Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless

Special Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless
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Former cricket player Azeem Rafiq speaks with Arab News on October 8, 2023, in Dubai, UAE. (AN Photo)
Special Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless
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Former cricket player Azeem Rafiq arrives to attend a Cricket Discipline Commission hearing, relating to allegations of racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, in London on March 1, 2023. (AFP/File)
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Updated 09 October 2023
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Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless

Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless
  • Rafiq told parliamentary committee in 2021 of “inhuman” treatment at Yorkshire, said he was victim of institutional racism 
  • Six former Yorkshire players were sanctioned by the CDC in May after they were found to have used racist slurs

DUBAI: Azeem Rafiq’s tale is one for the ages. It encapsulates the contemporary differences and tensions in British society, generating considerations that resonate across other societies in which cricket has a foothold.

The unfolding of his tale has been covered in previous columns. Revelations of racial abuse were first published in a cricket journal in 2020. These attracted the interest of a UK Parliamentary Select Committee in 2021, to whom Rafiq gave a harrowing public account of his experiences. After that, the England and Wales Cricket Board requested the establishment of an Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket. It reported in June 2023. Three months later, the ECB published its response.

In an interview conducted with Rafiq in the Arab News office in Dubai this week, he provided a candid opinion on the ECB’s response and related issues. His overall view is that the response is “flimsy and falls short of what is required.” When asked what is required, he has no doubt that the fundamental issues of systemic racism are still not being addressed with meaningful programs of change. He refers to a previous ECB report in 1999 on the same subject that was more specific in terms of what it would put in place. In over 20 years, he judges, there has been little progress, even regression.

The issue is, why? Rafiq talked about the forces of denial within society, about skilfully produced briefings made against him and others who have supported him, and of the death threats made against him and his family. These were instrumental in them relocating to Dubai, where he feels much safer.

Asked if he has regrets, he says none at all. He is strong in his faith, which has been a sustaining force. However, he admits to dark times with contemplations of suicide. Those responsible for bringing him to this pass really ought to be ashamed. It is doubtful that they are, wherein lies the problem.

In April 2024, the book which he has been producing with eminent cricket correspondent George Dobell is expected to be published. Rafiq anticipates that it will be an uncomfortable read for some. It seems to have been a cathartic experience for him, made none the easier by no end being in sight for his tale. There may be many who wish that it would end.

The book’s title, “It’s Not Banter, It’s Racism,” is bound to annoy the deniers, for whom it remains just that — banter to be taken in the spirit of dressing room humor and bonding. Such ingrained attitudes are difficult to shift and, from my experience, those who do try end up being branded as troublemakers.

Rafiq’s resilience is remarkable and impressive. Despite Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that continue to be hurled his way, he fights on. He feels he has a purpose in life, to make access to cricket and continued participation in it for young people of ethnic backgrounds easier and sustainable. He has schemes in mind. Funding is sought, not from established sources, but from private, altruistically motivated individuals and bodies.

There is a strong sense that Rafiq has a deep suspicion of the establishment. While the concept may be regarded as a nebulous one, in this case it relates to many of those who govern or have governed cricket in Yorkshire, England and Wales in the past two decades. In his view, they are the ones who have failed to address the issue of institutional racism, tried to brush the problem under the carpet, made platitudinous promises to bring about change, waited for the storm to die down and then reverted to type.

Many would have given up, kowtowed by the forces who feel that cricket has been wronged and are striking back. There is a deep vein of conservatism in British society that extends to cricket. Despite attempts to broaden the spectator appeal through initiatives in T20 and The Hundred formats, professional players are drawn largely from non-state schools and are mainly white. The problem is exacerbated by class.

According to historian Duncan Stone: “Class dictates everything about cricket in this country, in particular. It is woven into the culture of the game.” This dictates how it is organized and structured. As a result, swathes of the population do not get a chance to participate, most notably young people in state schools. The onus for developing young talent is forced onto local clubs. Some lack the financial or technical resources to achieve that, often precipitating their own collapse. A vicious circle of declining participation and institutional racism is not seen by everyone.

