Boxing: Fury ‘can’t wait to smash Joshua’

It’s not quite Matchroom’s back garden lawn anymore but Eddie Hearn’s revolutionary fight bubble, now a proven and successful business product amid the ongoing battle against coronavirus, is leading the way when it comes to staging boxing behind closed doors. Our reporter Ryan Taylor spent four days inside at the Hilton Wembley ahead of Josh Warrington’s return to action against Mauricio Lara to discover what it’s really like behind the scenes, with the fighters and their teams. Here are his findings in a special fight week diary…

Wednesday February 10 – Arrival Day

A sign of the times, walking down Wembley Way has never felt so strange. Besides a few coffee shops, pigeons and passers-by, it’s eerily quiet but nothing quite beats that first glimpse of the arch – especially with blues skies – when you come out of Wembley Park tube station.

Upon arrival at the Hilton, bubble entrees leave their luggage to one side before joining the queue for your COVID-19 test, which takes place in a small mobile outside the hotel.

Matchroom use Biotech firm Prenetics, who also carry out the Premier League’s testing, and it’s easy to see why. The process is efficient, fast and surprisingly comfortable in comparison to previous experiences at NHS drive through testing centres. Albeit that was probably because I was self-testing.

Inside the mobile once the swab is complete you’re handed an orange wristband and envelope. On the front is your room number and inside: two key cards, additional PPE (face mask, halo hand gel) and a compliance form that needs filling in ahead of Saturday’s show, for entry into the SSE Arena.

A member of security then escorts you into the lift, communicating with his colleague upstairs to meet me at the other end. I’m then led to my room and told not to leave under any circumstances until told otherwise (initially told 8am/9am tomorrow morning).

DON’T MISS: Eddie Hearn EXCLUSIVE: The six-week plan to deliver Anthony Joshua vs Tyson Fury explained

Inside Eddie Hearn's Matchroom Boxing bubble: Fight diary from Warrington vs Lara

Inside Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing bubble: Fight diary from Warrington vs Lara (Image: Ryan Taylor & Mark Robinson (Matchroom Boxing))

My Playstation – a last-minute decision to pack – some cracking FA Cup ties and an eight-hour shift ensured isolation was a breeze.

Lunch was delivered to my door about midday: Grilled chicken chimichurri, roasted sweet potato, wilted greens, cherry tomato, spinach and fruit salad with a vanilla, rhubarb and gooseberry cube to finish.

In the packaging with the food is a red bin bag, which is then filled and placed outside your door for collection.

Dinner arrived around 6pm: Grilled lamb gigot chop, minted new potato, roasted beets. For dessert, a dark chocolate sphere laced with caramel sauce.

There was a knock on the door a few hours later at 9:30pm, to confirm that my test had come back negative, meaning I was free to leave my room.  My orange wrist band was then exchanged for a white one, which validates my access to floor three.

Fighters and other guests are accommodated on floors six and seven of the hotel.

Thursday February 11 – Day Two

Downstairs on floor three, breakfast is served between 8:30 and 10am, with cooked and continental options available.

A large restaurant and dining area takes up the majority of floor space on the Wembley Stadium side of the building.

Further along, we have the media room, where the pre-fight press conference is due to take place at 2pm. Inside, Sky Sports and Matchroom’s media team are already preparing the set for a busy afternoon.

On the other side of the media room is a games room which includes a pool table, table tennis, darts and a cinema area for fighters and their teams to relax during downtime.

Hopey Price and Dave Coldwell are putting in some additional fitness work in the gym and Instagram later confirms that Tony Bellew also joined his former trainer and his young super-bantamweight prospect for an early morning workout.

Fighters have access to three areas in the gym: running machines/bikes/weights, punchbags and at the far end of the room is a ring, where final preparations will take place throughout fight week.

At lunchtime, just under an hour before the press conference gets underway, a few more faces have emerged from isolation.

Eddie Hearn, Adam Smith and Ben Davison, who trains soon-to-be British featherweight champion Leigh Wood, are now amongst those in the foyer.

There is a designated viewing area for the press conference, at the back of the media suite.

The ring on floor three at the Hilton Wembley, where fighters completed final sessions

The ring on floor three at the Hilton Wembley, where fighters completed final sessions (Image: Ryan Taylor)

On stage, Hearn welcomes up each of the two fighters competing against one another for a bitesize preview, as a translator works as the middle man between the promoter and Daniel Mendoza, Kiko Martinez and headliner Mauricio Lara.

