There was a time when filling a huge stadium felt like the norm for Eddie Hearn. This week it feels like a relief. It will take some time for the affects of the pandemic to pass into history, but for now it feels like boxing is back.
Anthony Joshua has always been a draw, but when he steps into the ring to defend his WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles against Oleksandr Usyk in front of 68,000 fans at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in North London on Saturday, it will seems like the good times are back.
The last time Joshua boxed, against Kubrat Pulev in December, only 1,000 people were allowed in to the 10,000-seater Wembley Arena. Even that felt like a big deal at the time in a brief window between lockdowns in the UK.
Joshua is used to boxing in big stadiums – he has sold out Wembley Stadium twice and has had two full houses at the Principality Stadium – the Welsh national rugby stadium. But after restrictions were lifted in the summer, Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, was concerned as to whether fans would be keen to return in big numbers.
“It is massive,” Hearn said. “AJ is AJ and he is always going to sell, but it was so exciting the way it went. The tickets went in the first couple of hours. We could have done 200,000 tickets, we had 54,000 online in a queue for the tickets.
“We saw 20,000 fans at Leeds for Josh Warrington, we saw this, Liam Smith-Anthony Fowler in Liverpool on October 9 is sold out, for Dillian Whyte-Otto Wallin on October 30, the pre-sale was huge.
“The great thing for us is seeing people willing to come out again. My worry was that the longer this went on, people would think ‘I’ve got used to just having a barbecue, I don’t want to go to an arena with lots of people’.”
It has been a big week for Hearn, as Joshua, whom he has promoted since his professional debut in 2013, signed a new promotional deal to cover the rest of his professional career, which the way the 32-year-old heavyweight talks could last for as much as another eight years.
“For our business it is hugely important,” Hearn said. “I believe we could have had a handshake deal that would have lasted forever, but to cement it in writing for the business is massive. He is the biggest star in British boxing, arguably the biggest star in world boxing.
“He is our ambassador, when he sits up there and says ‘this is the best place for me to be, Matchroom are the best promotional outfit in the world’, there are no better credentials for us for young fighters to see.
“We were looking at pictures of when he made his debut. We were both wearing these silly waistcoats and we were both kids, really. I didn’t know what I was doing, I thought I did. And he said ‘I was the same, I was useless’.
“It is only now that you get to understand the game, him, in particular, as a fighter. He now talks like a seasoned pro, rather than someone who is just big and strong and up there and athletic. The journey has been amazing.”
Both will be banking on that journey not ending this weekend against Usyk, the Ukrainian, who is arguably the best boxer Joshua has ever faced.
Joshua and Usyk train on media day
London is a favourite city of Usyk, 34, who won heavyweight gold at the Olympics here in 2012, the days before Joshua claimed the super-heavyweight gold medal. As a professional, he unified all four parts of the world cruiserweight title before stepping up to heavyweight, where he has won both his fights to date.
Whether he can cope with the strength and power of a heavyweight of Joshua’s standing is the big question. A fight with Tyson Fury – who defends his WBC title against Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas on October 9 – is the potential reward, but Usyk cannot be overlooked.
“It is such a tough, big fight,” Hearn said. “One of the good things is not a lot of people are talking about AJ-Fury, because they are talking about this fight, which really makes a change. If you think about it - AJ-Pulev, AJ-Andy Ruiz 2 a little bit but definitely AJ-Ruiz 1, all they were talking about was Wilder or Fury and the undisputed title. Now people are going ‘this is a real fight’.
“The aim and the goal will always to be undisputed champion, but I just hope people give AJ the credit he deserves if he wins on Saturday, because his resume is incredible and not enough people talk about it.
“This is the last mandatory that we have due for a bit, then we have a clear run to say ‘let’s just make this fight’ with Fury. But let’s see if Fury fights first and, hopefully, he wins.”