Max Jeffery Max Jeffery

Are the Saudis really ruining boxing?

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There’s a new mantra in championship boxing. Try speaking to anyone from that world – a big-time promoter, trainer or fighter – and before you can get a word in, they’ll say something like: ‘I’d like to thank His Royal Highness King Salman Abdulaziz al-Saud, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and, of course, the chairman of the General Entertainment Authority of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, His Excellency Turki Al al-Sheikh.’ In the last few years, the Saudis have spent hundreds of millions, more than anyone else can offer, to stage the world’s greatest bouts on their holy sand. They’re trying to take over golf and football too. Everyone in the fight business is getting rich, and no one wants it to end.

One of the upcoming Saudi-sponsored fights is between the British Anthony Joshua and the Cameroonian Francis Ngannou. At the ‘Kick-off Press Conference’ in London on Monday, everyone was being very nice about their Saudi paymasters. We were four storeys underground, in a dusky, concrete-walled, 2,000-capacity rented nightclub. Joshua, Ngannou and their promoters were on a stage at the front. There were free pies and chips and burgers and sandwiches at the back. The world’s media in the middle. No one mentioned ‘sportswashing’. ‘We would like to thank the hosts and the people who made all of these huge fight nights that we’ve seen over the last couple of years possible’, said Josh Denzel, a TV presenter who was running the press conference. ‘His Royal Highness King Salman…’ He finished the exaltations, and the crowd applauded. 

Of course ‘vision’ and ‘passion’ are nothing without ‘money’

Turki Al al-Sheikh stood on an elevated balcony at the back of the room, looking down on everyone. He wore sunglasses, a dark robe and gilet, and a red and white shemagh. He stood on a box to make himself taller. Al-Sheikh is in charge of Saudi Arabia’s entertainment agency (who say they ‘drive the industry to proactively contribute to the fulfilment of the national goals of a Vibrant Society and a Thriving Economy’), but more importantly he’s a close friend of Mohammed bin Salman.

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