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Top Holidays

An exclusive interview with Barry Hearn OBE

  • Sport
  • By Lauren Godfrey
  • Published 23 May 2023
  • Revised 03 January 2024
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Of humble beginnings growing up on a Dagenham council estate, Barry Hearn’s schoolboy entrepreneurial spirit and the driving force of his mother are still very much a part of him today. It’s this upbringing that can be credited for creating Matchroom Sport and in turn making it one of the biggest sport promotion companies in the world. “Someone once described me as ‘he’s not the brightest candle in the room, but he can burn longer than anyone else,’” reminisced Barry Hearn as we sit in a meeting room at Mascalls, Hearn’s large former family home and now Matchroom Sports HQ. “I am relentless, and I may not have been the smartest kid on the block, but I made up for that with hard work.”

And this drive began in his early years, where he would organise car washing, gardening and window cleaning before washing cars for the big houses on the top of the hill. “As a kid, if I wanted something I had to go out and get it. I’d try anything to turn a pound into two, or a penny into two pence,” Barry said. He then qualified as a chartered accountant, and his determination saw him quickly become part owner of a group of snooker halls. “I was on a mission,” Barry recalled. “And my mission was to create wealth and legacy for myself initially, my family secondly, and the community that I came from thirdly.

“Some people say ‘ain’t you got enough money?’ But it’s not about the money. It’s about winning, levelling up against the world and saying thank you very much. Business is just like sport. We practise, we dedicate, we sacrifice, we work hard, and we will be the best that we can be.”

The day it all changed

It was at one of his snooker halls, in Romford Essex, that Barry met a young Steve Davis, and a lifelong friendship was formed that rewrote their paths. “Steve winning the World Championship in 1981 was a big changing point in both our lives. He was the best player in the world, and we used that as leverage to open up opportunities from around the globe,” he said. From snooker tours across Asia to receiving complimentary watches, Barry describes these early years as being given the keys to the sweetie factory. “These two council estate boys had ‘had it off’. Our whole world had changed and we used to pinch ourself everyday and wonder how we were getting away with it,” he laughed.

“We would toss a coin to decide who would pay the bill when at a restaurant. If he won, I’d pay. But if he lost, when he asked for the bill the restaurant always used to say to him ‘Mr Davis, it’s been a pleasure having you here.’ And they never charged him. So, after a few dinners like this, I said to Steve ‘let’s not toss the coin anymore. Instead, you ask for the bill. And if they charge us, I’ll pay.’ It was a new gamble, and it worked like a dream.”

Over the years, Barry worked with all the greats. Frank Bruno, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Phil Taylor, Anthony Joshua and Chris Eubank to name just a few. “When you really get close to a superstar, you fall in love with them really. And I always say if someone had stood in front of Eubank with a gun, I would have stood between them. That was the commitment level,” he explained.  

“I remember Eubank fighting in Germany once and the crowd were very hostile, chanting ‘kill the black man’. One of them leaned over and tried to grab Eubank, so I gave him a little bit of a Romford kiss and cut him across the head. I was petrified, but Eubank just looked at me and purred ‘nice one Bazza’. He kept his cool and as we got to the ring he walked around it snarling at them like a lion. I was screaming, ‘get in the ring'. But he said ‘I am eating the hate’ and I thought what a wonderful description.”
 

Barry and Steve Davis

Barry and Steve Davis

Moments that matter most

Bursting with stories, Barry could have gone on all afternoon, but his schedule wouldn’t permit, so he moved on to his top pinch me moments. Without hesitation, Barry said: “Walking your daughter down the aisle and holding your grandchildren for the first time is definitely a pinch me moment.” A true testament to his well-known mantra ‘Family first… business a close second.’

But moving back to sport, he cited 1982 when someone first gave him a large cheque. “I’d never had money before. Instead, I had overdrafts. I was 34 years old and I was going to retire. I’d made seven figures and I thought that was it. But after six weeks, I was climbing the walls, so Matchroom was formed, named after the match room in Romford where Steve Davis used to play and I’d gamble on him.”

Second was the arrival of SKY television in the UK. “After all those years of begging ITV and BBC to give me five minutes here and there, I now had broadcasters offering me hundreds of hours.” And finally, the world-famous Benn V Eubank fight in 1990. 
 

Eddie Hearn, Anthony Joshua and Barry Hearn ringside

Eddie Hearn, Anthony Joshua and Barry Hearn ringside
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Beating covid

The Coronavirus pandemic hit many businesses hard, especially one which hosts live events with big crowds. But, just like Barry, Matchroom adapted and you could say came out on top. “We had a few ups and downs in the 80s. It was sad times with recessions, and it taught us that we can survive anything and it was very good preparation for when covid came,” Barry explained. “Suddenly, I went from having 800 events to zero. 

But we got creative and found innovative ways around it, and we ended up putting on more events during covid than we would have in a normal year because we had resilience, and we weren’t going to be the type of people who give up. We don’t ever give up. We had darts tournaments in people’s kitchens filmed on iPhones and shown all around thew world. We put on fights here at Mascalls, and we had back-to-back snooker. TV companies didn’t have any programming, so we created events using modern technology to keep sport alive.”
 