Azeem Rafiq, among others, does see it, and is driven to do something about it. Despite his sordid experiences in cricket, he still loves the game. His campaigning seeks to circumvent the formal channels, as he doubts their ability to achieve the changes that he believes are necessary. Hence, his lukewarm view of the ECB’s response to the damning conclusions of the ICEC report. He does give credit to the ECB’s commitments around women’s cricket and match-fee equalization.

Another commitment is to an action plan designed to increase the number of state primary and secondary school students playing cricket. The ECB also proposes to work with counties to redefine the talent pathway, aiming to ensure that finance is not a barrier to participation. While Rafiq accepts that these are steps in the right direction, he is skeptical that they will resolve his main concern, that of racial discrimination.

Challenging this is a huge task, striking at the fabric of British cricket and society, and not helped by current political trends. That does not seem to faze Rafiq. In his own words, he is “providing a voice for the voiceless” — those who are afraid to speak out or have no channel to do so. This puts him outside the mainstream. It will not be for lack of effort on his part if South Asians continue to experience discrimination when playing cricket.


Mbappe and Alonso big winners at inaugural Globe Soccer Europe Awards

Mbappe and Alonso big winners at inaugural Globe Soccer Europe Awards
Updated 54 sec ago
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Mbappe and Alonso big winners at inaugural Globe Soccer Europe Awards

Mbappe and Alonso big winners at inaugural Globe Soccer Europe Awards
  • ‘I want to work hard to keep my name in history of football — there’s lots still to do; I’m far from what I want to achieve,’ says Mbappe
  • The awards recognize European football excellence, both on and off the field