Each fighter is then whisked off for separate interviews with Sky and Matchroom.

There are just four other members of the media involved in this week’s bubble – with just two from print.

We stick around to hear from Josh Warrington, while Hearn is happy to give up some of his time once he has finished recording his Talk The Talk feature with former cruiserweight world champion Bellew, as the pair discuss Saturday’s card as well as Dillian Whyte’s rematch with Alexander Povetkin, Canelo Alvarez vs Avni Yildirim and Demetrius Andrade vs Liam Williams.

Hearn is in fine form and well worth the wait, as he delivers an update on negotiations for the biggest fight in boxing history between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, in an exclusive interview with Express Sport.

As part of this fight week diary feature, Hearn is asked how he switches off in isolation. But as a man spinning so many plates, his answer is as you would expect.

“I don’t want to switch off, because I love what I do,” he says. “I’m so excited to work on other fights, other projects, deals in other countries, that is my enjoyment.

“I’m not someone who just watches films with my phone off, where’s the buzz in that? We can rest when we’re dead, or like you said, completed it [in reference to delivering AJ vs Fury].”

Eddie Hearn on stage with Kiko Martinez and Zelfa Barrett at Thursdays press conference

Eddie Hearn on stage with Kiko Martinez and Zelfa Barrett at Thursdays press conference (Image: Ryan Taylor)

Friday February 12 – Day Three

A relatively quiet day inside the bubble, with preparations now virtually done and all focus on tomorrow night.

More red bags line the corridor on floor seven, as several late arrivals complete their 24-hour quarantine.

But downstairs, the fighters weigh in at 1pm on the scales in the media suite with David Diamante up on stage.

Masks must be worn at all times and after the fighters strip down, the scales are sprayed with disinfectant in compliance with strict COVID-19 bubble protocol.

After the weigh-in, the British Boxing Board of Control remind those involved on Saturday night that exemplary behaviour is expected inside the arena, with the eyes of the sporting world watching closely for any slip-ups.

Late morning and the rest of the afternoon was spent transcribing and writing up the interviews with Hearn and Warrington. Both were later published online, with 350 words filed for print for Saturday’s Daily Mirror and Daily Star.

Josh Warrington and Mauricio Lara square off at Friday's weigh in

Josh Warrington and Mauricio Lara square off at Friday’s weigh in (Image: Mark Robinson (Matchroom Boxing))

Luckily, my workload is enough to keep me busy. But what does Warrington get up to behind closed doors in his room, with just over 24 hours to go?

“I watch boxing documentaries, boxing documentaries, do some reading and a bit of meditation and visualising,” he tells Express Sport.

“I don’t actually mind it, I think it’s been easy. I’ve had a lot of time to think and go over the fight but I’ve done plenty of thinking.

“Normally I’d be at home being distracted by my little girls but I don’t have that distraction.

“It’s given me a good chance to really think when normally I’d cram it all in on weigh-in day, now I’m relaxed.”

The bar is unfortunately closed for anyone looking to grab a few Peronis or gin and tonics but guests find other ways to pass the time.

One particular debate, regarding who was the best winger to play in front of Gary Neville at Manchester United, kept me entertained whilst eating my dinner. The Wolf of Wall Street was also being screened in the cinema room. Sadly, I did not enter.

Saturday February 13 – Fight Day

British boxing is back, with tonight’s card set to get underway from 6pm.

Josh Warrington and his team are in good spirits having lunch, while his opponent Mauricio Lara also gets stuck into his roast turkey.

Around 4pm, after working a 7-3pm shift for the online desk from my room, I decided to take a quick nap to recharge the batteries ahead of tonight’s card (mainly to forget about Liverpool’s self-inflicted capitulation at the hands of Leicester).

An alarm was set for 5:15pm as a safety net but shortly after falling asleep, I had received a text confirming that was in fact the time for the media departure to the SSE Arena. In typical Ryan Taylor fashion, my phone was also on charge, on silent.

Around 5pm, there were now concerns for my safety, as security started to knock on my door. I now recall some banging but was initially dazed and adamant it was part of my dream.

