JEDDAH: The dust has settled on the World Boxing Super Series final and the circus has rolled out of town. However, in 20 years’ time, will people just be fondly reminiscing about that anomalous professional boxing event in Saudi Arabia, or will the Kingdom have emerged as a boxing hub in the Middle East?
The latter is of course the goal of the Saudi General Sports Authority (GSA) and their partners, but for this acorn to become a mighty oak it needs the right environment to grow.
Fortunately, before the World Boxing Super Series — which saw Callum Smith beat George Groves to claim the WBA super-middleweight title — arrived and now after its departure, Jeddah can call on a number of people who possess a passion for pugilism. People who are ready to continue nurturing the sport of boxing in the city, and the Kingdom.
Those involved at the grassroots level have previously had a somewhat thankless task. Earning even an iota of recognition was made near impossible by Saudi Arabians’ obsessive love of football. But there is now genuine hope that this could change.
American Anthony Duncan saw first-hand at King Abdullah Sports City the transformative effect of boxing. He began training Saudi boxer Abdulfatah Julaidan eight years ago. On Friday, he watched Julaidan make history as the first man to win a professional bout on Saudi soil. After the fight, children crowded around asking for selfies and autographs; it appeared a fire had been lit.
“Of course we hope that the impact of this night will be felt for many years to come,” Duncan told Arab News. “Many people weren’t sure what they were going to get but after watching it up close and personal I know they’ll be aspiring to become a champion.
“I started training Abdulfatah in his living room in 2010. We have moved around since then but even now we still just train in a basement. Out of that basement we have produced Jiu-jitsu, boxing and kickboxing champions — imagine what we could do if we had a proper set-up?
“We want to go to the next level, but you need money for that. You need someone to believe in you, to put the money up to support you. We’ve been underground for so many years but maybe now we’ll be able to go mainstream and do something for real.”
Exposure to boxing in Jeddah generally comes either this way — informal gatherings of friends training together — or through classes at bigger, multi-functional gyms. Fahad Bin Khalid is a boxing and fitness coach at Arena Gym, a sprawling, modern facility in the city’s Al-Nahdah district. Since the World Boxing Super Series first began appearing on billboards in Jeddah, he has fielded more and more enquiries. Now, he is hoping for a deluge.
“Those who knew boxing and coached boxing were obviously very aware of the event but it has been heartening to see the interest from people who didn’t know about boxing before,” Bin Khalid explained to Arab News.
“Funnily enough, I think Conor McGregor vs Floyd Mayweather was what first sparked interest — it created a first wave of casual boxing fans. When people watch it, they want to be part of it and I believe we will see this after Friday’s fight night.
“It has been difficult for boxing to break through because (football) is so unbelievably popular. Even volleyball and basketball would be ahead of boxing. Also, I think people have not participated because of religious and cultural reasons; Islam tells us not to hit someone in the face. But that idea is now changing — people see that if it is for competition and honor, it is fine.”
Halah Alhramani has also been fighting against cultural perceptions to encourage people to box. She founded Jeddah-based gym FlagBoxing with the aim of empowering women through boxing and kickboxing. Her gym has received a wave of global media coverage but it is domestic curiosity that she most cares about.
“The World Boxing Super Series definitely captured people’s attention because it was the first event of its kind,” Alhamrani told Arab News. “I was particularly delighted to see that many women attended the fight and am excited to see how women will react to the sport.
“I’ve found that women are really excited about combat sports — and that was even before this event. But having a fight happen in Saudi Arabia should push that interest even further. Eventually we hope to see a platform for ladies to also enter competition.
“Among everyone in the boxing community, both men and women, there is certainly a belief that this could just the beginning.”