Hearn hoodwinks us all into believing in Croke Park fantasy
In Selhurst Park, I had my eyes opened. Crystal Palace were playing Southampton; a couple of us were in London and, on a whim, had got tickets at the last minute.
We headed in early and, out of habit, I bought a programme. When I turned round from the kiosk, the Palace players were sauntering past me, dressed in smart suits. For some reason, I asked the player nearest to sign my programme (don’t ask me where I sourced the pen). He happily obliged.
“Cheers lads,” he said, in a thick Irish accent, as he handed it back. The signature was illegible but some canny detective work (I read the squad list) told me it was Damien Delaney, Cork native and Irish international.
So far, so good. We had a few beers and, before the game, a pie. There was no particular tension in the air; it was March, the day was bright, and people stood around talking. In the stand, the excitement was building, the tannoy loud, but all was fairly serene, too.
And then, a few minutes before kick-off, a strange thing happened. Something to the left caught the attention of a group of supporters in front of us. It was a large crowd of opposition fans.
Now, Crystal Palace and Southampton have no particular bitter rivalry, deepening through the generations like a coastal shelf, to quote Larkin. This wasn’t exactly Mullahoran v Gowna! But these dudes had, as they say in boxing, some baaad intentions – if only they could get at each other.
There were a line of security men between both sets of supporters as well as a row of about a dozen empty seats all the way along, a sort of no-man’s land between the opposing forces. Fairly quickly, the fans were wriggling en masse, lurching forward, moving back, screaming and taunting their counterparts. Some of them barely watched the actual match at all, preferring to focus, foam-mouthed, on the rival fans. It was hilarious, and pathetic.
There was an element of pantomime to it too. It seemed like it was all for show and if the bouncers stepped aside and said, “okay, have at it”, they’d all frantically charge and then just as suddenly stop and sniff each other like strange dogs meeting in a park.
It contrasted entirely to a few boxing matches I attended, where there was a lot of posturing, too, but a real air of menace – and it often spilled over. I haven’t been in years but when I used to attend fights, there was often violence out of the ring, no matter how the controlled violence inside the ropes was going. It brings to mind the Alex Turner lyric – “tonight there’ll be a ruckus, regardless of what’s gone before…”
There just always seemed to be trouble at these things. You know the sort of unwanted aggro I mean.
There’s a long queue for the toilet and some meathead decides to brazenly skip it, silently daring someone to take him on. A randomer charges into you in a queue and someone else’s drink is knocked and the fuse is lit.
Or you go to the bar, come back and there’s someone in your seat – and they won’t move. Most sane people don’t go to a fight to end up on the undercard themselves so they just try to find another place to sit or stand up.
It’s just not worth the hassle, really, paying big money for that sort of experience.
I thought of all of that during the furore lately about Katie Taylor potentially headlining in Croke Park.
It was clear very quickly that the whole saga was a masterstroke by Taylor’s promoter, Eddie Hearn.
Since Taylor beat American Amanda Serrano in May, 2021, there had been talk of a rematch being staged at GAA HQ. It dazzled in the distance, this big prize – a homecoming for Ireland’s favourite daughter. People who have never stood at a fight proclaimed it was something she deserved, no less.
And then, in early February, Hearn really got to work.
“I don’t want to say too much, people don’t really want to hear about operational costs but when you’ve got a place that is probably twice as expensive as Wembley Stadium it baffles me,” Hearn told the Boxing Social podcast.
By the time Hearn popped up on another show, The MMA Hour, he had revised this figure upwards to “nearly three times more than staging it at Wembley Stadium”. That was quite a leap but what’s a little hysteria when you’re making history?
Hearn is aware that a small bit of knowledge is all people need. Soon, social media was aflame and the GAA were forced to take a standing count before heavyweight Peter McKenna came out swinging. McKenna pummelled Hearn with facts but by then, it didn’t matter – Hearn’s work was done. The country was talking about his boxer again.
It was the Liveline effect in all its glory; politicians, sensing headlines, were queuing up to proclaim their outrage at the prospect of this not happening. Some respected sports journalists breathlessly called for the government to intervene.
Soon, it was intimated that the fight would take place at 13,000-seater 3 Arena on May 20, although no venue was listed on the promotional poster and a press conference which had been pencilled in was quietly shelved. The fact that rugby’s Champions Cup final was pencilled in for the same day a couple of miles away in the Aviva was mentioned widely but the implications were ignored. Having both on the same night was surely never truly a runner.
Then, predictably, last week, it was announced that Serrano was injured. Maybe she was but when sales are going poorly or not at all, that is the line those invested in big boxing matches always peddle. It means that all is not lost in terms of promotion; it’s effectively a pause button in the build-up, buying time and selling the idea that it was just an unfortunate twist of fate, which derailed the enterprise and not the fact it was a fundamentally unsound venture or just a publicity stunt in the first place.
Which is, I suspect, the case with Katie Taylor headlining a show at Croke Park. Taylor just doesn’t currently have the pulling power for such a venue. Yes, she may be Ireland’s most admired sportsperson, as several surveys have shown, but she is still a professional fighter and professional fighting is not for everyone.
Unlike a match or a concert, a fight is not a place for children. Women do not tend to turn out in big numbers either; a wholly unscientific straw poll I took of 10 women found none had ever attended a professional fight before.
The crowds tend to be dominated by adult males. Now, Taylor may be universally well regarded but there is very little to suggest that tens of thousands of men will actually pay to watch her fight, especially in the current financial climate.
Purists may appreciate the technical aspects but casual fans - and they’re the ones needed to fill Croker - want to see knock-outs, which are rare in women’s boxing.
And, in any case, the sporting aspect is only a small part of this. Pro boxing is entertainment and entertainment is business. What matters is not how big a star Taylor is or how well liked she is but how much money that starpower can generate.
Remember, there have been big names before who could not shift near enough tickets for a stadium. I was there in 2009 when Bernard Dunne, at the height of his fame, won a world title at the 02 Arena; even Dunne, with his massive following in the days of the Celtic Tiger, could not come close to headlining an 80,000-seater venue.
If Katie really could sell out Croke Park, she would, and her promoter would not be quibbling with the GAA over a few hundred thousand euro from a multi, multi-million pay day. The fight would be booked and that would be that.
Ignore all the noise - it’s just not the right fit. Katie Taylor is beloved because she seems a good person, a trustworthy, wholesome individual. And the reality is that if those are traits you value, the fight game and its big nights are not really for you.