Boxing: How Hearn's fight club is lifting ailing sport off the ropes

Prizefighter's raw appeal is capturing the imagination and giving financial help to game's lesser lights. Steve Bunce visits the bear pit

In April 2008 the first Prizefighter tournament took place in front of a capacity crowd at York Hall in east London, away from Saturday night expectations and without disturbing too many people in the boxing business.

It is a simple format for a night of boxing: take eight fighters with a variety of skills and history and have seven fights of three rounds that last three minutes each. The last man standing after quarter-finals, semi-finals and a draining final leaves the ring with £32,000. It lasts for just over two hours and the crowd are guaranteed thrills, shocks, knockdowns and blood – it's Twenty20 boxing.

Prizefighter winners have gone on and fought for world titles on two occasions and won European, Commonwealth and British titles and so it has proved a lifeline for the sport at a time when the haves are pulling further and further off into the distant realms and leaving behind the have-nots. This is not the slick boxing world of David Haye or Amir Khan, but then again the tickets are not £500 each for a night of hyped glitz.

Last week at Olympia, in Liverpool, the latest Prizefighter took place in the city's grand but dirty former indoor circus and variety theatre. The Olympia still has animal pits in the cavernous basement where elephants, lions, tigers and other assorted beasts were kept for their nightly shows between 1905 and 1925. There remains a smell, but that could be from its heyday as a bingo hall or its nights as a part of the Merseybeat when it was a dance hall called the Locarno. Now, Olympia is home to boxing, mixed martial arts and the occasional breakout event such as "Search for Britain's Hardest Bouncer". It is also one of my favourite venues anywhere in the world for a proper night of boxing. Prizefighter was invented by Barry Hearn to top the bill at a place like Olympia.

In 2008 Hearn's people had to get on the phone and explain what Prizefighter was all about to the reluctant members of the fight business. Now, managers, trainers, assorted lunatics and fighters are constantly calling trying to get on the long short-lists for the events, six of which took place last year. The style of the show is informal with everybody at Sky losing their fat ties for the night. A bookmaker is used to explain the ever-shifting odds as the evening unfolds. It works, and last Wednesday's show in Liverpool returned the best viewing figures for boxing on Sky this year.

"I wanted to take Prizefighter on the road and I wanted a venue that captured what Prizefighter is all about," said Eddie Hearn, son of Barry, who tends to run the events.

The line-up was extreme, even by Prizefighter's flexible limits and limitations. Robin Reid returning at 40 after a glorious career that included an Olympic bronze in 1992, a world title in 1996 and several leading roles in soft-porn movies during the last decade. He had, as they say, the experience. At the opposite end of the scale was Rocky Fielding, a novice with just three wins in three fights. There was the obligatory comeback story in Joe Ainscough, who was left for dead after being stabbed in the rectum two years ago. "I died on the operating table," Ainscough told me.

Tobias Webb was the baby at 22 and a danger to his opponents with his unbeaten record of five wins. Carl Dilks had served in Iraq and seen dark things during his time as a soldier. Jahmaine Smyle had a history that was only discussed in hushed tones. Patrick J Maxwell was born in New York and had a bad attitude. Wayne Reed had knocked out Smyle and looked a tidy outside bet. The men in their corners were equally diverse and devoted; the prize of £32,000 is a lot of money for a trainer to slice his percentage from and tends to focus the mind of the men in tracksuits.

Fielding sold 150 tickets in the five days since joining the party after local fighter Tony Quigley lost his battle with the fridge. Most people thought Fielding was simply making up the numbers with his unimpressive record of three wins, all on points, but his flock had other ideas. They all had a nice few quid on their Rocky.

In the first quarter-final Fielding dropped and stopped Maxwell in round two. Ainscough survived a knockdown and won a controversial decision over Reed. Webb outpointed Reid and in the last quarter-final Smyle was too fit for Dilks, who was the favourite. The crowd had roared, booed and screamed abuse like a gang on a beano at a pantomime. Eddie Hearn and others in the VIP section had, like the rest of the crowd, spent most of the rounds on their feet. It was that type of night.

Webb had his ear chewed by his cornerman Dean Powell after two rounds against Reid. It was clear that Reid, a veteran of 12-round championship fights, was just waking up. Powell got in Webb's face and screamed: "How old are you?" Webb replied: "22". Powell, turning his head just slightly in Reid's direction, screamed: "Well, he's fucking 40! Now get out there." It worked. Powell left the ring a few minutes later with a smile on his face.

Fielding and Ainscough were in the first semi-final, the noise was fantastic, Ainscough's resistance not quite so good and Rocky won in the first. Ainscough, who overcame an enormous barrier by defying the doctors and getting back in the ring, retired in the emotional aftermath. Rocky's fans were ecstatic at ringside, rejoicing no doubt in the fact that they got on him when he was a 14-1 outsider.

The other semi-final was not for the squeamish, which suited the Liverpool crowd perfectly. Smyle against Webb was savage, two men caught in a conflict with too much power and heart and not enough skill. Webb won, but he had nothing left and Rocky's fans were celebrating early. Actually, the whole place was celebrating.

Rocky dropped Webb twice before it was called off in the opening round of the final. The 17th Prizefighter was over two hours and 30 minutes after it had started, and a rank outsider had walked away with the prize after three stoppage wins. "This has changed my life," Rocky claimed. Webb injured his jaw and couldn't smile but just about everybody else leaving Olympia was grinning. The pair managed an intimate embrace an hour later and even that looked painful for Webb.

The next Prizefighter will be a mix of eccentric heavyweights from all over the world at Alexandra Palace on 7 May and is expected to sell out. "It will be like a proper Rocky film," said Eddie Hearn. He is not lying.

Prizefighter: The story

Seventeen tournaments have taken place, one each in Liverpool, Glasgow and Newcastle and 14 in London, including 10 at York Hall, Bethnal Green.

Previous winners include Olympic gold medallist Audley Harrison and the former world champion Gavin Rees.

The prize fund Winner: £32,000; Runner-up: £16,000; Losing semi-finalist: £8,000; Losing quarter-finalist: £4,000

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