Module 1: Boxing - Manifestos for change

Posted on 21 December 2021

It's a golden era for boxing in the UK. In recent years, we have witnessed the meteoric rise of the likes of Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, boxing's first ever $1 billion deal, and growing interest in the sport globally. Yet at the same time, boxing has faced considerable controversy: from corruption and criticism of its fragmented governance structure to anti-doping violations and safety concerns.

In this first module of 2021/2022, Tom Murray, is joined by Lawrence Okolie (WBO Cruiserweight World Champion), Shaun Palmer (Chief Operating Officer & General Counsel of Matchroom Boxing) and Will Harvey (Athlete Manager at 258 MGT, which is owned by Anthony Joshua) where they discuss how they would reform the sport.

Simon Lee

Hello everyone, I’m Simon Lee and I head up the Sports Group here at Mishcon and I’m a Partner at the firm.  A big, warm sporting welcome to the next edition of our Sports Law Academy series for 2021/2022.  After the last eighteen months or so, it’s great to see so many people here at our home in Africa House.  But also, welcome to the hundreds of people that have joined the session remotely by Zoom.  As many of you will know, we ran the entirety of last season’s SLA virtually, where we had over 1,700 participants from over 40 countries, ultimately culminating in us needing to upgrade the firm’s Zoom account.  We were blown away by the level of passion, interest and engagement from the attendees.  I’m sure this year, will be no different, especially as we move to be able to run the sessions both online and in person, and the fact that we’ve been able to secure some incredible speakers for you over the course of the next few months.  I’m really excited to get this year’s Sports Law Academy underway and hope you thoroughly enjoy what we have in store.  For now, I’m delighted to hand you over to Tom Murray and look forward to meeting many of you that are here today in our bar downstairs at the end of the session.  Thank you very much.

Tom Murray

Thank you, Simon, from the four corners of the boxing industry to the four corners of Mishcon de Reya, we are delighted to welcome three absolute heavyweights of the boxing industry.  First up, he joins us all the way from New York in the United States of America, fresh out of the Lopez vs Kambosos card on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.  He’s the reigning, the defending, the unbeaten, Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel of Eddie Hearn’s Match room boxing, joining us by Zoom, it’s Sean Palmer.  Next up, set to make his Sports Law Academy debut, fighting out of the middle seat, with a hard hitting contender, the head of boxing at Anthony Joshua’s 258 Management it’s Will ‘the hit man’ Harvey.  Set to make his ring walk from Hackney London England, the reigning, the defending, the undefeated WBO cruiser weight champion of the world, his professional record is a perfect one, 17 victories, 14 by which coming by way of knock out.  It’s Doctor Lawrence ‘the Source’ Okolie and finally wearing the blue suit with the green trim, weighing in slightly more than I did at the start of the pandemic, you have me, Tom Murray.

Now, before we get started, the eagle eyed amongst you will notice we have an all-male panel this evening and unfortunately two of our female guests did have to drop out and we are very much committed to ensuring we have a diversity of speakers and overall for the sports law academy have over 50% women.  So keep a look out for that going forward.  So Sean, perhaps we can start with you? It would be great if you could give a quick overview of your role at Match Room and perhaps for the casual fans in attendance, give a brief summary of the role of a promoter in Boxing.

Sean Palmer

Thank you, thank you again Tom for having me.  So my role at Match Room is chief operating officer and general Counsel.  The sort of short summary is I do all the boring stuff for Eddie pretty much.  So if it’s law related, tax related, finance related, I tend to get involved in it.  In terms of Match Room, sort of very brief introduction as a whole, as you mentioned, we’re probably one of our most metrix, the biggest promoter of boxing globally.  Our role is to kind of, put on the event.

Tom Murray

And Sean, what area of boxing would you most like to reform and why?

