Boxxer CEO Ben Shalom's plan to reshape UK boxing: 'It's a vicious place at the moment' - SportsPro

Ben Shalom may be well versed in boxing’s traditions and heritage, but the UK’s youngest licenced promoter is adamant that change is long overdue in the sport.

“I think boxing is still running like how it was 40, 50 years ago because it’s still the same people running it,” he tells SportsPro.

The chief executive of British-based and self-described ‘next generation’ promotional company Boxxer now finds himself mixing it with the very promoters that have shaped the fight game for the last few decades. Shalom, 27, is there courtesy of a four-year deal signed with UK pay-TV broadcaster Sky Sports back in June, the latest milestone in Boxxer’s ascent to the sport’s upper echelons.

At the time, Sky hailed the agreement as the catalyst ‘to challenge traditions with a new approach to boxing promotion’. The Comcast-owned network needed to be bullish. Just weeks before, Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing had departed for DAZN, inking a five-year contract reportedly worth well into nine figures, ending the company’s exclusive UK broadcast partnership with Sky dating back to 2012.

The pair’s time together saw all manner of records being broken, from mammoth attendances at Wembley Stadium to huge pay-per-view (PPV) buys.

Realistically, finding a like-for-like replacement for Matchroom was never feasible for Sky, even accounting for its new arrangement with US-based heavy hitter Top Rank. Instead, the broadcaster has opted to go down a different route with Boxxer. Whether that move was pre-planned or fast-tracked in response to Matchroom’s impending departure – reports of the DAZN deal first surfaced in April – the decision may well usher in the change Shalom has been craving.

“We’ve been in boxing three or four years and realised very early on that the sport is still run by the same people since the 80s, really, both over here and in the US,” he says. “That’s partly because of the contracts that boxers get tied into and partly because there’s only usually one or two broadcasters that will spend within boxing.”

In recent times, Boxxer has put on shows for the likes of BT Sport, ITV and Channel Five. Even so, Shalom says the company chose to initially act “incognito”, a strategy required due to the vice-like grip select promoters had on the market.

“If people perhaps knew who we were,” he begins, “it’s just in the nature of the industry we wouldn’t get our chance because you can be blocked off, you can be stopped from doing things. We just decided that it was best to work on the things that we could control, build our infrastructure and our vision.”

Considering the success of Sky and Matchroom’s allegiance, Boxxer was always going to be unfavourably compared to such a prolific – and seemingly harmonious – partnership. It’s current roadmap, though, appears to differ from Matchroom’s strategy during its final few years with Sky.

“Our vision was always: ‘How can we make boxing more accessible?’” continues Shalom. “We believe in the fighters and believe in the integrity of the sport so much that we saw great opportunity for a new way of doing boxing, which can make broadcasters and brands be proud of being involved.

“I think there’s almost a dirtiness to the business that is unfair on the fighters. Everything has to evolve and boxing is no different. [Sky] wanted a different way of doing things and we had a similar vision.”

Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn (left) enjoyed a highly successful partnership with Sky Sports and its head of boxing, Adam Smith

Shalom claims that Boxxer knew that Matchroom and DAZN’s partnership was coming “12, 18 months ago”, meaning the company was well prepared when the opportunity with Sky arose. Since then, the network has been eager to push messaging around its ‘new era’, which could perhaps be viewed as a retort of sorts to DAZN’s ‘Game. Changed.’ strapline.

In terms of how said new era will materialise, Shalom wants to work with Sky to nurture young talent and put on the best shows possible for die-hard fans and newcomers alike. But for that to happen, he believes boxing needs to fundamentally alter how it does business.

“Boxing has got so many egos in it that it sort of stands in the way of the sport truly developing or focusing on the biggest fights happening,” Shalom says.

“No one’s actually focused on how the sport is run, how it’s evolved, how it’s judged. Is the sport entertaining to a wider audience, or is it only becoming entertaining when it’s Anthony Joshua?

