By Terence Dooley
“I had no PR background, no legal background, no academic background whatsoever,” said Brighton-born, Brentwood-based Andy Ayling when talking to BoxingScene about the modest beginnings of a journey that eventually led to over two decades at the top of British boxing. A former PR man for Matchroom and Frank Maloney, Ayling is the Event Manager for Frank Warren. His boxing bildungsroman saw him go from watching comedy videos with Chris Eubank prior to a huge fight to witnessing first-hand the tragicomedy of Mike Tyson’s hectic life.
“I bunked off most of my final School year and I didn't turn up for my exams,” added the 46-year-old. “I either laid in bed, went fishing or sat at the back of the local magistrates court—they never thought of looking there and everyone thought you were on a school project.
“Then I went from school to a top end clothes shop on a YTS scheme. Jobs were scarce in the early eighties, but clothes and trainers were important. Back then, it was all about logos, labels and going to football home and away on a Saturday, usually dressed up like Tony Jacklin or Bjorn Borg, so a good discount helped me to get the best clobber even though the wages were crap. You had to wear at least £250, a lot back then, of clothing or you couldn't go out with my crowd—that was the rule in old-school Essex. After that, I ended up working in a landscaping company and I also did some tarmacing.
“A guy who worked in the yard had a contract with a big sports centre in Brentwood and he said he needed someone on site full time to look after the complex’s facilities. Eventually, I became assistant manager of the whole complex. Around about that time I first bumped into [Matchroom’s] Barry Hearn when he was arranging the Gary Mason versus Jess Harding [Mason W TKO 2 in 1989] fight in the town.
“I started writing around looking for alternative jobs in that sort of world and out of the blue got a call from Michelle, Barry’s PA. I went up to see him in Romford, I didn’t know what the job even was, I hated snooker so luckily he said he wanted me to work on the press and PR side of the Boxing department—I sort of hit the ground running.”
And then some, a few months later he was looking after Eubank during the days leading up to his epic encounter with Nigel Benn at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre in September 1990.
“All the way through, he was telling everyone that he’d win the fight,” recalled Ayling. “Chris, [Eubank’s trainer] Ronnie [Davies] and me sat there the night before watching Terry Thomas films and Blackadder. Not a lot of people know this, but a lot of the stuff he used to do was modelled on Terry Thomas, the old cad bit. He was as cool as a cucumber.
“The night of the fight, about six o’clock, the crowd were turning up and he says: ‘I want to go for a walk’. Ronnie said: ‘You can’t go for a walk, it’s a bit late’, but he wanted to do it, and you don’t want to upset the fighter so close to the fight.
“Chris put on a long black coat and sunglasses. We walked through the car park at the NEC. It was strange because people walking into the venue were looking then looking again as if to say: ‘It can’t be’. We got to a pedestrian underpass. He stopped, stood there, puffed his chest out, took up a massive gulp of air, and nodded his head and said: ‘Right, Davies, I’m ready’. That’s the moment I thought: ‘He is going to win this’ [Eubank won by ninth-round stoppage].
“Not a lot of people gave him a chance, it was all about Benn, who was the star at the time, but when they waved it off there’s one crazy fella dressed in a beige suit, jumping about next to Steve Lillis, that was me, he’d actually done it. That clip still makes Chris laugh and after that we had a great bond and still have. I had a great time with Chris and Ronnie.”
Despite a close relationship with Eubank, or more likely because of it, Ayling attracted the negative attention of a few of the older hands over at Matchroom HQ. In late 1992, his dream job was snatched away from him. To add insult to injury, the PR man’s normally sound knack of sussing out a major opportunity failed to kick in when an up-and-coming young fighter, who had also split with Matchroom, approached him.
“It was the undercard of Billy Schwer and Paul Burke at the Wembley Conference Centre [in Febraury 1993], in between working for Barry and Frank Maloney, there was one man and his dog that night watching the undercard,” he said.
