TALK to Ben Shalom and it’s easy to understand how the youngest promoter in Britain wowed Sky Sports bosses to nab one of the most sought-after jobs in boxing. The buzzwords are all in place. Platform. Accessibility. Numbers. Drivers. Engagement. Audience. Diversification. Pay-per-view. Baddabing. Baddaboom.
Shalom, though, is not quite what you might expect. He’s not an Eddie Hearn clone. He’s not a brash Sam Jones-style marketeer. Softly spoken, humble, and keen to keep himself off social media for the foreseeable future, the 28-year-old is much happier to shine a light than stand in its glare.
Though his vision for the sport is a familiar one, create an appealing product that the masses will embrace, there is more than a just a cursory nod to the fans and fighters who really make the sport tick. If he keeps the fighters and fans happy, and he sees no reason why he can’t do both, then his simple plan will come to fruition. There are promises of investment at amateur level, of main events not starting at daft o’clock, of only well-matched fights being part of the broadcast. None of it is rocket science, all of it heard elsewhere before, but Shalom seems to recognise that if he’s going to make an impression, he has to be more boxing fan than businessman.
“The frustration I have had with Sky Sports is that a lot of the cards have been long, winding and really hard to stay with,” Shalom tells Boxing News. “So if you’re sat there with your girlfriend trying to explain why we should be watching it, rather than Britain’s Got Talent or something, you need something that you can justify watching. Boxing is supposed to be entertaining. It’s supposed to be exciting. Can we shorten the shows? Can we put more headline fights on the card? Can we freshen up the whole experience?”
This is not the first time Shalom – who studied law at university – has shared his ideas with BN. Four years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, he called me out of nowhere hoping to get our support for a new venture he was plotting. I was at first naturally suspicious – boxing is full of chancers, after all – but it soon became clear that Shalom was determined to stick around for the long haul. Then only 23, he told me all about his dreams for boxing. Dreams of showbiz and glamour but, above all, dreams of well-matched fights. The Prizefighter-style concept, eight fighters whittled down to one winner on one night, gained traction but never found a fixed abode.
Ultimate Boxxer went from channel to channel and venue to venue. Shalom knew he had to be patient. The steps he was making were small steps but they were steps regardless. For any new promoter in boxing, making progress of any kind is exceptionally difficult. “As soon as I left university I was desperate to get into boxing,” Shalom explains. “Like anyone who is coming into any new industry, it was a crazy learning experience. I’ve done every single job involved in promotion, from top to bottom, whether that’s setting up the press conference, buying billboards, giving out flyers, matchmaking, learning on the job all the time. It’s a brutal business so it was something I had to learn pretty quick. Those early days were a lesson in humility and an incredibly steep learning curve in every sense of the word.”
“As I became more streetwise and started to understand the business, I realised very early that there was no point signing fighters, or pretending to be a promoter at that point,” he admits. “The best thing to do was invest in the team, in the product, put on good shows and find the right people within the sport. For us, we saw a sport that we were in love with, but how could we make it more accessible? That was always the driver for Ultimate Boxxer. It started on Five Spike then moved to BT Sport then to ITV, but all the time we couldn’t compete with other promoters because we couldn’t sign fighters.
“No one can be a great promoter without a great broadcaster behind you. Too much is made of the promoters when, really, it’s the size of the platform they’ve got to shout from. The broadcaster is paying the bills, they’re putting the boxers on that platform. It was about being patient and waiting for the right opportunity.
“In boxing, you get a lot of people trying to stop you, trying to block what you’re doing and we understood that. So it formed part of our strategy, in that we stayed out of the way because, if we start signing fighters and making noise before we have the broadcasting platform, we would be blocked. That’s what always happens. Our vision was pure but we had to learn the rules, so we laid low and kept our noses clean, so that we would be very attractive to a broadcaster when that chance came up.”
Fast forward to 2021, to Hearn leaving Sky Sports behind and declaring his loyalty to DAZN, and to Shalom, 14 years Eddie’s junior, stepping forward to fill the hole alongside US giants, Top Rank. Though there are clear similarities in how Shalom and Hearn think, it is far from a like-for-like replacement. When Hearn turned his attention to the boxing world a little over a decade ago, he did so with the Matchroom empire behind him, a relationship with Sky Sports already secure and a famous father with both deep pockets and a wealth of experience. To suggest that Hearn’s success was purely down to friends and family in high places would be doing the promoter’s substantial skills a disservice but, nonetheless, Shalom is quick to point out the difference between their respective journeys into the sport.
“I had to do it the hard way,” Shalom stresses. “I had nothing. I had to get a loan to get my first promoter’s licence at 23 and it was difficult. You have to have cash in boxing so I was finding different ways through sponsors and tickets to put on boxing shows. Looking back, it was the best way to learn. I couldn’t rely on money from broadcasters, I had to be resourceful. The background was literally brick by brick, whether it was sponsors, broadcasters, an investor for the night. I had to put on shows and I had to find ways to do it.
“People look at me now and think, ‘who is this guy who has just got Sky?’ Everyone thinks it’s the start of my journey but I’ve had four years of finding every which way to develop myself, to be able to be a promoter in this sport and pay bills and pay staff. I am very grateful for those experiences and Sky recognised that.
“I had to build with no history or family in boxing to get to this point. Eddie and I are not comparable. He’s a front man and he’s very, very good at what he does. How can you not admire his achievements? [But] I had to start from scratch, with absolutely nothing. This feels like a big milestone for me but now we’re here, and we’re really happy to be here, the hard work essentially begins all over again.”