SARDINIA: PSG striker Kylian Mbappe, Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso and FC Barcelona star Lamine Yamal were among the winners at the inaugural King Abdullah Financial District Globe Soccer Awards Europe.
Tuesday’s ceremony at Hotel Cala di Volpe in Costa Smeralda, Sardinia, marked the first European edition of the awards, which have been held in Dubai for the past 14 years.
With shortlists for five of the 10-plus honors decided by a fan vote earlier this month, a star-studded jury of football luminaries selected the final winners. The awards recognize European football excellence, both on and off the field.
Industry representatives and players past and present attended this week’s event, including FC Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski, three-time Champions League winner Fernando Morientes, former England manager Fabio Capello and the coach of the current Italian national side, Luciano Spalletti.
Mbappe, whose contract with his Parisian club expires at the end of June, took to the stage amid loud applause to collect the KAFD Best Player award.
“It’s an honor to be here — I see some great players, managers, legends. It’s always great to see everybody recognize your game. I want to thank my club; I know my president is here,” said the French striker.
“It’s always a pleasure to be a part of this event. It is part of my journey. I want to work hard to keep my name in the history of football. There is a lot still to do and I am far away from what I want to achieve, but I will start this summer with the Euros.”
The star’s moment in the spotlight came minutes after Alonso, who led his Leverkusen side to an undefeated domestic double and the final of the Europa League, received Best Coach from Pedro Proenca, president of Liga Portugal.
“It has been a real pleasure to see old colleagues and friends here tonight in this beautiful setting,” said Alonso. “I’m proud to receive this award, not just for myself but for all Bayer Leverkusen. What we have lived this year has been phenomenal, a fantastic journey. It felt special since the beginning, all the connections we created with the fans, the players, the staff. We’ve been able to have a dream season.”
The Emerging Player award was won by FC Barcelona’s 16-year-old winger Yamal, who scored five goals and notched up eight assists in 37 La Liga appearances this season. Xavier Puig, the Barcelona director responsible for women’s football, collected the Best Women’s Club award on behalf of FC Barcelona Femeni. Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano received Best Men’s Club on behalf of the UK Premier League champions.
All five winners — Mbappe, Alonso, Yamal, FC Barcelona and Manchester City — also received a gold “Road to Dubai” medal from His Excellency Saeed Hareb, secretary general of Dubai Sports Council, confirming their qualification for the year-ending Dubai Globe Soccer Awards which will take place this winter in the UAE.
Other Globe Soccer winners included Atalanta, who received the Revelation Award after winning the Europa League and qualifying for next season’s UEFA Champions League, and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman of the European Clubs Association and president of PSG, who collected the Football Leadership Award. Cesc Fabregas accepted the Comeback Award on behalf of Como after his Lombardy side was promoted to Serie A for the first time in 21 years, and Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta received Best Coach Premier League from former Gunner Fabregas after leading his swashbuckling side to within just two points of the title.
A host of career awards were also distributed during the evening, with Spalletti and Gianluigi Buffon both collecting a coach and player award respectively, while Karl-Heinz Rummenigge collected a Special Career Award recognizing his work with Bayern Munich, formerly as CEO and now as a member of the club’s supervisory board. A posthumous Special Career Award was also given to Italian striker Gigi Riva, who died earlier this year at the age of 79. It was collected by his son, Nicola.
“It has been a long journey to reach this point, but I am extremely proud to see the European football industry come out to recognize and celebrate the continent’s top-performing protagonists,” said Tommaso Bendoni, founder and CEO of Globe Soccer.
“When we created the Dubai Globe Soccer Awards 14 years ago, we had an ambitious vision that is now coming to fruition. It is testament to the growing reputation of the Globe Soccer brand that we have attracted so many of European football’s biggest names to join us for this historic event in Costa Smeralda.”
Shortly before the KAFD Globe Soccer Awards Europe, the first in-person, end-of-season La Liga Awards took place, with Spanish football celebrating a thrilling 2023-24 season.
Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham won Best Player after an incredible debut season in which the Englishman netted 19 goals and laid on six assists in only 28 games. Yamal won Best U23 Player and Jesus Areso of Osasuna won Best Goal for his strike from close to the corner flag against Getafe. Best Coach was won by Michel after he oversaw Girona climb from 10th to third in just 12 months.
KAFD Globe Soccer Awards Europe Edition 2024 winners:
Best Player: Kylian Mbappe (PSG and France)
Best Coach: Xabi Alonso (Bayer Leverkusen)
Emerging Player: Lamine Yamal (FC Barcelona and Spain)
Best Men’s Club: Manchester City
Best Women’s Club: FC Barcelona
Best Coach Premier League: Mikel Arteta (Arsenal)
Revelation Award: Atalanta
Football Leadership Award: Nasser Al-Khelaifi (PSG and European Clubs Association)
Comeback Award: Cesc Fàbregas (Como)
Special Career Award: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
Special Career Award: Gigi Riva
Coach Career Award: Luciano Spalletti
Player Career Award: Gianluigi Buffon
Sportsmanship Award: Gianluca Pessotto

Official La Liga Awards 2024:
La Liga EA SPORTS Champion: Real Madrid
Best U23 Player: Lamine Yamal (FC Barcelona)
Best Coach: Michel (Girona)
Best Goal: Jesus Areso (Osasuna)
Best Player: Jude Bellingham (Real Madrid)
Team of the Season: Unai Simon, Daniel Carvajal, Ronald Araujo, Antonio Rudiger, Miguel Gutierrez; Aleix Garcia, İlkay Gundogan, Federico Valverde, Isco, Jude Bellingham, Savio, Griezmann, Robert Lewandowski, Artem Dovbyk and Vini Jr.


Dortmund head into Champions League final with an older, tougher team instead of young talents

Dortmund head into Champions League final with an older, tougher team instead of young talents
Updated 29 May 2024
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Dortmund head into Champions League final with an older, tougher team instead of young talents

Dortmund head into Champions League final with an older, tougher team instead of young talents
  • This Dortmund team are different, though. They are built around older players making the most of second chances after career setbacks
  • “We have our own story,” coach Edin Terzic said

