“I DON’T think I’ll ever be at peace with it,” Mick Hennessy says quietly in the deserted Sevenoaks Boxing Club in Kent. The walls and floor around the ring are covered in laminated photographs of boxing’s evocative past. We are surrounded by hundreds of familiar faces from Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali to Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson. It is the perfect setting for Hennessy’s love of boxing to pour out of him. There is hope, too, as he looks ahead with a new stable of boxers and a Channel 5 deal which offers fresh impetus.
But now, midway through the five hours we spend in the gym on a Saturday afternoon, I can feel his hurt. I can see it etched across his face as he thinks of the betrayals that have scarred his obsession with boxing. Carl Froch and Tyson Fury belong in the gallery of famous fighters. But they stand apart, too, for they wounded Hennessy by leaving him as world champions after he spent years helping them build their careers to that peak.
“Those relationships were serious to me,” Hennessy says as he reflects on how much Froch and Fury meant to him. “We were so close. You actually spend more time with them than your own family. You see them at their lowest and their highest and I can’t detach myself even when it’s over.”
Hennessy is 55 and he has been involved in boxing too long to be either naïve about its workings or sentimental in his feelings. Instead, he speaks with raw emotion: “I’ve got so much respect for fighters. I know what it takes to step through those ropes and so I genuinely came into this game to change it and make it better for fighters.
“I’m the same as most people. I thought the promoters were always the bad guys and the fighters were being abused. I learnt pretty quickly that’s not the case. Sometimes promoters are the ones that need protecting because it don’t matter whether a young fighter’s got an ABA Senior title or an Olympic medal. They still need building. They need the backing and the exposure on the right platform. For promoters, at that stage, it’s just about investment, blood, sweat and tears and trying to make everyone believe what you believe.
“Everyone thinks the TV companies are paying you fortunes and it’s not the case. Most promoters lose money for years. I’m not a gambler by nature but, in boxing, I’m the biggest gambler there is because how many things could have happened to Carl Froch and Tyson Fury en route to their world titles? From debilitating injuries to being knocked out cold to failing a brain scan, their careers could have finished at any point.
“It’s a lottery to take an amateur, even with a great pedigree, to the absolute top. You have to be strong with your belief because it’s the biggest risk of all. You bring up a fighter and go through all them hardships together. You climb the Himalayas together and when you get to the top you think you’re with family because of the journey you’ve been on. But then you just get a boot in the back and fall straight off the top of the mountain.”
Hennessy is scaling a different mountain now with new conviction. He has chosen a group of fighters who have been hurt or forgotten, who are young or still relatively unknown, and he has forged an admirable camaraderie between them. Earlier this year I went into one of the Hennessy bubbles to watch boxers such as Isaac Chamberlain and Shakan Pitters find a different path with him. It was clear even then, as the small group cheered each other on in the echoing silence of a Channel 5 television studio, that Hennessy had a new fighting family. They include his 21-year-old son, Michael Jnr, who fights at super-welterweight while becoming especially close to the men his dad now promotes.
Michael beat Dale Arrowsmith last Friday night in the first of two back-to-back live promotions on Channel 5. This Friday, if he recovers in time from a knuckle injury, he steps back into the ring for the second time in a week as part of the support card to the British light-heavyweight title fight between Pitters, the champion, and Craig Richards. It should again draw in TV ratings which dwarf those produced by more renowned boxers on Sky Sports and BT Sport. It continues Hennessy’s defiant conviction that terrestrial television remains the best way to drive a fighter’s career.
Channel 5 have been taken over by Viacom, the American media giant which also owns Showtime in the US. The potential for crossover between Hennessy Sports and Showtime is vast – and Channel 5 has already supplemented its British shows with free-to-air fights from the US led by Gervonta Davis’s stunning knockout of Leo Santa Cruz.
Hennessy’s renewed enthusiasm has been intensified by the gratitude which fighters such as Chamberlain have shown him for rescuing their careers. Chamberlain told me how, last month, Hennessy paid the £14,000 it cost for Britain’s leading surgeon in this field to repair the boxer’s damaged shoulder. This is how a promoter in the mould of Hennessy helps his fighters in largely unseen ways. Chamberlain now feels like one of the family – which includes Hennessy’s 16-year-old daughter, Fran, whom they believe may emerge as the most talented and successful boxer of them all. Hennessy beams when discussing Fran’s freakish power and natural aptitude for the fight game.
