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Saudi Arabia gives boxing a chance to reinvent itself

Francis Ngannou (left) fighting Tyson Fury in Riyadh last year for the heavyweight title Reuters/Ahmed Yosri
Francis Ngannou (left) fighting Tyson Fury in Riyadh last year for the heavyweight title
  • Riyadh can be ‘continental fight capital’
  • Marketing echoes 1970s glory days
  • Attracting new young fans vital

World heavyweight champion Tyson Fury is no stranger to hyperbole. Thus only a few eyebrows were raised when he boldly claimed that boxing would be “dead” if it wasn’t for Saudi Arabia.

The sport was looking decidedly punch-drunk before Saudi Arabia entered the ring almost six years ago.

The first boxing card in Jeddah that night saw Callum Smith knock out George Groves, and Chris Eubank Jr stop JJ McDonagh. Ten months later, also in Jeddah, Amir Khan and Hughie Fury scored victories over Billy Dib and Samuel Peter.

Since then the heavyweight title has been on the line when Oleksandr Usyk defeated two-time champion Anthony Joshua, not once but twice, in Riyadh.

Usyk is pencilled in to face Tyson Fury in a rearranged match in May, while Joshua squares up against the former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou on Friday night.

“Until Saudi Arabia appeared on the scene, professional boxing had essentially become a unipolar sport. The big bouts and big money were essentially American,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris.

Big money indeed. Friday night’s pay-per-view bout will reportedly net Ngannou as much as $20 million, with Joshua taking home somewhere in the region of $39 million.

Mike Altamura is one of the world’s leading boxing managers, advisers and international talent scouts, and managing director at MJA Platinum, a boxing promoter based in Australia.

“A lot of people on the business side are clamouring to be linked to or find a link to the Saudis because there is an assumption that, at least for a few years, there will be an enormous windfall of money into the industry,” he says.

Saudi Arabia has also breathed new life into the marketing of boxing, with match-ups labelled as “Day of Reckoning”, “Clash on the Dunes”, and “The Truth”, a boxing contest between YouTube star Jake Paul and Tommy Fury, brother of Tyson, in February last year.

These match titles hark back to the glory days of boxing’s heavyweight division, when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 and then, a year later, when Ali and Joe Frazier met in a trilogy bout in the Philippines, famously dubbed the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’.

Chadwick says: “Over the last couple of decades, other sports have made massive strides in their commercial activities and global development, whereas boxing seems rooted in late twentieth century practices.

“Saudi money is breathing new life into boxing, though money alone doesn’t create a product that engages new generations of fans, many of whom are attracted by the likes of WWE and MMA.”

“Saudi money is breathing new life into boxing, though money alone doesn’t create a product that engages new generations of fans

Turki Alalshikh has been credited as the mastermind behind the stratospheric rise of boxing in Saudi Arabia.

In his position as the general minister for entertainment, Alalshikh and the General Entertainment Authority, which he chairs, have the job of developing, promoting and expanding tourism and entertainment in Saudi Arabia.

Altamura says: “The fact he genuinely wants to deliver the greatest fights in the sport and will put forth lucrative purses for the risk taken by the fighters and their promotional team is extremely positive for boxing.”

The Ministry of Sport and the Ministry of Tourism have set an ambitious target for sports to contribute 0.6 percent of GDP by 2030, up from approximately 0.2 percent, with the purpose of also boosting international tourism numbers.

Alalshikh is also behind the inaugural Riyadh Season World Masters of Snooker, won by the Englishman Ronnie O’Sullivan, who pocketed $250,000.

As well as snooker and boxing, Saudi Arabia is on a sport spending spree with investments in football, MMA, golf, horse racing, Formula 1, show jumping, cricket, cycling and tennis.

Chadwick cautioned that the kingdom still has some way to go to challenge the likes of Las Vegas and London for boxing supremacy.

“However,” he says, “as an AfroEurasian hub, there are immense potential opportunities ahead for Saudi Arabia, certainly as a regional or continental fight capital.”

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