By: Oliver McManus
“One of my really good mates died in 2012 and I remember that the last conversation we had was about going to see John Wayne Hibbert fight in Doncaster against Tommy Coward. I’ve always been a big boxing fan, that’s obvious, but I thought I’d do a charity boxing show in his memory. We sold it out, about 800 tickets, and raised £10,000 for charity. Went away from that and, to be honest, thought ‘hold up, if I can raise £10,000 for charity, why can’t I raise it for myself’. Obviously I’m not doing that yet but the basis is the same.”
The voice at the end of the phone was Lee Eaton, the face of MTK Global’s promotional arm, his route into promotion was not conventional and, by his own admissions, almost accidental. You could say it was a lucky break but there was nothing lucky about the initial circumstances that have led him to where he is.
Fortunate enough to have, management giants, MTK Global behind him, Lee doesn’t hide that his life has been made easier by their presence,
“When you have got a team like MTK behind you it makes it a lot easier. I have started from scratch, like most of us do, building the contacts but MTK put you on a different platform. It has surprised me how far we’ve come as a team, it’s not just me, but I believe we have come very far in the last two years. MTK, or MGM as it was, were big before I was around so that’s helped a lot.
I wouldn’t say we’ve got any direct competitors (on the promotional scene) because we’re doing our thing and have our own market. In the South, I would say it’s me and Steve Goodwin who are doing the biggest and best shows, doing the most as well. Don’t get me wrong, across the country, Stefy Bull, Carl Greaves, Errol Johnson for BCB, everyone is on the same sort of level and bringing their own thing. They’d probably agree, though, we are different and target different areas. MTK, I believe, do things a bit different. ”
A case in point, that Lee spoke strongly about, was their repeated desire for in-house fights to take place. Of course this occurs throughout various promotions but Eaton felt that MTK were at the forefront of this,
“Why give other fighters our opportunities when we’ve got plenty of my guys who deserve that opportunity. That’s the way we view it we’d rather give our own fighters the opportunities to further their career. We don’t force them into it, if they don’t fancy it, they don’t fancy it. I’d rather see two MTK fighters headlining a show than MTK vs someone else. They know, win or lose, we’ll take care of them afterwards so why wouldn’t you want that opportunity for your own fighters?”.
Conversation quickly moved onto plans for 2019, in particular the 24 ‘Premium Fight Night’s’ streamed live on iFL. Despite some noteworthy figures suggesting the streaming model could negatively impact on fighter finances, Eaton insisted the agreement is beneficial.
“It’s brilliant, it’s great for MTK Global. 24 shows we’re officially doing, from February 22nd we’re doing six weekends in a row, two week break, then four in a row again. It’s non-stop, I think we might push past 24 and head towards 30. Ever since I’ve started with MTK we’ve provided live coverage of some sort. People say it affects ticket sales, sometimes it does, but we still sell out. We sold out our first show at York Hall and people know that there is nothing like going to the show, in person, being in the crowd. From our perspective they are different markets and being able to stream live is fantastic, especially being able to build off the existing iFL audience.”
With three shows officially announced, thus far, but plans and fights in place until the middle of May, Eaton will promote more than his fair share of contests but March 9th is a card, as he told me, could “steal the show”.
“Michael McKinson vs Ryan Kelly is going to be a cracker, the easiest fight I’ve ever made. It was two phone calls and both guys jumped at it. We’ve got some really good contests, though, Sakyi vs Hill is another cracker. Welterweight’s are booming and I believe Michael McKinson is going to make a big, big statement this year. He’s seriously talented, I didn’t quite appreciate it until I saw him in with McNess. Sakyi was never meant to win that fight against Siar Ozgul, he did in dramatic circumstances, and now we’re guiding his career.”
The mention of Siar Ozgul proved a nice segue into discussing Eaton’s day-to-day role – matchmaking – and in particular I asked him about Ozgul’s fight against Viktor Postol. That particular bout was subject to a barrage of criticism but Lee explained to me why he felt the response was disproportionate,
“Look we got a phone call and Siar immediately said yes, he didn’t want to know about the money, he said ‘I fight, I win’. Then it’s our job to sort out a suitable purse and get the fight on, Siar was over the moon with what he got, everyone thought he’d get stopped but he want 10 rounds and didn’t look out of place. He’ll be back February 22nd, might get the winner of Sakyi vs Hill, we might go bigger.
There was huge criticism, a big backlash, people criticised me for accepting the fight. I’d never put a fighter in a situation where I think they’d get unnecessarily hurt. I knew how tough Siar was and is, if he got stopped he wouldn’t have got hurt because he’s tough enough to take a punch.”
Ozgul returns on February 22nd, at York Hall, and on that card is Sultan Zaurbek, a Kazakh fighter promoted by MTK. Thinking out loud, I suggested to the promoter that I’d been more impressed with Saurbek than, his hype-laden compatriot, Daniyar Yeleussinov.
“Yeah, him and Nurtas Azhbenov are great, great fighters. I’m in a group chat and we speak daily, they’re great kids and it’s a pleasure to work with them. I agree on Yeleusisnov, he’s not been all that but I don’t doubt he’ll transition well as time goes on, Sultan is one that I think will get people talking this year. I know he impressed on the Matchroom Monte Carlo show and 2019 will be great for him. No-one gets any special treatment, regardless of pedigree, they’re all treated the same and we’ll look after them the same. For me, though, keep an eye on Sultan this year.”
The day to day difficulties that the London man has to deal with are ones of matchmaking, trying to find the right guys for Sultan and the rest of his prospects is, by admission, one that takes up most of his time.
“You get these kids who say ‘I’ll fight him, I’ll fight anyone’ and you offer them a fight, they’ll make an excuse. The main issue I have these days is actually trainers, they’re more protective of the ‘0’s’ than the actual boxers. With Josh Adewale, we were putting opponents in, after the original pulled out, and they were getting okayed by Josh but they were getting sent back by the board of control. Then we had a couple approved, terms agreed, the fighters pulled out. All this on the week of the show. I had this last year with Joe Sherriff, I think it was four opponents pulled out and I was still trying to find him names on the Friday.
We have deadlines, you have to have paperwork at the board by 16.00 two days beforehand, to bring in a foreign boxer. It is horrible having to say that to one of my guys, that we can’t get them a fight, after all that training. Worst part of the job, it’s horrible”.
With each passing show comes a renewed hiccup, such is the inevitable nature of boxing, and with Lee estimating he spends 75% of his weekends on the road, it was a poignant reminder of how much of a bedrock his family is.
“I don’t need recognition, I’m happy doing the job that I love.The missus hates boxing, she used to come with me, but I think I’ve turned her off it. She comes to some of my shows but, other than that, I think her and boxing is a relationship that’s over. My little boy and my missus are my world, nothing compares. He’s my miracle kid, four years old. It’s always good to remember what matters in life and they keep me grounded.”