DORTMUND: Borussia Dortmund are world soccer’s finishing school no longer.
A club renowned for readying talented youngsters like Jude Bellingham and Erling Haaland for the big stage are now on that stage itself, facing Real Madrid — and Bellingham — in the Champions League final Saturday.
This Dortmund team are different, though. They are built around older players making the most of second chances after career setbacks.
“We have our own story,” coach Edin Terzic said Wednesday. “We have the story of ups and downs of the last years. We are one of the teams that is selling players by the end of the season. We are a team that builds up to compete every year, but now we are there, and we are facing teams that are built to win the Champions League.”
And then there’s Jadon Sancho.
The former England national team forward has revived his career since rejoining Dortmund on loan in January from Manchester United, where he hadn’t played since August amid a rift with manager Erik ten Hag.
The final at Wembley will be the last game of Sancho’s loan, but Dortmund hope they will also start fresh talks on keeping him.
“We are so proud, we are so happy that he’s in our team at the moment and I can see his smile every day, I can see his performance on the pitch every day,” sporting director Sebastian Kehl said.
“So, I think he will be very important for us on Saturday. He will show the world that Jadon Sancho is really back.”
Kehl said Dortmund plan “discussions” about the 24-year-old Sancho’s future, but only after Saturday’s game. “He’s still under contract with Man United, so nobody knows what’s going on there,” Kehl added. “We’re going to have discussions, but after the final.”
Sancho isn’t the only Dortmund player who has been rejected elsewhere. Defender Mats Hummels and midfielder Emre Can were both left out of the German national team squad for their home European Championship, and Sancho wasn’t picked for England.
The Champions League gives them the chance to show they remain competitive at the top level — and maybe even earn a dramatic recall for Euro 2024.
The 30-year-old Can suggested he and Sancho could be inspired by that rejection when they play against Madrid.
“He’s not happy about it, of course. Me also, I’m not in the German squad, I’m not happy about it,” Can said. “Of course, it gives you maybe the extra motivation to show the coaches in national teams that we deserve to be there. That’s what we will try on Saturday.”
Only two Dortmund players made the Germany squad for Euro 2024, including striker Niclas Füllkrug, who spent much of his career in the second division before finally breaking through at 29 with Werder Bremen and making his national team debut in 2022.
Forward Sébastien Haller is in the Champions League final less than two years on from a diagnosis of testicular cancer which left him needing chemotherapy and surgery before he returned to action with Dortmund. He’s seeking his second trophy of the season after scoring the winning goal in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations with the Ivory Coast in February.
Dortmund do have some promising young players, but winger Jamie Bynoe-Gittens and striker Youssoufa Moukoko, both 19-year-olds, have typically been on the bench in the Champions League this season and 21-year-old American Gio Reyna was loaned out to Nottingham Forest.
There isn’t an obvious successor to Bellingham, who was sold for up to 130 million euros ($139 million at the time) to Madrid last year, or Haaland, who earlier moved to Manchester City for 60 million euros ($63 million at the time) and won the Champions League last year.
Sporting director Kehl himself has unfinished business in the Champions League. Dortmund are in the final for the first time since 2013, when they lost 2-1 to Bayern Munich, also at Wembley. Kehl, then a midfielder, was on the bench in that game.
Dortmund are coming off their worst Bundesliga season in nine years with a fifth-place finish, but have shown in the Champions League that their grizzled, battle-scarred squad can peak in crucial games. There’s been a healthy dose of luck, too, after Dortmund survived Paris Saint-Germain repeatedly hitting the post and crossbar in the semifinals.
A year after dropping the Bundesliga title in the final minutes of the season, Dortmund are aiming to end this campaign on a triumph.
“There is one more game left and it’s the biggest game in European club competition,” Terzic said. “This is waiting for us, and we have to show that we are ready to go for it.”


