Alan Hubbard

Agents are the bane of sport.

There are more of them around now than the KGB, MI5 and CIA have amassed in all the years they have been in existence. And they are taking over. 

I have no objection to those who take their percentage from simply assisting their clients to earn a few bob from their celebrity status but the trouble with so many of them is that they now dominate every aspect of the lives of those they purport to represent.

In football, as many club chairman will tell you, some are like leeches when it comes to dealing with transfers and terms. Even the managers have little say - and in any case they usually have agents to protect their own interests.

But what alarms me is that agents are also starting to control what appears in the media, deciding who should be permitted to conduct interviews and what questions may be asked, acting as buffers (and often quite obstructive ones) between sports personalities and journalists. Some even insist on sitting in on the interviews their clients give.

I have seen this gradually seep into many Olympic sports, and not just at elite level. Nowadays almost every Olympian worth his or her salt seems to have an agent working on their behalf even though it should be the role of governing bodies to oversee this aspect of public relations.

A recent example was a missive from a governing body offering an interview with a reigning Olympic champion from London 2012 taking part in a team GB event to coincide with it being one year to go to Rio. But the note stipulated that requests for interview had to be made through the gold medallist’s agents.   

My growing concern is that this sort of thing is now starting to happen in boxing, a sport of particular interest to me and one that always has been free of interference from these outside agencies.

Now agents are beginning to infiltrate the sport, and the worry is that they could ruin it.

Most boxers of my acquaintance don’t need mouthpieces to assist them with their media relations. They are quite capable of doing this for themselves and they have promoters and managers who are equally adept at it.

The main promoters usually employ their own media officers who happen to know the ropes better than any outside agency.

Excellent examples include Frank Warren’s Richard Maynard, Matchroom’s Anthony Leaver and GB Boxing’s Lee Murgatroyd, three pleasant guys who go out of their way to assist the media without being overbearing.

In the last few weeks, like most of my colleagues, I have been contacted by agents working with top boxers involved in championship fights offering to set up interviews apparently without the knowledge of those actually staging the bouts.

Usually, what these agents, mainly from the showbiz or corporate world,  know about boxing (like most of those involved in any sport) could be written on the back of a Wembley ticket stub.

They are fine if they stick to increasing a boxer’s earning potential from sponsorship, endorsements and public appearances but not to take over the function of those whose job is to properly publicise the fight. But boxers are big enough characters not to need having their hands held. The likes of Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Leonard, Hagler, Lewis, Calzaghe, Hatton, Khan and Mayweather and all the modern greats have never needed anyone to speak on their behalf.

It seems this disturbing trend in boxing is following the current football fashion, one that has also crept into other major sports, especially rugby, cricket and athletics.

Some of my football writer friends tell me that these days to set up an interview with a player it is not uncommon to have to go through his club manager, press officer, agent and lawyer – and then find the club is demanding ‘copy approval’. That is insistence on seeing the article before it is published and removing anything they don’t like.

If that now happens in boxing, a sport which feeds on publicity, it will be the beginning of the end game.

If I ever encounter a boxer with a PR minder sitting across the lunch table or in the dressing room ’vetting’ the questions in a pre-arranged one-on-one, that interview will be quickly terminated. And I have no doubt this goes for most of my colleagues.

It hasn’t happened in the past and it must not start happening now, otherwise an already marginalised sport will receive even less publicity than the sadly decreasing amount it gets in public prints besotted by football.

Unfortunately, save for blockbuster title fights, boxing is no longer the major player it once was in the national press.

Which is a pity. Because of all those I have encountered in more than 50 years of covering a myriad of sports, including a dozen Olympics, the most media-friendly folk are those in boxing.

I have always found boxers the most engaging and co-operative of personalities. Indeed, it is hard to think of one I have haven’t actually liked.

Well, maybe one or two were a bit difficult….

Mike Tyson was a Jekyll and Hyde. Nice as American apple pie one day, brimming with bonhomie and waxing intelligently and knowledgeably on boxing history – and an absolute a******* the next. A total schizophrenic.

Mike Tyson was a 'Jekyll and Hyde' character
Mike Tyson was a 'Jekyll and Hyde' character ©Getty Images

It is no secret that the other Tyson – a certain Mr Fury – and I don’t rub along. We did once but that was before I requested he stopped using lewd language in front of an audience which included women and children. His response was to spew out another mouthful of sewage which resulted in a £15,000 fine and another reprimand from the Board of Control.

I suspect he hasn’t forgiven me getting him hit where it hurts most - in the pocket.

Fury is the Millwall of boxing. Even if nobody likes him, he doesn’t care. Fair enough. I still wish him well against Wladimir Klitschko - himself like his brother Vitali, a true scholar and gentleman of the ring.

The narcissistic Naseem Hamed could be truly nauseating at times, making offensive gestures to opponents and outrageously proselytizing his religion.

Unlike Muhammad Ali, who, as we know, was a media person’s delight, his trainer Angelo Dundee once telling us when we asked to speak with the great man for ten minutes that he never spoke to anyone for less than an hour.

Sonny Liston was usually more sullen than sunny but on the whole media-savvy American fighters have been a dream to deal with.

An exception was the heavyweight Jim Fletcher, brought over to face Brian London in 1969. A longshoreman from San Francisco, Fletcher was uncharacteristically surly and uncommunicative when we attempted to interview him before the fight in Blackpool.

Some time later we learned why. The promoter, the late Lawrie Lewis, confessed to us that he had offered Fletcher a substantial ‘bung’ to take a dive. But Fletcher’s reaction was one of fury, angrily spurning the attempted bribe. He was clearly still seething when he took just over a minute to batter London and KO him in the opening round.

London, still alive and punching in Blackpool at 81, could be pretty hard going himself at times. He seemed to have an innate suspicion of those from the city of his surname.

But he was always good for a quirky quote, once remarking that “us boxers are just prawns in the game”

It was 49 years ago that he fought, and I use the term loosely, against Ali at Earls Court. London entered the ring looking like a man heading for the gallows. I swear his knees were knocking as he waited for the bell.

London was KO'd in three rounds, offering minimum resistance, afterwards admitting he went into the ring for a pay day, knowing he had no chance of winning. But he had a dry sense of humour. Years later, when the subject came up of whether Ali’s Parkinson’s affliction was brought about by boxing, London quipped: “Don’t blame me. I never laid a glove on him.” Nor did he.

Chippy Carl Froch was another who made it clear in his autobiography that  he never thought much of the media – though he is now part of it as a TV pundit.

Yet in fairness he was always courteous and ready to accommodate us for interviews, and was never less than straight-talking if sometimes irritatingly acerbic about fellow fighters.

Carl Froch is now part of the media as a TV pundit
Carl Froch is now part of the media as a TV pundit ©Getty Images

It has always been a pleasure to deal with the fight fraternity and long may it be so.

Certainly to my knowledge no boxer has ever asked to be paid for an interview to boost a fight.

My fear is that this may change as the hard-nosed, commercially-motivated agents from outside the game move in on the old traditions. If it does, it will be to boxing’s detriment.

Boxers don’t need mouthpieces other than those they clamp between their teeth before the bell rings.