Sean Palmer

I do feel the lack of any kind of central regulation in boxing is the key thing that one, surprises people but two I think also could change and if done properly for the better, can mean both the fighters, the fans and ultimately the sport as a whole, all get a better deal.  So I feel like again, talking to the sort of broader audience who haven’t been involved in boxing. There is no central boxing body globally, like say FIFA or the MBA.  Everything is done on a country by country basis, we have world championship organisations indeed four major ones but all of those perform less of a kind of regulatory role and more of literally handing out belts or allowing fighters to compete for belts and I think the effect of that overall, means that it creates a lot of issues and problems.  You look at kind of anti-doping or fighter safety, there is no kind of, central body that helps regulate it and then, I guess the other big uh, sort of lacking, that you get from a lack of essential regulatory body is you look at titles, and I think that one of the hardest things to explain to casual fans of boxing is there are four world championships in every single division, and the rankings are sometimes very unfair within those divisions.  And obviously on the stage, like Lawrence has worked incredibly hard to achieve the dream of being World Champion and now he is in a position where he’s struggling to try and get the other World Champions to fight him, because ultimately he would love to be undisputed, and I feel like that lack of any clear way that we can force people to take those fights is obviously very frustrating for someone like Lawrence but also for the fans.

Tom Murray

If there was one area of boxing that you would like to reform what would it be and why?

Doctor Lawrence ‘the Source’ Okolie

All of a sudden, you can go from making no money in a fight to making hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds and then not knowing what to do with it.  So you see so many boxers who’ve come before have made like a lot of money and then have, you know, ten to fifteen years down the line, they’ve spent it all or lost it all however, so I feel like there needs to be a lot more like financial education just on like even simple stuff like taxing and like you know, making money and then reinvesting it to make more money and just all that kind of stuff, so I feel like, it should actually be taught earlier.  I know, I think it should be taught at schools but this is about boxing anyway so I think with, as soon as you become a boxer whatever level, you should be taught that kind of stuff so if you do go on and make that money, you know what to do with it.

Tom Murray

Do you think that’s a responsibility of say, the sanctioning bodies or do you think it’s something that the British Boxing Board of Control should do?

Doctor Lawrence ‘the Source’ Okolie

Probably like, the individual boards as our man here said there is no central you know, thing with boxing.  But I think it will be hard to implement because it’s such a big sport globally and there is so many different belts and it will be hard to come in and sort of create a power house, but hopefully it can get done.  But the thing that I would say is that it should be the British Board of Control one aspect but then also the governing bodies because, when you do make it to that level the… you know, the ones who are obviously giving out the belts and whatever else, so there should be yeah like I said a mix of it.

Tom Murray

In football, I can’t remember the exact stats, perhaps Ben had said, I think that it’s about 30% of Premier League footballers go bankrupt within two years of retiring?

Ben
Two thirds yeah.

Simon Lee

Two thirds of footballers go bankrupt within two years of retiring?

Ben
It’s 5 years from when they finish playing yeah.

Tom Murray

Right okay, five years.  So yeah it’s one of those issues where it feels like there should be something that done, whether it’s by the governing bodies or by the sanctioning bodies or other people within the industry to provide greater support but it’s not something that just obviously affects boxing, it’s across the sports industry.  So Will, over to you, so you, you manage Lawrence’s career so you’re obviously in charge of a lot of these big decisions?

Will Harvey

Uh hum.

Tom Murray

So before, we delve into your reform topic, could you give just a quick overview about what you do at 258 and sort of who else you manage?

Will Harvey

Well, we call ourselves a 360˚ management company, so the business model that we have, traditionally in boxing, with a lot of our competitors, other management agencies is that, they have quite a few, and I think it’s more similar in football as well, they have quite a few athletes on their books.  They, you know, MTK for example, a big competitor of ours have hundreds and hundreds of fighters that they, that they manage.  We are a lot more involved in every aspect of our fighters’ career so, so, we kind of take the quality over quantity approach.  It’s Anthony’s company and he our first essentially client that we managed and represented and then we built it out at the end of 2016 start of 2017 when that Olympic cycle, what are you laughing at?

Doctor Lawrence ‘the Source’ Okolie
Sorry go on, go on.