All this light and joy emerges against a darker past as we return to the Froch and Fury fallout. Their reputations are now secure but, for many years, both men were bolstered by the unwavering and often isolated belief of Hennessy. Froch was part of Hennessy’s Class of 2002, a small group Hennessy promoted with real flair. But, at the outset, attention gravitated towards Froch’s stable-mates David Walker and Matthew Thirwall. “Carl probably didn’t have the talent them two had,” Hennessy remembers. “But he had incredible toughness and discipline and he was obsessed. He was a scholar. A lot of the other fighters were enjoying their position. They had good deals, were on TV and were very popular with girls. But Carl sat in his room so he could get his head down at 10 pm. He knew he would run at the crack of dawn.
“But there were many bad comments. The top England trainer at the time said to me: ‘Great signing in Matthew Thirwell, but why on earth have you signed Froch? We had to prise him out of the dressing room to face all the elite fighters [in amateur boxing].’ I said: ‘We’re fully aware his confidence needs building but we believe he’s got what it takes.’ Carl definitely needed boosting on a regular basis. It was our job and we did it well. We just needed to do it at his pace. It took from 2001, when I first got close to Carl, to December 2008 before he won his WBC title. It was a long time.”
As Hennessy recounts the obstacles he had to overcome he rubs his hand across his face. “It’s horrible because I’ve had that with two major marquee fighters. It was the same with Tyson Fury. People didn’t believe in him. And yes, with Froch all the way through, high ranking television executives, sponsors and other people with no intense boxing knowledge would say: ‘His left hand’s too low, he’s not quick enough. He’s not engaging and he’ll never be a pay-per-view fighter.’”
Twelve years ago this month, in December 2008, Hennessy delivered Froch’s dream opportunity – a world title fight, in his home town of Nottingham, against Jean Pascal. “The fight was on ITV1. Prime time Saturday night. It was on Showtime in the States and seen all around the world. And it was a proper battle against an elite fighter. I’d got Carl into the mandatory position and had to bring Pascal over here no matter what to get home advantage and win the fight in the UK. And we put Carl in the training camp of all training camps in Ireland and brought in incredible sparring. A Cuban called Luis Garcia who was one of the most talented fighters I’ve ever seen. His sparring got Carl through that Pascal fight. Everything was done perfect.
“I was in the middle of a 27-fight deal with ITV. It was huge and then, just after Carl won the title, the share price fell through the floor with ITV. They cut their staff by 50 per cent. They used any break clauses they could. They did it to Formula One, and they asked me to come in. I sat down with six suits. They said we’ve got to exercise this break clause even though you’ve doubled our ratings and delivered more than you promised. But next week 75 per cent of us in this room won’t have jobs. We’ve got no choice. It was crushing. I’d invested so much and I was left in no-man’s land. I had to find other revenues.”
Hennessy helped set up the outstanding Super Six tournament which, over the years, has produced so many classic fights that transcend the limitations imposed on boxing by its many sanctioning bodies. The super-middleweights, including Froch and Andre Ward, was the first division where the original idea caught fire. “I was instrumental in the Super Six,” Hennessy says, “and did it with [fellow promoter] Kalle Sauerland and Ken Hershman [of HBO].”
Froch, however, had begun to turn against Hennessy. “He had three fights in the Super Six with me and he left before the semi and the final [which Froch lost to Ward in 2011]. After the first contract we were so close we were like: ‘We don’t need contracts’.”
Hennessy has to remain silent on the details of losing Froch and Fury for legal reasons.
Other fighters followed Froch and left Hennessy. “The only one that stayed with me at the time was Tyson Fury, and he was a young fighter in the early stages of his career. I had people telling me Tyson was no good all the time: ‘He’s overweight, he’ll never do anything.’ There were so many obstacles but my belief in Tyson was so strong.”
Did Hennessy ever doubt Fury? “No. Me and Tyson spent a lot of time together and our relationship was great. He always used to say to me before press conferences: ‘Is there anything you want me to get across?’ I said: ‘Tyson, what’s the point? You’re going to do your own thing anyway!’ He said: ‘Mick, you do know there’s a fine line between genius and madness?’ I was like: ‘Of course I know that, Tyson.’ He looked at me and went: ‘You do know I’m on that line, don’t you?’ I said: ‘I know that better than anyone!’”