“Just looking at the whole sport in general, I think that’s the focus. Whether it’s formats that we do with the tournaments, whether it’s on screen, how we market, how we promote the events, how we tell stories, how we make it easier to follow and watch along. It comes in many forms but it’s definitely trying to make fights that should happen and not letting things stand in the way.

“I think our generation is very different to our parents’ generation in the way that we are, the way that we behave. I think it’s less of an egotistical generation. There’s a lot more things that we care about and I think boxing should be part of that. That’s where business is going, so why can’t boxing go in the right direction?”

Wasserman Boxing’s Chris Eubank Jr is among the notable names that will feature on Boxxer and Sky Sports fight cards

As for Anthony Joshua, he may have been dethroned as a world heavyweight champion following his September loss to Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk, but the 32-year-old was the fighter responsible for Matchroom and Sky’s numerous records. Any sports broadcaster would want an AJ on their books, but finding a replacement for a man who arguably lit the touch paper for boxing’s resurgence in the UK is not an enviable task for Sky. Though not official, Joshua is expected to fight on DAZN now his contract with Sky has expired.

Reassuringly, the network has pedigree in building up superstars, with the likes of Lennox Lewis, Naseem Hamed, Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton and David Haye all making a name for themselves on Sky. Even if the loss of Matchroom’s vast stable will have hurt, the broadcaster still boasts a platform that is the envy of many.

Be that as it may, no amount of experience could have prevented Sky and Boxxer’s first event from getting off to what must have felt like a stuttering start. The early October card was due to be headlined by Chris Eubank Jr, only for his opponent Anatoli Muratov to withdraw at the last minute following concerns over pre-fight medicals.

The night still went ahead, albeit without its main attraction, and despite the setback, Shalom is quick to highlight the TV audience, which he says was Sky Sports’ “largest viewing figures in three years for a Saturday fight night show” outside of PPV.

Naseem Hamed and Ricky Hatton both became household names while fighting on Sky Sports

It represents an encouraging start but, as much as Boxxer will be compared to Matchroom, Shalom also now finds himself thrust into the media spotlight, a space wilfully occupied by Eddie Hearn. Matchroom Sport’s outspoken chairman may have inadvertently turned himself into a walking meme – for the uninitiated, see ‘No Context Hearn’ – but Hearn’s approach has earned him a vast following which he has leveraged effectively to sell fights.

Expecting Shalom to fill this void is inevitable, but a moot point. Shalom has kept a refreshingly low profile, a move largely at odds with the existing crop of promoters.

“Eddie’s a great promoter and he’s great frontman. But I think to compare us is wrong,” Shalom says.

“It just depends on what your business plan is and what your main focus is. Ours is to make fights and make it easy for fighters to get opportunities. We have a huge amount of talent that can be part of promoting fights and can be part of the hype.

“We also have to look at things realistically. Eddie Hearn has a million followers, that’s his model. So, for us, we don’t want to say anyone’s doing it wrong, or anyone’s doing better. But I do think it can’t be conducive sometimes to the business or to the fighters’ success.

“Everyone does things differently. And we’ll do things our way and Sky want a different approach now. Anonymity is not what we’re trying to do. It’s just whatever is best for the business. You will see myself. I just think Eddie loves being a presenter, he’d be a chat show host if he could.”

I think people are scared to get involved in boxing and it comes down to the whole image of what it’s like to deal with.

Shalom’s journey with Boxxer is certainly in stark contrast to that of his predecessor with Sky. While Hearn grew up in the world of sports promotion and experienced it first-hand through his father, Barry, Shalom was instead encouraged to study law by his parents.

Growing up in Manchester in amongst its thriving boxing scene, Shalom was soon putting on various events while at university. Given his love of the sport, boxing seemed the next logical step. He staged his first show aged 23.

“We built the business from absolutely nothing, so it’s different,” notes Shalom. “It is probably more entrepreneurial. It is a different focus, it’s more focused on where the sport can go and where the sport can develop.”

