First Night - Barry Hearn: The fun palace man with a Prince to sell

Essex man fell out of love with boxing. Now he's back...to promote a star in need of a new image.

Barry Hearn is making a comeback. He denies it, of course. Says in a visual world, he's just been a little less visible. But the protestations are not entirely convincing, though the well-tanned figure peddling them remains an attractive effigy of Essex Man. Less visible maybe, but no less voluble.

Hearn could always sell ice to the Eskimoes, now he is helping to reshape the nihilistic career of Prince Naseem Hamed, an infinitely harder task, some would say. Having fought Brendan Ingle, his trainer, for the past six months, Hamed is defending his World Boxing Organisation featherweight title against Paul Ingle (no relation) in Manchester next Saturday. For Hearn and the Prince, it will be just like old times.

Why Naz? A matter of ego. Not Naz's, for once. "I thought he might go to an American promoter, to be honest," says Hearn. "But they came to me. I promoted his first four fights before he went to Duff, then Warren. I said to Naz, it's different now. I said, `Naz, you know I always used to call you an ugly sonofabitch when you was young'. He said, `Yea, yer did'. `Well,' I said, `now I've got to call you ugly sonofabitch, sir.' `I love that,' he said."

In the wilderness years, Hearn has built up a strange portfolio: tenpin bowling, the Marlin World Cup, pool and his beloved Leyton Orient. He still manages Steve Davis, 22 years on. "Can't get rid of him." He's big in Poland, he says. Last year, he took a show to the Silesian minefields, a crowd of 700 straight off the coalface and pollution you could taste. Likes a challenge does Hearn. His little bathtime brainwave for this summer is Fish O Mania VI, six hours of live fishing from Doncaster to be broadcast on the first day of the football season. He likes that bit. The first day of the football season. "Who else would do it?" And he laughs at his own sauce.

Laughter is the first sound you hear in Hearn's Matchroom office in Romford. It seeps down the stairs and across a four-foot poster advertising Barry's return to the big-time. Hearn never took himself or life too seriously. Shy and unassuming he is not, never has been, but he is the first to prick his own ego. Hearn is a child at heart and, like most children, he gets bored easily. His first toy was snooker, then boxing. His flippancy and wit never quite suited a game where death is a blink away; "no one ever got killed playing snooker," as a rival promoter commented acidly. Once Eubank retired, Benn went and his relationship with Steve Collins turned sour, Hearn began to search distant horizons. Buying Leyton Orient, that's when it changed, he says. The pursuit of the almighty dollar became a little less forceful; fun became the key. Off to the golf course, if it's a bad day; work all hours otherwise. Hearn has earned what he calls the "luxury of low ambition". His rivals said Hearn couldn't hack it.

"Yea, they did, didn't they? Someone - probably Warren, but don't say so because he'll sue you - said, `Barry, he's a fishing promoter now.' But I haven't stopped. I do 26 shows a year, here, in the US, in South Africa. I'm working with a new cable station in Poland and I like that, starting something new, developing talent. I've developed a very strange business and it's taken a lot of time to get it exactly as we want it. I've been 10 years in a sport known for its lack of loyalty and standards. That's boxing, and there's no point in pretending anything else. It doesn't make it a bad game, just different."

A touch of disillusion perhaps? "No, not really. I thought I fitted rather well into that world. Technically and strategically, I'm rather good at that. I found it quite stimulating. I always said promoting boxing was like playing five games of championship chess at once. On one board, you're attacking, on another you're defending, on a third one, you're fiddling about, a fourth you're sacrificing. No disillusion, just a change of emphasis."

Hearn is 50 and three-quarters, if that is a clue. 51 in June. And recently he had a little trouble with his heart, which concentrated an agile mind.

His family has a history of heart trouble. "A repair job," he says. He took nine days off, the longest holiday of his life. He looks in rude health now, tanned from the sun of Dubai where he went to watch the Dubai World Cup and reconnoitre a fishing event. His wife breeds racehorses and if you asked him what were the most significant moments of last week, he would say one of his wife's homebred thoroughbreds finishing third at Folkestone and opening up tenders for the new stand at Leyton Orient. "It wouldn't mean anything to you or your readers. It's not going to be a Chelsea Village, it's a little 1,400-seater stand with community facilities and I'm just so pleased because something like this hasn't happened at Orient for 40 to 50 years."

He was quietly contemplating promotion to the Second Division when a familiar face turned up at his door, requesting a makeover. Hearn's association with Prince Naseem began way back. Hearn wanted to bring some green-baize type chic to boxing, Naz had style to spare. The pair seemed a perfect match. But somewhere, boxing's reverse law of gravity took over.

Hearn never liked Ingle, Naz's trainer, and Hamed went off to Duff. His career soared; Naz became the icon of a cool ill-mannered generation and a new type of designer fan crammed the arenas, fuelling the excesses of Naseem's rampant ego. Strangely, an ill-fated brush with the American market brought some belated order to a career spiralling out of control. Hamed is now managed by his brother, Riath, and Hearn has been persuaded away from his well-worn chairman's seat at Brisbane Road to recast the image of the artist formerly known as The Prince.

"I'm trying to impose my personality on the press conferences," he says. "I want them to be humorous. We've all done the `I'm going to get you' press conferences, the game's gone beyond that and I certainly have gone beyond that. I used to walk into press conferences with Naz and cringe; he was murder. But he's grown up a bit, he's got a wife and child and a family who give him stability. He feels comfortable around them and he feels fairly comfortable with me, though I'm still a promoter so I have to be watched."

Whether Naseem can be taught to distinguish wit from brashness is another matter. "Everyone can be trained to be funny," Hearn responds. "Eubank wasn't a funny man, but he became quite an amusing character. Look at Steve Davis. Some you just need to steer. Naz is a steering job." The old promoter's tongue is wagging now. "We'll see a new Naz on 10 April. He wants to impress on the inside and the outside. He wants to show he's bigger and better and a bigger and better human being and I think he's been showing that over the past few weeks. We're not even halfway through the Naseem journey yet."

Bringing Tommy Hearns to the Manchester show for his UK debut is a typically creative Hearn touch, a good ticket-seller and a reminder to Naz of what a true legend looks like, even at the age of 40. Hearn, though, is not a guaranteed companion for the rest of Naseem's career. Big-time shows bring buzz, but complicate priorities. Hearn will reluctantly forsake an all-ticket top-of-the-table clash with Cardiff City to be in Manchester next weekend.

"I could take a private plane, do both, but my mind wouldn't be right. You have to live these things." The following week he will be in Warsaw not Brentford, another decision for the head over the heart. "The rest of the Saturdays are taboo to the end of the season. Home to Shrewsbury, away to Peterborough, home to Barnet. [Phone rings.] Yea, nearly there, stay where you are, I'll be two seconds... It's just wonderful when you have the choice."

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