This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine
WHEN attending a big event or watching it on TV, I always feel a slight sense of unease as my mind cannot come to terms with the fact that thousands of people are going to gather together, drink alcohol, in some cases, and will have to be kept in check by a smaller number of people.
Ring or pitch invasions, however benevolent, hammer home the point that spectators could erupt en masse, piling past the police and the other people charged with keeping the peace. It is an uneasy equilibrium.
In the modern world, we also have to contend with the lingering threat of terror. Not just from bomb-makers, either, as modern day terrorists can and have used cars, knives and other items to spread fear and do damage. It renders difficult security issues almost impossible, to the point where you just have to do what you can on your watch and hope that the measures put in place are enough.
Former British heavyweight contender Clifton Mitchell has been doing just that since launching his company Security Alert UK in 2002. The Managing Director, Mitchell and his team are a familiar, reassuring sight for boxing fans, but they faced their stiffest emotional and logistical test yet when working Kell Brook’s IBF welterweight title defence against America’s Errol Spence Jnr at Sheffield’s Bramall Lane football ground on May 27.
It was boxing’s first major event following the previous Monday’s bombing at the Manchester Arena, a popular boxing venue and one that is familiar to Mitchell’s team, which added an extra air of poignancy to a defining week, one that he feels they passed with flying colours.
“It was a week of paperwork, and a lot of people were involved, so I’m proud we have the quality of staff and the qualifications to do that,” he said when speaking to Boxing News about a testing time. “If we didn’t come up to scratch with our risk assessments the show wouldn’t have gone on.”
With that said, he handed it over to the people who work for him and with him to give the story behind the story that was Brook-Spence Jnr: “It was terrible as we have close links with Manchester Arena, we’ve done about 50 events there so know the staff and the management,” said Simon Roberts, Security Alert’s Operations Manager. “I was getting text messages throughout the night [of the bombing]. I didn’t sleep, none of us did, because we’ve got friends at that Arena. You feel terrible for people. Your first thoughts are with the families. Imagine sending your wife or daughter off to see a concert and getting a phone call telling you they are not coming back. You can’t imagine that pain.”
With Sheffield looming, Roberts knew what they had to do next. “It is all about stepping up, you’ve got a job to do,” he added. “You have to work hard, be professional and when you have a disgusting incident like we saw in Manchester you become more mindful about what’s around you: the people, the surroundings, the building, everything.”
Neal Harding is their Boxing Security Manager. He outlined the logistical challenges they faced throughout that crucial week. “We drove from London to Sheffield on Tuesday morning,” he recalled. “From Tuesday through to Friday we were in five- and six-hour meetings with the South Yorkshire Police,
so it was pretty intense.
“[They were] very helpful, very open. They took on board what we had to say, as we are experts about boxing shows security-wise and they weren’t. They said: ‘Look, you know what you are doing’. We’d planned for the event, but we hadn’t planned for such a big operation – that Monday night changed it all for us.
“We sat down with the top counter terrorism officer for the north of the country, who told us that this event was now their number one priority. That brought it all into focus for everyone, made them realise how important it is. We had really good communication between us, the stadium and the police, so the relationships we built up in the weeks before it really did help.”
Another man who knew the importance of the event was Frank Smith. Matchroom’s Head of Boxing takes the issue of security extremely seriously and adopts a hands-on approach, walking around the outside of the stadium with Roberts and Harding on fight night as they did their final checks.
“Every show we do has a higher security presence than most events you would go to,” stated Smith. “I control it with the assistance of Simon and Neal from SAUK, so I’ll lead the meetings at our end and speak with specialists in that area, such as experts in crowd safety. We like to have that high police presence as it gives people assurance when they arrive at an event.
“A lot of the time, it is down to the venues to handle the liaison with the police, as they do that week in and week out, but Bramall Lane had never had a boxing event in recent times. They knew it was our speciality and that we understand the audience.
“It was all about the number of police needed to run the event safely. It wasn’t that we didn’t want the event to not go ahead, we just wanted it to happen safely. Postponement-wise, we always worked on the assumption that this event was going to happen. There were some worrying times due to the climate in the country – the threat level went up to critical – so that came into our planning. You just don’t know what is going to happen in this day and age so we treat it the same whether we have a thousand or 90,000 people.”