“I was sat with Ernie Draper. Naz [Hamed] fought [KO 2 over Alan Ley]. He gets out of the ring, sees me and walks up in his gear to ask me what’s happening. He actually said: ‘I wouldn’t mind you being my PR manager’. I told him I was too busy looking for a job—looking back that was like the bloke who turned The Beatles down.”
Ayling picked up some work for Maloney on an “ad hoc basis” in early 1993, something he said he will always be grateful for. This led to a chance meeting that changed his life forever.
“I ended up in Vegas with them, we worked on a show at the Riveria and then when [Lennox] Lewis fought [Tony] Tucker,” he said. “I was in the bar one night at the Mirage. I broke away from the press crowd and saw Frank [Warren] sat on his own, so I did what you did when you see someone abroad from your own country, I offered him a drink. When I got back, I think Steve Bunce had put a word in and I got a call from Frank’s secretary asking if I’d go up and see him. I told Frank Maloney about it—I’m not the type of person who would go behind people’s back and especially one who had helped me—and within half-an-hour Frank asked if I wanted to work for him.
“I instantly liked Frank, he was nothing like I’d expected or that I had heard, from the off he made you feel welcome and the people in his office were team players. [Matchmaker] Ernie Fossey was great too and a refreshing change from his Matchroom counterparts. Frank was re-emerging after the backend of the London Arena and the shooting backlash, so I cracked on with the press stuff.
“I had kept in contact with a few fighters from Matchroom and they soon came across, the likes of Scott Welch, Clifton Mitchell, Chris Pyatt and some others. I remember Clifton came up for a meeting with Frank, because Frank didn’t have a heavyweight. Frank wasn’t over-enthused and knew little of him, but I said: ‘He’s good friends with Naseem, so if you look after Clifton I’m sure it’ll get back to Naseem’, who at that time had fallen out with Barry and was languishing on Micky Duff undercards.
“Sure enough, Brendan Ingle and Naz came, and Frank knew he had something very special to work with. Around the same time, we put together the featherweight round robin with Steve Robinson, Colin McMillan, Paul Hodkinson and Duke McKenzie on ITV. Frank soon got back to the top of the tree. A couple of years later Nigel Benn and Eubank both came over, followed by Frank Bruno—the big shows came thick and fast.”
Warren and Hamed formed a successful relationship until Naz opted to strike out on his own in 1999. Then his ego imploded ahead of his April 2001 fight with Marco Antonio Barrera, a decision defeat and Naz’s only loss.
“In my opinion Naseem Hamed was possibly the greatest fighter this country ever had, if he had stayed on track and with Brendan, I really don’t think even Barrera would have touched him,” insisted Ayling. “I remember thinking that the only person that would beat Naz would be Naz and sadly that became a fact.
“He was something unique. No fighter has even been worth as much commercially as Naz without being a heavyweight—he was an exceptional talent and a promoters dream. We used to get TV sales and sponsorship from countries where they still point at aeroplanes—that kid was a phenomenon. I don’t think we will ever see his like again.”
Ayling told me that one of the things he admires most about the man he calls both boss and friend is his entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take a risk.
“I remember Frank going over to meet Klaus-Peter Kohl when Frank had Herbie Hide and Vitali Klitschko was the mandatory for the WBO title. Frank went over there and got into a bidding war over the table with Peter. Come hell or high water he wanted home advantage for Herbie Hide and wasn’t going to concede.
“We got to the airport and he got a napkin from the bar table, we did the figures on the napkin. I kept saying: ‘Frank, let’s go home and do it on the computer,’ but he said it was going to work. Frank did £500,000 on that show just to deliver Herbie home advantage.
“There are many occasions in the past where Frank’s lost money to get the home advantage because he sees the bigger picture should the right man win. He knows it’s costing a fortune, but he’ll get it back down the road if the win happens. More often than not Frank calls it right: [Frank] Bruno [W12 over Oliver McCall], [Ricky] Hatton [W RTD 11 against Kostya Tszyu] and Ricky Burns [W12 over Roman Martinez] are three examples.