That hard work should not be understated. Though he insists he’s not here to do battle, Shalom and Boxxer gatecrash the top of a ferociously competitive industry where almost all of the biggest stars are already tied into deals with rival promoters. So his immediate task, to attract fighting talent while not irking the influential figures to whom that talent essentially belongs, would appear a difficult one.
“I thought it would be more difficult,” Shalom counters while explaining that the long-term strategy has to be developing careers over time. “Boxers simply want to be seen by the most people and have the best career prospects as possible. Judging by the fighters that have come over already, fighters want to be on Sky Sports.
“Now it’s clear to us that any fighter who wants to be built, who has the potential to be a pay-per-view star in the future, is where we are going to have the most luck. Fighters who are in long-term contracts thought they were always going to appear on Sky but now they find themselves on a smaller platform and they’re trying to get back onto Sky. That’s the reality of it: Boxers want to be seen. Fighters appreciate the new approach. I’m a lot closer to them in age and they can relate to me a lot more and I can relate to them.
“We respect contracts. But you can expect lots more announcements in the coming weeks. With that, you will see it’s more about the platform than the promoter. All we want to do is give more opportunities to fighters – in that regard, it’s a great time for the sport. As you know, there’s a lot of diamonds in the rough who didn’t get those opportunities in the past. But now there’s a platform for them to go on and become superstars. Our feeling is that fighters on our platform will become more relevant, and more well known, than any fighters on any other platform. That is very, very attractive for fighters.”
Every successful new promoter endured heated squabbles with existing ones on the way up. Frank Warren put noses out of joint as he made his mark. Eddie Hearn, too. It would therefore seem inevitable that Shalom will upset the ‘establishment’ along the way. It’s something he’s very keen to avoid.
“We’re trying to be really respectful,” Shalom stresses. “The whole point of where we want to go is not about going head-to-head with promoters. It’s simply about what the fighter wants to do. If they want to be on DAZN, on BT or on Sky, it’s up to them, it’s their choice. We are actively trying to avoid any conflicts.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the sport. We want to invest in grassroots, we’re approaching the amateur clubs about creating a National Cup that is televised on Sky. We have a massive responsibility. That responsibility is solely to the sport, to a great sport. Not to myself. Not to Eddie. Not to Frank. It is to the sport. It makes no sense to butt heads with other promoters.”
The two biggest names on the Sky Sports roster, Chris Eubank Jnr and Josh Taylor, are not signed to Boxxer. Eubank is with Wasserman Boxing’s Kalle Sauerland and Taylor is promoted by Top Rank. Such alliances are vital in the short-term, Shalom says. “It obviously has its challenges but we know how important it is to work with other promoters. We have Kalle with Chris Eubank Jnr, Top Rank with Josh Taylor, Dmitry Salita with Claressa Shields, Mick Hennessy with Savanah Marshall. Ultimately we run the shows but we won’t exclude opportunities to fighters who are not signed with us. We are new in the sport and, if a fighter is with another promoter, we have to be open to ways to make it work on the platform.
“What you will see is the Sky stable growing and we’ll be able to make a lot of fights in-house. We only started on September 1, and we managed to put together a show in a month, one week after the Joshua[-Usyk] show.”
That first show was of course set to feature Chris Eubank Jnr in a starring role. Not one but two projected opponents were forced out in the days leading up to October 1, the date of the show and Shalom’s 28th birthday.
“It was difficult but at the same time, after everything I’ve been through and experienced in recent years, I’ve had much bigger problems than Eubank pulling out,” Shalom says with a smile. “These things happen. It wasn’t ideal that it happened on our first show. But this is a long term project and, for us, it was how we reacted to it.
“We did have the option to put Chris in with one of the other guys already on the card but, again, from a credibility standpoint it didn’t feel right to make what would have essentially been a mismatch. We decided that isn’t where we wanted to go. This isn’t exhibition fighting. So it was a brave decision but the only decision.”
The show went ahead with David Avenesyan-Liam Taylor atop the bill. The broadcast attracted the biggest Sky Sports Fight Night audience for three years. No mean feat considering the star attraction did not appear. Shalom puts that down to tighter scheduling, multi-platform promotion, the main event starting at a reasonable hour and a promoter now giving the Sky platform their full attention.
“They never wanted to be putting on main events at 11 or half-11. Avanesyan-Taylor came into the ring at 10 o’clock and that would have been the same if it was Chris Eubank Jnr. You are going to see shows that finish earlier, you are going to see bigger names at 7.30-to-8. We have a massive influence on that and we’ll constantly be working out what’s best for the fighters and what’s best for the fans. What’s best for the fighters is having as many eyeballs on them at accessible and appealing times. That works in the fans’ favour, too.”
Above all, Shalom recognises that the only way to keep the fans happy in the long term is to deliver the fights they want to see. In turn, he understands the only way to make the fights we want to see is if the promoters find some middle ground. Those admissions, however, are at odds with the reality of a ferocious marketplace where joining forces is rare.
“We’re not going to be precious,” Shalom says. “All we can do is try and make the fights everyone wants to see.
“We’re going to want to work with Eddie and work with Frank to ensure the best fights happen. The luxury we have is that we now have the best platform to offer to the fighters. We can afford to be more collaborative and we want to be more collaborative. The difficulty is promoters not wanting their fighters to appear on Sky Sports. But the focus is always making the right fights. We’d happily co-promote with Eddie and Frank on the Sky platform. I’m not bothered about being the main promoter, that isn’t what motivates me.
“Again, the focus is the sport, its fighters and the fans, not me.”