Hennessy laughs before becoming more serious. “I had incredible belief in him even when he was covered in fat. In that early part of his career Tyson was a handful. Even his Uncle Hughie, a great and very moral man, couldn’t control him. Sometimes you didn’t know whether you were coming or going. But I just knew there was something very special there. I looked at him as a 6ft 9ins young, incredible talent, articulate for someone who never had an education. I thought to myself: ‘Is everyone missing a trick here?’ They didn’t believe in Tyson Fury. I was so relieved when his uncle Peter came on board as trainer because he could control Tyson and put structure about him. That was a game changer for his boxing.”
In November 2015, he guided Fury to the world championship when, against all odds, the titles were ripped away from Wladmir Klitschko in Düsseldorf. The promotional pitfalls set up by the long-reigning champion’s management team were as difficult for Hennessy to overcome as it was for Fury to beat Klitschko. “They were formidable. Bernd Boente, Shelly Finkel, Tom Loefler. They’re all brilliant minds, especially Shelley, and they had a whole team of American and German lawyers and a British lawyer as well. It was basically me and Peter and our small team. After Tyson finished work for the day, me and Peter spent most nights standing up to the Klitschko team. It was like playing chess and finding the right strategy.
“Peter was a very sharp businessman as well as a great trainer and we worked so well together – and harder than everyone else. We went up against an establishment who had a monopoly on the heavyweight title for 11 years. A lot of other promoters and managers suffered this stuff that we wouldn’t take out there. A lot of them just took the payday. We stood up for Tyson.”
Fury’s momentous achievement in becoming world champion was soon unhinged by his well-documented problems. Hennessy also believes that others “poisoned” Fury’s thinking and persuaded him to move elsewhere. Peter Fury, meanwhile, remained loyal to Hennessy. Other trainers, who owed their careers to Hennessy, didn’t show the same loyalty. “Peter’s a very moral individual,” Hennessy says. “He is totally straight forward and doesn’t support any wrong-doing.”
The promoter looks up. “It scarred me. And my biggest hate in this sport is the poaching. I get many top amateurs wanting me to sign them nowadays and I turn a lot down because I don’t want to go through the same thing. I’m interested in kids that are rough diamonds, that have had it tough with no backing, that appreciate being looked after. I’m not interested in divas.
“Isaac Chamberlain is the type of fighter that I look for now. I knew that that he was very frustrated, very depressed [after his loss to Lawrence Okolie in 2018 and various promotional mishaps]. He was at a low point but he still believed in himself and he was still grafting his socks off even though nothing was happening for him. I’d watched him from the outside because the way this kid talked was interesting. I thought: ‘I’ll study him now. It seems like he needs a break.’ I watched fight tapes and his sparring in America.
“I realised he had something special. He has a personality that lights up a room when he walks in. I liked his energy. I liked his talent and the fact he’s got a great work ethic. Then you look at his past and think: ‘Wow, he’s been brought through tough.’ No-one had put their arms around him and given him the treatment that can make a major world champion. So I took the risk. I start looking after him financially and in other ways and we did a deal. As long as you give it 100 per cent and don’t go down the playboy route, I’m with you, and I’ll stay with you.”
On Friday night, another Hennessy fighter headlines his Channel 5 bill. “I like Shakan Pitters,” he says of the British light-heavyweight champion. “He reminds me of an older version of Isaac – who is quite young at heart. There’s a different type of X Factor to Pitters because he’s got that lovely, engaging way. It’s a soft way outside the ring and when he puts on a suit he looks a million dollars. He’s another rough diamond, a late starter who could have had a good career in football. But it didn’t work out for him. It will in boxing. I fancy Pitters to come through his defence against Richards and win quite comfortably. His attributes – the range and punch power – are all there. We’re going to see him open up a bit more. It’s a make or break fight for Pitters. I think it makes him.
“I am just really excited about this new crop I’ve got. I’m working with Sam Eggington [who stopped Ashley Theopane in last Friday night’s main bout on Channel 5] and he’s another one who hasn’t been properly looked after. I’m about to give him the boost his career needs and I believe with the right training camps, the right everything put in front of him, he can become a world champion in a hot division. He’s kept himself in incredible shape and he lives the life all year round.
