A dizzying stream of wide-ranging boxing media flooded the airwaves and web pages recently. With the number of press conferences, media scrums and weigh-ins on offer, you may have been forgiven for thinking it was another blockbuster boxing event in Las Vegas.
Look again. Saudi Arabia hosted “The Truth” boxing contest between YouTube sensation Jake Paul and successor to boxing family royalty, Tommy Fury, brother of heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, in Diriyah, Riyadh. The Kingdom produced an event to rival, if not surpass, any boxing extravaganza seen elsewhere in recent years.
Boxing has enjoyed a rich and long-lasting connection to Saudi Arabia. The sport’s most iconic figure, Mohammed Ali, first came to KSA in 1972 to perform Hajj. The visit proved to be a turning point for the champion, as he later reflected to Saudi newspaper Madinah in 1989: “I have had many nice moments in my life, but the feelings I had while standing on Mount Arafat on the day of Hajj was the most unique.”
Tariq Al-Maeena, a sociopolitical commentator from Jeddah, vividly remembers one such visit Ali made to the Kingdom: “Not long after he retired, Mohammed Ali came to Jeddah…for Umrah. During a private visit to my brother’s home, I asked him if his retirement was a result of age catching up and slowing him down. Without a word, he got up and walked to the center of the room, where he demonstrated the ‘Ali Shuffle,’ all the time whipping out that stinging jab off his hands — floating like a butterfly, indeed. I realized then that I was in the presence of not a man, but a legend. God bless him.”
Rasheda Ali, the boxing legend’s daughter, has followed in her father’s footsteps in both her love of the sport and her appreciation of Saudi Arabia. She made the trip to Jeddah in 2018, presenting the Mohammed Ali trophy to British boxer Callum Smith over his knockout of George Groves in King Abdullah Sports City Arena, Jeddah. Advocating cultural change like her father before her, Rasheda commented to Arab News on the opportunities boxing provides to women in the Kingdom: “I think this is just the beginning, and it’s only going to get better for Saudi women. The future is bright for Saudi women moving forward.”
British Somali boxer Ramla Ali has become emblematic of this change, becoming the first to win a professional woman’s boxing fight in Saudi Arabia. Boxer, model and Nike Athlete Partner, Ramla demonstrates her intersectionality through different interests. The athlete shared with The National that she hopes that “competing in Saudi Arabia inspires future generations.” The Sister’s Club in Jeddah, overseen by Ramla, is proving to keep this dream well and truly alive. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in the construction of state-of-the-art stadiums and facilities to accommodate major boxing events. One such venue is the Diriyah Arena, which hosted the highly anticipated rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz in December 2019.
The boxing event, dubbed “Clash on the Dunes,” attracted a global audience and solidified Saudi Arabia’s position as a major player in the world of boxing. This event was followed by another appearance by British Anthony Joshua who was beaten for the second time by Ukrainian Oleksander Usyk in the contest billed as “Rage on the Red Sea.”
Last week, “The Truth,” featuring Paul and Fury, added another chapter to the storied history of boxing in KSA, at the Diriyah Arena.
Strikingly, the World Boxing Council found it compelling enough to present the competitors with a “Diriyah Champion” commemorative belt. This follows the WBC’s continued practice of highlighting cultural traditions and social movements. For example, the “Mayan” belt was created to reflect the importance of Mexican boxing fans and Cinco de Mayo weekend, as well as the “Black Lives Matter” belt for Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson, reaffirming the need for African-American equality. With the “Diriyah Champion” belt, the WBC has deemed it significant to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s push for progress in both the boxing and social realms. Here, the World Boxing Council truly lives up to its name.
By highlighting the generous hosting of Saudi Arabia and embracing a new slant on boxing entertainment for the YouTube generation, the WBC moves boxing and culture forward.
The world’s media descended on Diriyah, Riyadh, to cover the event last week. IFL TV, Behind The Gloves, Radio Rahim and all the usual boxing correspondents afforded the event the same visibility that one would expect to see at a Fight Week elsewhere in the world. Celebrities and the who’s who of the boxing world populated the many media opportunities. Fresh from their recent fight with each other, Fury and Derek Chisora both donned the Saudi Arabian men’s Ghutra Agaal, while Tyson practiced the traditional sword dance. Deontay Wilder arrived just before the fight to enjoy the contest, while Cristiano Ronaldo was all smiles as he socialized in the place he now calls his new home.
What lies ahead for the future of boxing in Saudi Arabia? Rumors are swirling about a possible “Undisputed” fight between Fury and Usyk for the unified heavyweight championship. Devin Haney may defend his belts against Vasiliiy Lomanchenko on May 20, as he hinted to journalists in Riyadh. And on the possibilities go. Skill Challenge Entertainment Enterprise — the brainchild of Prince Khalid bin Abdulaziz, chairman of Skill Challenge Entertainment — continues to seek new markets in sports promotion, be it world championships or a new form of YouTube entertainment contests. Just last week, Ragad Al-Naimi became the first Saudi female boxer to win a contest on home soil. What momentous achievement is next?
What is certain is that Saudi Arabia will be mentioned in promoters’ discussions whenever any big-time fight is announced. Its reputation for high-water mark production quality, warm welcomes for all and open minds will make Saudi Arabia the pre-eminent future capital of boxing.
• Cormac O’Donnell is an Irish educator living in the UAE since 2018. A longtime combat sports enthusiast, he is keen to bring Western eyes to developments in the Gulf region.