Slowly but surely, I came to my senses but before I could reach for my phone to check the time, security had forced entry into my room, asking where I’d been…

A sheepish and now frankly panicked young journalist was confirmed safe and well. But running incredibly late. Matchroom’s Head of Media Dan Barnard was now the most relieved man on the planet, though.

DON’T MISS: Eddie Hearn EXCLUSIVE: The six-week plan to deliver Anthony Joshua vs Tyson Fury explained

Eddie Hearn conducts his media duties for Sky Sports

Eddie Hearn conducts his media duties for Sky Sports (Image: Ryan Taylor)

Following a sincere apology via WhatsApp, shower and spruce up, I was escorted over to the arena by security, who by this point were refusing to let me out of their sight, while terrorising me with various “Here he is, the missing man” shouts.

It was a long walk to ringside, where the press box was accommodating around eight other guests including Eddie Hearn and Frank Smith, both front row of course.

David Coldwell also joined after Hopey Price’s unanimous points victory over late stand-in Daniel Mendoza. Again, masks must be worn at all times while in the vicinity.

To the left, fighters would make their ring walks and to the right, Sky’s broadcast team had their own gallery as Johnny Nelson and Adam Booth joined Anna Woolhouse.

Across the arena, Sky’s commentary team of Adam Smith and Matthew Macklin took their place in the gantry, alongside legendary Radio 5Live broadcaster Mike Costello.

The view from the press area the SSE Arena

The view from the press area the SSE Arena (Image: Ryan Taylor)

Sitting behind Hearn in particular, was a privilege, as a fine consolation for the absence of fans, who were sorely missed on a rollercoaster night of action.

There was huge debate throughout Zelfa Barrett’s fight with Kiko Martinez, as Hearn consulted the media for the verdict on their round-by-round scoring in the midst of a closely contested scrap.

He would later vent his frustration to Sky at the scandalous scorecards, despite thinking his man had done enough to win the fight and vowed to organise a rematch.

While emotions were running high, that was nothing in contrast to what was about to unfold in the main event.

Warrington was dropped by Lara in the fourth and struggled to survive, with Hearn and Coldwell now on their feet and frantically urging the Leeds Warrior to wrap the Mexican up.

The former IBF featherweight world champion was hanging on for dear life but did temporarily recover to have some joy of his own.

But eventually, the clubbing blows from the heavy-handed Lara took their toll, as he knocked out Warrington in the ninth.

There was a deafening silence as he received medical attention, with everybody including myself stunned at what they had just witnessed, praying that Warrington was okay.

Thankfully, he was later on his feet and receiving oxygen as he headed for a medical examination.

Face masks must be worn at all times (left), while Hearn watches on after Warrington's shock defeat

Face masks must be worn at all times (left), while Hearn watches on after Warrington’s shock defeat (Image: Ryan Taylor)

Meanwhile, pumped with adrenaline, I was frantically concluding and uploading my live report online.

Nothing can quite prepare you for those moments as a reporter and clearing your head to put such extraordinary events into words can be a real challenge.

For obvious reasons, there was no post-fight reaction from Warrington with his health now the priority.

Lara spoke with Sky, while iFL TV and Matchroom soaked up the immediate reaction backstage between the ring and changing rooms.

Once my report was online, I began to edit and tweak in the media room, which was littered with empty pizza boxes, as the Matchroom media team collaborated to deliver plenty of content.

Josh Warrington suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Mauricio Lara

Josh Warrington suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Mauricio Lara (Image: Mark Robinson (Matchroom Boxing))

The ring is sprayed with disinfectant after a dramatic night of action

The ring is sprayed with disinfectant after a dramatic night of action (Image: Ryan Taylor)

My final port of call around 12:30am was to listen in on Lara’s final interview from the arena, as he paid tribute to his wife Barbara and daughter Aitana back in Mexico City.

I then wandered back to the hotel. “Going for a nap?” joked one member of security, as I made my way towards the lift.

Unfortunately, I’d missed room service by 15 minutes as I made a desperate call downstairs to line an empty stomach around 1:15am.

One of the most dramatic nights British boxing has produced in recent memory, was enough to keep me going until the morning.

A fascinating week exploring the ins and outs of Matchroom’s incredible product, that sees them leading the way when it comes to staging boxing behind closed doors. I’m very grateful to get the chance to step inside and was looked after impeccably.

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