Mark Neilson: Planting our flag

“They always say, ‘What age do you reckon you could take your old man?’ I don’t think I’ve got there yet; he’s 71 and he still has a bit of a rumble in the car park is somebody looks at him the wrong way…”

Swindon’s Fight Town supremo promoter, Mark Neilson, continued: “First pro fight I had seen of his, he was fighting this big heavyweight in Bristol. I see this guy and I remember saying, ‘Dad, he’s massive.’ He said, ‘Nah, don’t worry about it.’ He had that sort of menace about him, sort of like a [Mike] Tyson, menace. ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And he stopped him in the third round. It was pretty cool, to be honest.” 

The almost-mythical man mountain, Neilson’s father Eddie, could be seen in grainy black and white images, either grimacing mid-punch or posing with fists clenched, the size and apparent consistency of concrete bricks. A fearsome Swindon fighter in his pomp, Eddie Neilson shaped his son’s path to professional boxing without much deliberate intention. He tackled Joe Bugner and bravely squared off against a young Frank Bruno, fearless to a fault. And now, with the family’s promotional business burgeoning, the pair can enjoy success together. What started purely as a charity fundraising venture in the early millennium has become a powerful arm of England’s small hall boxing circuit – and Neilson Jnr tells Boxing Social they’re just getting started. 

“Listen, I’ve always thought you should make the shows really good, spend a few quid on them, that’s why people will come back. That production naturally came with us when we flipped over, but we had to start again from nothing, really. We could put a snow on at white collar [level] and in two weeks, we’d have filled it. But in the pros, we had an empty phone book. We just started to move things on around 2019, established the Fight Town brand and that was gaining momentum. We had a big show booked for March [pre-pandemic] and that all just got stopped. Coming back in at March of last year, we just carried on where we left off – we’re looking to smash it now.” 

“I own my own business,” Neilson explained, when asked if the art of crafting success came naturally. “I have done that for about 15 years. It’s a temp recruitment agency; it’s completely separate. However, we know how to brand, we know how to market, I’m a businessman and I know how to run a financial model, and I’m not an idiot. I go to other shows, and I think, ‘I like that – that works really well.’ Then, I’ll go to other shows, ‘Hmm…’ It’s the same in business: you do more of what works and less what don’t. Eventually, you get a really good product.” 

That product – no doubt a labour of love at times – looks set to test its durability, approaching several shows spread across the spring and summer months. Shows in Swindon, Bracknell, Gloucester, and London’s York Hall are scheduled to take place between April and June. The remainder of the year, maybe more of the same. Mark Neilson’s ambition is evident as he sits at home, speaking from an office, with framed pictures of other sporting successes behind him. He speaks extremely well, talking sense from a position many spout speculation, but he strikes you as a competitor. 

The other professional outfits of Neilson Boxing’s stature will have to settle for second best because he won’t allow them the wheel space to overtake: “Over time, because we work that way, as soon as we stick our dates up, we get phone calls saying, ‘Could we get our lad on one of your shows?’ We’re getting that reputation. And where we started borrowing boxers from other managers or promoters to get started, now, today, I’ve had four enquiries to get boxers onto our York Hall show – but they’re both full. ‘What about your Bracknell show?’ Sorry, it’s full. You’re in a fortunate position then because you can choose who you work with. Just because we’re all in boxing doesn’t mean everyone’s alright; you’ve gotta choose who you go to bed with, don’t you?” 

“I look at a card as a boxing fan; I look at is though I’m gonna pay for a ticket. And if the whole card is just home fighter against journey man, then what’s the point? You can watch better sparring than that. We’ve started working with Alfie Warren and they’ve got a really big stable of boxers. We said to them, ‘This is how we wanna be. We want 50-50 fights on.’ And they’re on it. They said, ‘Right, we’re telling our boxers the same thing: there’s no time to mess about now.’ They actually released some guys who just wanted to sell tickets and be boxers, and stuff. But now they’re focusing on some really good guys, and there’s some great matches coming up. We’ve got two, 10-fight cards coming up at York Hall, and I think about 50% of them are 50-50s. That’s not a bad little mix, is it?” 

No, it’s not. In the spirit of honesty, those cards are hard to build consistently. While promoters like Neilson aim for that mix, that blend, that keeps everybody happy, it becomes difficult to pit ticket sales against ambition, and if he’s as good as his word, it could define Fight Town. Neilson Boxing’s work with cruiserweight talent Luke Watkins, and now Adam Booth-trained Ryan Martin, have displayed their careful and not overly cautious guidance of a fighter’s career. But who’s next? And how do you keep talent pointed in. your direction? 

Neilson talks of Max Mudway, a promising fighter based locally, and mentions an intriguing fighter known as ‘El Gordito’ or ‘chubbsy’ after he missed weight once as an amateur. That Mexican nickname has led to a faux moustache, a sombrero during his ring walk, and murmurs of a mariachi band accompanying Lewis Roberts next time out. Building narrative and character doesn’t have to result in the cliché overselling we often see at small hall level and beyond. Fighters should know themselves where they’re at. They should retain unrivalled ambition, and hopes of overachieving, but Neilson remarks he’s seen 19-0 fighters taking beatings in the gym; they know what they are, and they know what they’re not, deep down. 

As Mark Neilson prepares to kick off his tour of southern England, he fast-forwards, telling Boxing Social what is important to him when people mention the company’s legacy: “I just wanna be remembered… I’m old enough to remember Terry Lawless, Mickey Duff, Mike Barrett. I saw something and retweeted it the other day, they’re sitting there with a cigar in a hotel lobby with a little black book matchmaking. It said ‘Legends.’ You just wanna go down as something. Who knows how big we’re gonna get? We’re still building this brand – I just want people to look back and think, ‘Yeah, they were good.’ Even if – worst case scenario – we stay the same size; I’d just want them to say, ‘Those were cracking shows, they brought some boxers through.’” 

And they’re on their way. Swindon holds boxing close to its heart, though you may not know it. And Neilson’s father, Eddie, who is still in excellent health, gets to the shows when he can. A true fighting man, I’m told he tries to avoid scrapping in car parks where possible. 

There’s a sense that it’s time for a mini boxing revolution in their part of the world, and Fight Town with Neilson Boxing is planting its flag in the soil. Thankfully, Neilson has no exit date – not with his wife’s spending plans, he tells Boxing Social. That is news, that should be welcomed, as the sport is short on good men with good intentions. Now, the only pressure is placed upon delivery of their promises…