Will Harvey

He’s never had to speak like this before that’s probably why.  Yeah, had a lot  of good relationships with a lot of the Olympians that came out of that system and looked to be involved in every aspect of their career so what it meant really was that we wouldn’t be working with anyone and everybody, we wanted to work with people that we thought could (a) operate at world level, be world champions in the ring but also outside of the ring, had a bit of blueprint that we’d started to establish with Anthony which was the kind of commercial potential and value that they had outside as well so they can transcend the sport.  The area which I think boxing can be reformed is, I would like to see really, the creation of something like a Professional Boxers Association.  I would like to see created because, the problem that I think exists with Boxing (1) okay the financial education is very important, the problem is I don’t think there are a lot of fighters that have the people around them that actually can educate them on these issues and make them aware of how they need to be managing their money.  It also goes into things like, you know, your post-career and post-career planning, again once you retire, the second that you are retired, your training team and everything falls away.  Your managers leave you and then you’ve actually got to you know, you might have been maintaining a certain quality of life, whilst you were fighting and earning money.  You’re now faced with the rest of your life you know, that adrenaline rush and that, and that, that sensation of being like at the top of your game, when it goes it can often leave a bit of a void and a vacuum in a person’s life and I think actually that can create vulnerability in these fighters where they can be suspect to various mental health problems.  Establishment of, of a Professional Boxers Association that can look after the interests of these fighters and provide them with the support that they need, is very important.

Tom Murray

Yeah, and what, what do you think that would look like in practice, so do you think it would be, you know to become a licenced boxer, the British Boxing Board of Control, you then automatically are given membership to a Professional Boxers Association that could then, I don’t know provide insurance so that if you were to lose or if you were to suffer a brain injury that the insurance would pay out then.  It provides education, it provides collective bargaining.

 

Will Harvey
Yeah.  Yeah well I, I mean I don’t necessarily know that it needs to be a require… like, something that you gain access to when you get a professional boxer’s licence because I think it needs to be something that’s truly independent, so independent of something like the British Board of Boxing Control, independent of any management agency because issues that fighters experience often can be from the mistreatment by promoters or the mistreatment by managers or whoever else.

Tom Murray

And Lawrence is that something that you would like?  Would you be willing to pay in to a…

Doctor Lawrence ‘the Source’ Okolie

You have to pay! Oh no come on…

(laughter)

No a 100%, obviously the paying for it part is a bit of a difficult one because, so like boxing is actually like a sport where it looks really glamorous but a lot of times boxers aren’t getting, even boxers who you might see on TV might not be getting paid that much as well, so it’s kind of like, it’s a difficult thing to kind of ask someone now who can’t see the value in it at that time because when you’re a boxer, you feel invincible when you’re going into the ring.  Not deluded, but you have that sense of like, just, you can’t be beaten so you know to be putting money into it is a bit, it’s a bit difficult, but I thought that maybe like another way is like, it would be like a sort of taxing, if that makes sense?  Like a little portion might slip out just to, just to keep it going round.

Will Harvey

But then I would almost maybe see it as a, as a, almost like a charitable niche like it’s a not for profit organisation, it’s a charity that maybe relies on donations so whether that is former fighters like Anthony, for example who has got generational wealth now and I’m sure an op… something like that presented to him, he would be happy to donate a significant amount of money to.

Tom Murray

And Sean, we’ve sort of touched on the fact you know, that not many top boxers receive professional advice, whether it be from a legal perspective, whether it be from a financial perspective.  In your experience you know, what percentage of boxers that you deal with have sort of proper legal backing and proper financial backing and have, you know, the support of a, of a top management agency?

Sean Palmer

The short answer is not enough.  It’s one of the most upsetting parts of my job sometimes because, obviously, our interests are in most cases in line with the boxer, but we are always very clear about the fact that we represent the promotional company and the broadcaster and not having an effective management is sometimes so frustrating.  Like, some of the worst occasions I’ve had is when I’ve sent a first draft of a contract and then it has come back signed and I’ve always said to… I’ve always phoned them and said, ‘look, this is against our interests here but you should have someone look at this, you should have a lawyer look at this, you should have a management company look at this’.  And again, like, I like to think that we’re a very positive example of a company that wouldn’t take advantage of a boxer however poorly advised they are but some of the contracts I’ve seen fighters sign, prior to joining us with promotional companies and they’re so onerous and unscrupulous and because, like going back to my point, there’s no regulation of these contracts really.

Will Harvey

In the UK you can have situations where, where a fighter can have a promoter who is also their manager…

Tom Murray

Yeah.