Laporta gambles on Flick to restore Barcelona’s lustre

Laporta gambles on Flick to restore Barcelona’s lustre
Updated 29 May 2024
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Laporta gambles on Flick to restore Barcelona’s lustre

Laporta gambles on Flick to restore Barcelona’s lustre
  • Before May had run its course, Laporta sacked the former Barca midfield great and appointed German coach Hansi Flick in his stead
  • “You will suffer — this is a very complicated place to be,” Xavi warned his successor

BARCELONA: At the end of April, Barcelona president Joan Laporta, choking with emotion, said he was “proud” to have Xavi Hernandez staying on as coach for next season.
Before May had run its course, Laporta sacked the former Barca midfield great and appointed German coach Hansi Flick in his stead.
Since the president was re-elected for his second spell in charge in March 2021, Barcelona have been without a coherent plan, running purely on vibes. It can only get you so far.
Selling off areas of the club and compromising future income to raise immediate funds for heavy transfer investment, Laporta opted for a get-success-quick strategy, with limited results.
Barcelona won the 2022/23 La Liga title for the first time since 2019, but they have still struggled in Europe.
This season everything fell to pieces, with Real Madrid storming to La Liga glory and Barcelona finishing the campaign trophyless.
“It’s fantastic news that Xavi is staying — the team we have, which is growing with many young talents, needs this stability,” said Laporta, weeks before performing a spectacular u-turn.
Xavi for his part did not mince his words about the challenges that faced Flick.
“You will suffer — this is a very complicated place to be,” Xavi warned his successor.
Barcelona’s ‘entorno’ — everything swirling around the club that increases pressure, from the media to the fans, to loose-lipped directors and former players chipping in — will stay the same.
However in hiring Flick, the club’s direction has changed.
The majority of their coaches have played for Barcelona — Xavi, Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, Pep Guardiola among others.
Flick on the other hand, has never played or coached in Spain, let alone at the club itself.
The 59-year-old’s greatest success was leading Bayern Munich to a sextuple in 2020, including an 8-2 humiliation of Barcelona, but he struggled with the German national team, becoming their first coach ever to be sacked.
Barca’s sporting director Deco warned in February that Barcelona should move away from their traditional “tiki-taka” style.
“The president agrees with me on this, a deep change is needed — there is a method that is worn out,” he said.
Flick’s style is attacking but more direct than Barcelona usually attempt to play, with more crossing.
The coach will be happy to work with Ilkay Gundogan, whom he appointed Germany captain, and Robert Lewandowski, a key player in his triumphant Bayern Munich side.
He boasts coaching experience which Xavi lacked, having only worked at Al-Sadd in Qatar before taking the reins at Camp Nou.
Flick tends to set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, rather than Barcelona’s 4-3-3, although they are not far removed.
The club’s financial difficulties will be a key factor in whether the German can improve Barcelona’s fortunes.
After pivot Sergio Busquets left, Barcelona failed to adequately replace him, unable to afford Xavi’s main target, Real Sociedad’s Martin Zubimendi.
With new champions and rivals Real Madrid set to sign Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappe, keeping up with Los Blancos will be a hard task for any coach.


Usyk, Fury heavyweight rematch set for December 21 in Riyadh

The undefeated Ukrainian won by split decision against Britain’s Fury. credit: social media
The undefeated Ukrainian won by split decision against Britain’s Fury. credit: social media
Updated 29 May 2024
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Usyk, Fury heavyweight rematch set for December 21 in Riyadh

The undefeated Ukrainian won by split decision against Britain’s Fury. credit: social media
  • The undefeated Ukrainian won by split decision against Britain’s Fury in the Saudi capital on May 19 in the first unification fight of the four-belt era

Riyadh: Oleksandr Usyk will face Tyson Fury in a rematch on December 21 in Riyadh, the top Saudi organizer said on Wednesday, after winning their undisputed heavyweight boxing bout earlier this month.
The undefeated Ukrainian won by split decision against Britain’s Fury in the Saudi capital on May 19 in the first unification fight of the four-belt era.
“The rematch between the undisputed champion Oleksandr Usyk and the champion Tyson Fury is now scheduled on the 21 of December 2024 during Riyadh Season,” Turki Alalshikh, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, posted on X, formerly Twitter.
Britain’s Lennox Lewis won the last undisputed heavyweight championship against Evander Holyfield in 1999. Both men were ringside as Usyk handed Fury, 35, his first defeat.
The 37-year-old Ukrainian, who briefly served as a soldier after the Russian invasion, was also undisputed champion at cruiserweight and won Olympic, world and European honors as an amateur.