“It’s up to Sky now to create their new chapter of where they want to go with boxing. They’ve got the big audience and, for them, it’s about shaping the sport in the way that fits what they’re doing now. The world is a different place to what it was ten years ago.”

Indeed, the rise of streaming is up there with the biggest sea changes broadcasters have been contending with over the last decade. And while Shalom has been freely advocating the evolution of boxing, he still recognises the key role of traditional PPV – the platform so often used to ensure the biggest fights get made.

Generally, British fans are prepared to stump up something around UK£25 (US$27.20) for key clashes – far cheaper than in the US – but many remain aggrieved over the proliferation of PPV. It is a concern acknowledged by Shalom, who favours quality over quantity in this instance.

“Pay-per-view was absolutely rinsed in the past couple of years by Matchroom for fights that shouldn’t have been pay-per-view,” he says. “We’ve got a commitment [with Sky] that we won’t be doing pay-per-views too much early on.

“We want to give as much value as possible and build fighters. But boxing is all about storytelling on the biggest platforms possible. The most famous sportsmen in the world are boxers and that’s because they’re on big platforms and they’re promoted properly.

“When the big fights are there people want to pay for them but, also, that’s where fighters want to get to, that’s where they earn.

“Promoters in the past have said pay-per-view is dead, now they’re saying it’s not dead. I think it is whatever way makes sense to monetise the content for the benefit of the boxers. The key is to not overuse it, to protect it for the very biggest fights and to make sure you give out as much value as possible that doesn’t involve box office.”

Shalom wants to make boxing more accessible during Boxxer’s partnership with Sky Sports

Regarding his wider thoughts on the state of boxing in the UK, Shalom describes it as being in a “complete state of flux” due to all the various networks and promoters competing for space. It gives fighters far more choice, but the fractured landscape means negotiations between rival parties have hardly got any easier. Boxxer and Sky, however, sound open about working with other companies. It’ll be no small feat in a sport where ego regularly trumps reason.

“We’ll be very collaborative,” insists Shalom. “We want things to happen on the biggest platform that there is and we want to use our pay-per-view model to make those fights happen.

“It’s exciting, I think change in any industry is needed, particularly in boxing. You go back to 1989, at least, it would have been Hearn versus [Frank] Warren then. So to still be there in 2021 is crazy and most industries wouldn’t operate like that.

“The sport developing is good, the sport being in a state of flux is good. A lot of broadcasters are now interested in boxing, which is great.

“For us, it’s about protecting boxing and, as I said, making sure brands and broadcasters are proud to be involved in the sport. That essentially is what pays the fighter’s bills and what keeps the health of the sport.”

Boxxer will be busy for the next few months, with at least three shows set to see out 2021. Beyond that, Shalom expects to add more fighters to a roster that includes Hughie Fury (cousin of Tyson Fury), Savannah Marshall and Claressa Shields. He also wants to be selective over who his company promotes, mentioning that Sky plans to move away from having “50, 60 boxers” on its books.

“They want to go into focusing on stars both in women’s and men’s equally that can go right to the top of the sport on their platforms and be amazing ambassadors for the sport,” he reveals.

Irrespective of whether Boxxer can take Sky’s boxing offering to new heights, Shalom doesn’t want to be the last young promoter that has a crack at challenging the status quo. The sport’s cliques and decision makers are difficult to dislodge, but an influx of new talent and ideas might be enough to sway even the most obstinate executives.

“We need new people in the sport and I’ll be helping and trying to encourage that,” says Shalom. “I think people are scared to get involved in boxing and it comes down to the whole image of what it’s like to deal with.

“We had to have extreme resilience to get to this point. We had a huge amount of pressure, a huge amount of things that were fired at us. I think it’s all going to come down to who’s in the sport, what the intentions are, how the board [the British Boxing Board of Control] are running.

“Hopefully, my entry will encourage others and things may develop from there because, at the moment, it’s a vicious place and you’ve got to have your wits about you.”

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