“I’m not too sure that Eddie [Hearn] works on that principle, like his dad he has an account’s eye. If he looks at it and it doesn’t work he won’t do it. Boxing isn’t like that, you have to gamble in boxing sometimes to do what is best for the fighter. Frank is a manager and a promoter and, with BoxNation, he doesn't have to answer to a TV company who know less than him about the workings if the sport.
“Can you imagine Darren Barker being with us, winning a world title and going to Germany to make the first defence—it is unheard of. It’s TV facilitating and easy money, but that’s not doing the best for your fighter. It’s probably making the most money with the least hassle, but that's not what Boxing is about.”
Ayling’s worked with the cream of British boxing, but he also had the dubious pleasure of dealing directly with Mike Tyson when he boxed in Britain twice in 2000.
“The first time Tyson came over [for a second-round stoppage of Julius Francis at Manchester’s M.E.N. Arena] he was a dream,” he said. “Sociable, kind, polite and did everything you asked him to do. It was a media charm offensive and he was great company, although twice he was warned for calling me G.I Jane!”
“Getting Tyson through the crowd at the airport that first time was like the old Beatlemania thing. The terminal was so packed with photographers that even Baby Spice came through and no one took a photo, the same happened with George Michael. They were so transfixed on waiting for the infamous Mike Tyson.
“He could turn very quickly, but could also be a nice guy who you could have a laugh and a joke with. I was in the hotel room opposite him, so it was a bit of a bolt the door job, especially when he was banging on my door at 3am claiming to have lost his cat.
“The second time, he must have sent his evil twin. To say he was a monster would be an absolute understatement. He was awkward and horrendous [when he did Lou Savarese in one at Glasgow’s Hampden Park], but I could approach him, albeit cautiously. It wasn’t pleasant—it was literally like walking on eggshells around him.
“After the fight, he wanted to return to London to hit the clubs, and Mike Tyson can’t just hop on Easy Jet, you have to speak to the police and airport security just to move someone like him around. We had a terrible time with his Visa just getting him into the UK, again, and there was no way we could afford to let him get back to a melee in London with his massive entourage and truck load of luggage.
“In the end, I spoke to a top policeman up there who had the balls to tell Mike that his Visa had expired that night and he had to leave the country the next day. Tyson didn’t like it, then loses his passport and says: ‘I can’t go now, I’ve lost my passport’. The policeman says in a broad Scots accent: ‘Nah bother, Mr Tyson, you don’t need a passport to get on a plane here, we’ll put you straight on it’, and that was it.”
Ayling himself has the manic energy of Ade Edmondson, and could strike you as intimidating if it wasn’t for the glint of humour in his eyes and the sense that he is a man who loves his job. However, one or two people refer to him as the “Beast of Brentwood” due to his fearsome reputation.
“I don’t know where that comes from, probably [Warren’s Press Officer] Richard Maynard” he said. “I stand my ground and shout my corner, but I’m certainly not a bulldog, by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, I holler at people, but you have to remember that it’s a very high-pressure job and I like things done properly. In my spare time, I’m actually a qualified football referee so have to remain calm in the face of some serious antagonising and am actually quite good at defusing situations. People ask me why would anyone want to referee football: ‘After a week in boxing it is positively relaxing’ is my usual reply.
“On the night of an event there’s a million things going on, and most of them come in my direction. On fight night, the three people that get everything brought to them are me, Dean Powell and Mike Goodall, so the way I’d describe it is I can work under pressure, but don’t knock me off my rails. I know how I want things done, so if I’ve arranged something and someone messes it up then, yeah, it pisses me off because I’ve put my effort into it and someone’s ruffled my feathers.”
Andy's had a tough time of it lately, but he's still swinging away and his enthusiasm for the sport certainly isn't ailing—"The Beast" is still on the prowl.
Ayling will provide us with more insights into the sport as well as discussing the death of his close friend Dean Powell in Part Two. He also appeared in the January 2014 issue of Boxing Monthly, click on the following link to pick up a copy:
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