Boxers arrive in Riyadh for historic 5 vs. 5 event

Their fighters will battle it out inside the ring on June 1 at the Kingdom Arena as part of Riyadh Season. supplied
Their fighters will battle it out inside the ring on June 1 at the Kingdom Arena as part of Riyadh Season. supplied
Updated 29 May 2024
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Boxers arrive in Riyadh for historic 5 vs. 5 event

Their fighters will battle it out inside the ring on June 1 at the Kingdom Arena as part of Riyadh Season. supplied
  • The event is set to make history as the boxing world’s biggest promoters and British rivals, Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren, go head-to-head
  • The main fight card will see Russian champion Dmitry Bivol up against his Libyan opponent Malik Zinad

The boxers facing off in the eagerly awaited 5 vs. 5 event in Riyadh took part in a grand arrival on Tuesday night at Boulevard City in the Saudi capital.

The event is set to make history as the boxing world’s biggest promoters and British rivals, Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren, go head-to-head. Their fighters will battle it out inside the ring on June 1 at the Kingdom Arena as part of Riyadh Season.

The main fight card will see Russian champion Dmitry Bivol up against his Libyan opponent Malik Zinad. The pair drew major attention on Tuesday night as fans approached them at the boxers’ arrival site for photos. Pressure is mounting on both champions to maintain their undefeated records across 22 fights.

On fighting in Saudi, Zinad told Arab News: “This is fantastic — this is a great feeling for me. I give everyone hope to work hard and nothing is impossible … work hard and you will make it.”

His opponent, Bivol, previously told Arab News that the event is an “amazing opportunity” to show his boxing skills to a new region and gain fans in the process.

“Saudi Arabia is still a new region for boxing events but they are doing it well, and I hope they continue doing it,” he said.

For Saturday’s undercards, Warren’s camp includes Nick Ball, Hamzah Sheeraz, Willy Hutchinson,  Daniel Dubois and Zhang Zhilei. Hearn’s lineup includes Austin Williams, Raymond Ford, Craig Richards, Filip Hrgovic and Deontay Wilder.

Arab News asked Warren about the prospects of a Saudi boxer one day representing Queensberry on the world stage.

“I don’t think it’ll be that far off … you look at the skill sets of some of them, look at them working out, you can see that they are really buying into this and into it in a big way,” he said.

“I promise you there will be Saudi champions not long in the future.”

Warren and Hearn’s family rivalry dates back five decades, and boxing fans around the world are bursting with excitement to finally see the two come together for 5 vs. 5.

Warren told Arab News that “Riyadh now is the capital of world boxing” and that boxing events in the Kingdom are “going from strength to strength to strength.”

He added: “I’m 72 now — I’m thinking to myself ‘I have seen it all,’ but I haven't seen it all. I’m getting surprised on a regular basis.”

Hearn believes that Saudi Arabia’s grassroots infrastructure and hosting of top boxing events is significant for building champions of the sport in the Kingdom.

“You go down the local gyms, the Mike Tyson gyms, you see young boys, young girls chasing their dreams because they’re seeing it on the ground here, you know, and you have to have role models — you have to have heroes,” he told Arab News.

“I think that you’re going to see great fighters come out of the Kingdom. It will take time, but the infrastructure is there,” he added.

Spotted at the grand arrival was Saudi pro boxer Ziyad Almaayouf. He told Arab News that fights like 5 vs. 5 “inspire young fighters like me to take the risks, fight the best.”

The event will not only be significant within boxing history, but also for its effects on each fighter’s career.

Ahead of the grand arrival, Wilder told Arab News: “This is everything for me. This could be the be-all and end-all for me.”

The boxers are staging public workouts for fans on Wednesday, and will take part in a press conference on Thursday.

On Friday, the boxers will undergo official weigh-ins before the big event on Saturday evening.