A sportsman at heart

A keen golfer, fisherman and cricket player, Barry has tried many other sports during his 74 years. “The story with me is that I was always good at everything, but never great at anything,” he said. “But that’s a frustration I have managed to live with.” Barry plays cricket for Essex over 70s and dreams of being picked for the England over 70s. He also enjoys angling, and fishes around the world. “My favourite spot is Nimmo Bay in British Columbia, Canada. But I also enjoy carp fishing in France. However, I have limited time to do what I want. I’m not single and I am not without children and grandchildren. If you were on your own, free as the air, then you’d spend your entire life doing that. Instead, it’s a treat for me when I go. But I do have a boat in Antigua so I often go out and catch my lunch. So when I’ve got my food, I come back in, and that’s really special.”

But back to Cricket and Barry’s dream to play for the over 70s national team, he came close a few months ago… but unfortunately not close enough. 

“Here's a funny story. I am serious about wanting to play for England over 70s, that’s why I started to play Essex over 70s, with that goal in mind. I know that it’s not as easy as that but the dream lives on. A few weeks ago, I received a letter headed ‘England Over 70s V Australia over 70s tour’. 

“I was so excited, and even as I was reading it I was thinking to myself I’m not really good enough, I really shouldn’t be… have I been picked because I’m well known – well I don’t care! I just want to play…

“As I started reading, it said: ‘as a member of Essex over 70s we were wondering whether you’d write the programme introduction for the tour.’ I was gutted but of course I wrote the programme notes and I included ‘I’m envious of all of you. God bless and enjoy!.’”
 

Father and Son: Barry and Eddie

Father and Son: Barry and Eddie

Travelling the world

Tourist attractions and fleeting trips may not be important to Barry anymore. Instead, he values his time and spending it with his family, but he has ridden a horse along The Great Wall of China and seen the Taj Mahal. “I haven’t seen the whole world, but I’ve seen enough of it,” he said.

“But I am very picky now. Airports are a pain, check-in is a pain and security is a pain. So everything has to be tailored to be as easy as possible for me, otherwise I won’t go. Why do I want to go to Singapore when everything these days can be done over Zoom? I’ll tell you why, I like chili crab on the beach. It’s the best food in Singapore. It could be a 10-million-dollar contract, but I’m there for the chili crab.”

But, it wasn’t always flat-bed seats and airport lounges. “My dad was a bus driver. We didn’t have any money. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I even realised people had indoor toilets,” Barry said. Instead, holidaying with ‘Boy Barry’ was camping in Devon or Cornwall, working the land for the first week picking peas, potatoes, strawberries and more for half a crown per bag, to earn money to enjoy the second week. “We’d put our tent in someone’s farm and I remember once waking up and saying ‘what’s that smell?’ It was terrible. Turns out we’d pitched up in the dark over some cow dung,” he laughed.

From cowpats to Barbados’ top hotel Sandy Lane and meeting Barbara Streisand in The Plaza Athènèe New York, Barry certainly has seen a lot of the world, but he’s also a self-proclaimed creature of habit. “If you’re working flat out all the time, you go where you know you’re going to get looked after,” he said. And for Mr Hearn, that includes The Plaza Athènèe New York, (“I’ve been going to New York for 50 years and I’ve never stayed anywhere else I don’t think”) The Plaza Athènèe Paris, Waldorf Astoria London and Jumby Bay, Antigua.

“If you want success in life, you have to make sacrifices. Even holidays. Because later on in life, you don’t visit an island – you buy one.” And that’s true of Barry’s favourite family hotspot. After years of holidaying in Mauritius, it rained for the entire 10 day trip, so Antigua became the family’s next destination of choice. “Winged Boots suggested the Caribbean and Jumby Bay. We tried it, and after six or seven years of holidays I decided to buy a piece of it. It’s a family home and I go around six times a year.”
 

Barry & Eddie in Saudi Arabia

Barry & Eddie in Saudi Arabia

Booking with Winged Boots

Barry and Matchroom have been booking their travel through Winged Boots since the beginning. “Why Winged Boots? Eddie went to school with David (Ox, Winged Boots’ MD) and when you know someone you tend to give them a chance. The service has always been good, and the fact that we’re still doing business together today speaks volumes.”

Barry Hearn with Conor Benn

Barry Hearn with Conor Benn

Bitesize Barry

Discover more about our favourite sport entrepreneur

GOLF
“I play at Thorndon Golf Club in Brentwood. But my favourite course in the world is without a doubt Shadow Creek in Las Vegas.”

AT THE AIRPORT
“You’ll find me in the lounge with a bacon sandwich and cup of tea.”

LONDON RESTAURANTS

Mr Chow in London is my favourite Chinese restaurant and has been for 30 – 40 years. I know exactly what I am going to have… it’s always the same.”

TRAVEL

“All I need is a credit card and cash. I travel very light most of the time as I’m operating at speed and don’t want to wait for luggage. However, I want as much comfort as I can. I’m getting older so I only want first class.”

FAVOURITE HOTEL
Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok is my favourite. There are lots of good hotels out there, but to sit by The River Of Kings eating the evening barbeque that is off the scale. The place is gorgeous.”

BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
“I like two eggs, sunny side up, crispy bacon and tinned tomatoes.”

Conor Benn, Eddie Hearn and Barry Hearn ringside

Conor Benn, Eddie Hearn and Barry Hearn ringside

Did you enjoy this interview?
Why not read our exclusive interview with ex-footballer and Winged Boots customer Teddy Sheringham?
Or if you’re a West Ham United fan, watch our video interview with ex-captain Mark Noble.
We also sat down with Barry’s son Eddie in 2017. Read all about it here.


And, if you'd like to discover more on our sports travel management service, then contact our team of expert personal travel managers and sports travel experts today on 0203 816 0985.

 

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