boxing grudge in an environment the sport has never known.
Careers went forwards, careers went backwards, boxing had its most publicised day since its return, and all before the gaze of a few dozen event staff, trainers, broadcasters and the two alpacas Barry Hearn got for his 71st birthday.
Eddie, for his part, has been deliberating about the simulated crowd noise on the Sky broadcast, but is happy that he got good value for the £20,000 he spent on pyrotechnics. Less so that he has to destroy £4,000 worth of boxing gloves for each of the four shows to be Covid compliant.
‘The grass is a bigger concern,’ he says. ‘My mum still sees this as her home even though her and my dad left years ago. When she sees what we’ve done to the lawn it’s going to break her heart.
‘That’s going to be more cash to fix. This whole thing is going to cost me a fortune. We must be f****** mad but God do we love it.’ Boxing. Where mad works.
Watch the remaining Fight Camp shows on August 7 and August 14 on Sky Sports. Whyte v Povetkin is live on Sky Sports Box Office on August 22.