“I’ve signed some very promising and really talented kids. Stephen McKenna was a top amateur from Monaghan. Brett McGinty, from St Johnston, is another with real Irish amateur pedigree. They’re both incredible talents and they’re no prima donnas. They don’t allow that in the Irish system. It’s so hard over there. That’s why Michael [his son] had more than half of his amateur fights in Ireland. Over here you’d try and get a match with the elite boys and no-one will take it until the championships. You want a match in Ireland, you get them queueing round the block. They just fight for fun. And they’re not worried about losses or anything like that.”
Hennessy Jnr lost his unbeaten pro record in his fifth fight in September when he suffered a surprise defeat to Jamie Stewart. His dad only learnt the following day that Michael had been sick all of the previous night. “On the day of the fight I said: ‘What did you eat today?’ He said: ‘I had a massive jacket potato with tuna.’ He also told me that after the weigh-in he’d had a vegetable curry. Anyway, the morning after the decision went against him I knocked on his hotel door and saw these brown paper bags left outside. I opened one of them and there was this uneaten jacket potato and tuna.
“I already knew something weren’t quite right because in the dressing room before the fight there was no snap, no strength, no urgency. It just wasn’t Michael. So that morning the penny dropped and I said: ‘Look, you need to come clean with what’s going on.’ So he told me about the curry, which doesn’t agree with him, and that he was on the toilet for 24 hours. Not only did he not eat a thing before the fight he couldn’t even hold water down.
“I said: ‘Mike, that’s crazy.’ He said: ‘I thought you’d pull me out.’ So I said: ‘Mike, this is where you’re thinking with a young brain. We could have got you Diarolyte to put things back into you and hold your water and Imodium to make everything solid. The chances are 90 per cent you could have fought. And if we’d pulled you out, what’s the difference? You’re still going to get on every show we do.’”
Michael joins us at ringside after an impressive spar against Idris Virgo whom Hennessy has also just signed. “I ended up weighing myself before I left for the venue,” he remembers of that fateful night when he lost to Stewart. “I weighed lighter than I did the day before, at the weigh-in. But I didn’t say anything to anyone. I just thought: ‘All the hard work’s been done. I’ll still be all right.’”
The 21-year-old smiles sadly. “But I wasn’t sharp. I came out and got hit with a jab straightaway. I was like: ‘What’s going on here?’ I didn’t feel myself. I was so lethargic.”
Hennessy Jnr had also changed his style just before the fight and, rather than box in his usual relaxed way, he had become muddled in his thinking after some experienced former fighters urged him to keep his hands up. “Of course when Richie Woodall and George Groves are giving me advice I’m going to take it on board,” Hennessy Jnr says. “They’ve been there and done it but at the same time, they’re not with me day-in, day-out, and they don’t care about me as much as my dad and [his trainer] Junior Saba. They’re the two I should be listening to because they know when I put my gloves up I stiffen up and don’t use my head as much.”
The young boxer and his dad are both convinced that he still did enough to win but the aftermath crushed him. “I was so upset, I was crying my eyes out because boxing means so much to me.”
Hennessy Snr says: “That’s the hardest part of being the dad of a fighter – when he’s struggling. I could see how hurt he was. He knows I’d run through a brick wall for him in this business which is full of corruption and bad judgments. But Michael is now in a very good place.”
His son stresses how much he was helped after his loss. “We’re very close, all the fighters and my dad’s whole team. The next day Isaac and Junior both came into my room. I was in a bad way. They really cheered me up and put things into perspective. Isaac told me that after the Okolie fight everyone around him disappeared. Even his girlfriend left him. He had no-one, whereas I’ve got so much love around me. It really made me understand how lucky I am.
“I went away for a week to Cornwall with friends, completely switched off and when I got back I was ready to go again. I had relit the fire in my belly. Losing has given me the kick up the backside I need and it’s made me a lot more spiteful in the ring. I can’t wait to reach another level.”
At six pm it’s dark and cold on a December evening. But, inside the gym, the rejuvenated father and son are lit up with passion for the fight game. “It gives me such a lift,” Hennessy Snr says. “We’ve got such a tight-knit team and it’s great seeing that loyalty to each other. It’s what I love about boxing and it’s how it should always be. We know this business is full of manipulating and poaching. It’s easy to lose heart but I feel excited about boxing again. After all the tough times we have so much to look forward to now.”