With time ticking by, there were initial concerns that the show might have had to be cancelled. Fans in attendance on the night did not know just how uncertain things had been earlier in the week.
“Sheffield was 50-50 at one point, we ended up going from 75-80 staff to 150 in the space of days because we wanted to make the stadium really secure by having more people,” revealed Roberts.
The British Boxing Board of Control’s Robert Smith was also involved. He worked closely with all parties to make sure that he could sign off from the Board’s side of things. “In Sheffield, I went to three meetings along with Frank because of the terrible incidents of the previous weekend,” he said. “Every time a new venue is used, we do an assessment of it along with the promoter to make sure we satisfied with regards to things such as security. The police are in charge on an event like that, you have discussions, but they will tell you what will happen. Happily, everyone agreed on what was put forward. There was a number of armed officers and sniffer dogs, which was unusual.
“The issue that weekend was that there was a lot of activity around the country – we had the FA Cup final and other events – and the police resources were heavily used. You would usually pull in people from different areas, they were all busy, so it was a challenging weekend.”
Following the SAG (Safety Advisory Group) meeting on the Friday, where all the parties detail their plans, it was left to Smith, on behalf of Matchroom and the football club’s safety officer, to confirm that they were happy to proceed with the event. Promoter Eddie Hearn also played a part via Twitter by asking fans in attendance to leave their bags at home in a bid to expedite security checks, a ploy that worked out well for all involved.
Boxing crowds are generally well behaved, but there’s always the people swaggering around venues reeking of testosterone and forgetting that the fighting should be confined to the ring. Plus fight nights are not as straightforward as football matches when it comes to crowd control.
“The difference between football and boxing, and which we discussed in the meeting, is that in football you have two sets of supporters – a large home contingent of home supporters and a smaller contingent of away – but in boxing you have supporters supporting different boxers, so that issue was raised,” revealed Robert Smith.
Clifton’s team usually deals with inner-ringside, the fighters and VIPs, yet they were given special dispensation to help out in the stands for Sheffield. It allowed them to quickly stamp out the night’s only sign of trouble.
“When it comes to boxing, two men trying to hurt each other, you have lads who may have had a drink and have local rivalries so you can get it [trouble] in the stands,” added Roberts.
“At Sheffield, we had one incident with about 40 guys, so we sent some of our lads in and didn’t have any more trouble that night. It made a statement to everyone else. In the end, Sheffield was one of the safest, most trouble-free events we’ve ever had.”
However, Roberts added that it had been a physically and emotionally draining week, one that had underlined once again the importance, and danger, of what he does for a living. “It was a poignant moment [leaving for the show], I gave Jordan [his wife] an extra kiss in the morning, you give your dogs a bit of fuss and talk to people a bit more than you usually would.
“It does flash through your mind sometimes that you may not be coming home to them, but if you fold to that pressure you let these people win. People didn’t see it, but it was 2am most nights before Frank, Neal and my lot finished work. It wasn’t a case of doing the weigh-in then having a knees-up, we were still doing paperwork in the early hours of Wednesday to get the event on before we got the nod on the Thursday afternoon.
“For Neal, myself and a few of the lads it got to 1.30am on the Sunday morning, and we’re still there waiting for Spence Jr. and his team to come out. They’re feeling good, as you would do after a big win, and when that was done you feel the relief come up: your shoulders drop, the job is done and you have a few fist bumps.”
We live in turbulent times, and with boxing’s profile higher now than it has been in recent years, there is always a risk that an event could be targeted. “The way things are at the present time in the country and the world we are going to have to live with it,” was Robert Smith’s final take on the issue.
His namesake, Frank, concurred, saying: “Unfortunately, in the day and age we are in, there is no method to the madness behind these tragic events – we saw that in London as well – so you can only put things in place to put it off as much as possible. That’s what we will continue to do.
“The measures have to always be in place so we can have a safe event for the people who come to the shows.”