Will Harvey
…which is a massive conflict of interest because, so my, so Sean, so like I say at Match Room have an impeccable record in looking after their fighters, this obviously doesn’t apply to someone like Sean, but Sean as the promoter you know,  they are an events based business, you know and essentially they are trying to, as an events based business, for them in the broadcast so they need to make as much money on the show as possible.  Now, you look at a simple P&L, they do that by obviously generating as much money through sponsorship and ticket sales and also reducing the costs as much as possible so, our job as the manager is to maximise our clients earnings so, we need to go to Sean and his team and essentially take as much money off them as possible.  If you are the manager and the promoter there is a huge conflict of interest there.

Tom Murray

One thing we’ve touched on is this fragmented government structure that exists in boxing.  So you’ve got these four governing bodies, you’ve got the World Boxing Association which was founded in 1921, you’ve got the World Boxing Council which was founded in 1963, the International Boxing Federation founded in 1976 and the World Boxing Organisation were founded in 1988.  And these four sort of bodies, compete for power with one another, they all have their own ranking system, they all have their own titles and most of the bodies were formed following sort of allegations of corruption or that people were favouring certain boxers. 

Will Harvey

The more governing bodies there are and the more champions there are, the harder it is to essentially get what the fans want, which is one undisputed, unified division, one champion at the top of their weight class which is what everybody wants to see.

Tom Murray

Let’s look at Match Room’s model as you’ve done in snooker and in darts.  Do you think that there’s an argument in favour of following the sort of, the Match Room, the Match Room model in snooker and darts, in boxing and was that something you would like to see?

Sean Palmer

Obviously yes but I think it needs to be done properly and again, talking against our interests in a way that protects the fighters and the fans from having that kind of monopoly.  So I do think there is a space for a body or a model where the best fight the best every week, fans don’t have to wait ages and ages for fights, we have like Mayweather and Pacquiao, are not taking years to make and probably past his prime because that, those kind of things all eats away at the sport, to the point where people get frustrated.

Tom Murray

So just on this topic on, on the number of belts, so there is the 17 weight divisions in Boxing, there’s four Governing Bodies, quick maths; 68 World Titles there in the men’s division alone, but they you know, the sanctioning bodies don’t really stop there so the WBA and WBC have faced massive criticism for the number of belts that they have.  Just, Lawrence for you on this, you’re currently the WBO World Cruiser Title and you’ve previously held the WBO’s International Cruiser Title and the WBO’s Continental Cruiser Title as well as multiple other belts.  So do you think that the number of belts available in boxing is… provides up and coming talent with an opportunity to be celebrated on making a name for themselves or do you think we getting to the point where there’s just too many belts that exist now?

Doctor Lawrence ‘the Source’ Okolie

Those belts kind of help make fights bigger than they are because a lot of times, like fans just want to see two people fighting for something.  So it gives something to fight for and also it prepares you mentally for the, for the feeling of actually going into a fight with nothing and leaving with something.  There’s two sides to it, so obviously, someone like the USC because there’s only one body and one belt, it means that the fans get all of these you know, great fights, but then I see some of the purses that the, that the USC fighters are getting and a lot of them are you know, three, four, ten  times more famous and probably get a lot more on the gate and a lot more eyes on them but they’re getting paid less than like a normal boxer so, it kind of means that all the power is in the hands of the promoter and the networks and stuff because if you want to box for a belt, you have to box this guy for this much and that can be the same if there’s only World Title Belt you know, they would have the power to say well no, he’s boxing and you, and they could be a really good fighter who never gets the opportunity because they are not liked by the governing body and then they go their whole career without ever winning a world title.  So, it’s a difficult one to kind of, I’m saying it’s plus and minuses to both to be fair.

Simon Lee

As we draw an end to these proceedings, I want to say thank you to our members on our esteemed panel. Thanks very much for joining everyone. Cheers

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.


Visit the Mishcon Academy for more learning, events, videos, podcasts and reports.

How can we help you?
Help

How can we help you?

Subscribe: I'd like to keep in touch

If your enquiry is urgent please call +44 20 3321 7000

Crisis Hotline

COVID-19 Enquiry

I'm a client

I'm looking for advice

Something else