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The Fights

Don’t Expect Much Resistance To A Saudi Boxing Takeover

Tyson Fury (third left) and Oleksandr Usyk (third right) pose alongside promoter Frank Warren (fourth left), actor Sylvester Stallone (centre) and The Saudi Chairman of General Authority for Entertainment Turki Alalshikh during a press conference at Outernet London.
Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Tariq Panja of the New York Times reported last Wednesday that Saudi Arabia has plans to buy boxing. They’ve been all but running the sport already, putting on fight cards in Riyadh and getting previously frosty promoters to work in lockstep. In August, they’re coming to the United States, spearheading another stacked series of fights in Los Angeles—Terence Crawford, one of the three best fighters in the world, is the headliner. Crawford is also a new ambassador of Riyadh Season, one of Saudi Arabia’s yearly sports festivals. 

Now, Saudi Arabia wants to take things a couple steps further: they would take over the entire sport, organizing a league that distributes 200 of the world’s best fighters across 12 different weight classes. This would likely result in markedly better matchups than the current system, which allows boxers and promoters to negotiate with each other, often pricing themselves out of fights the fans most want to see. Per Amy-Jo Crowley and Pesha Magid’s report for Reuters, the new entity would be valued between $4-5 billion.

Boxing has shown light resistance at times to the Saudi approach, but nothing substantial. In 2019, back when journalists still asked athletes about misgivings regarding events in the country, Anthony Joshua expressed discontent at the idea that his rematch with Andy Ruiz, which was one of the first big fights held in Riyadh, could be used to help rehabilitate the country’s image. At last month’s fight between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk fight in Riyadh, Joshua sat ringside, right next to Turki Alalshikh, the head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s General Entertainment Authority. Alalshikh is the man most responsible for Saudi Arabia’s boxing endeavors, and media members, promoters, and networks have recently taken to referring to him as “His Excellency,” like those in the regime itself. 

Kieran Mulvaney and Eric Raskin, two journalists who host a boxing podcast together, have done their best to consistently remind listeners about Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and its various sportswashing campaigns, but they’ve noticed that criticism of the country has died down as more and more money has been pumped into the sport. Mulvaney and Raskin told me that they had both received a LinkedIn message from Abdullah Fatani, a Creative Marketing Department Manager at the General Entertainment Authority. The message mentioned “an opportunity with a new boxing venture in Saudi Arabia for a position in the Editorial team, that will be reporting directly to His Excellency.” Raskin and Mulvaney did not respond to the offer, but it made them wonder who else in the industry might already be on the take. 

Saudi Arabia might not even need a captive boxing press to complete its takeover with little fuss. Alalshikh has consistently provided the money needed to make highly demanded matchups in the past year, washing away resistance with quality fight card after quality fight card. It’s everything boxing fans wish the sport to be. “I wonder if it’s just the relentlessness of it,” Mulvaney told me. “You just keep hitting them relentlessly, relentlessly, relentlessly, relentlessly, and people get tired. And after a while, fans say, ‘Oh my god, we’re getting all these fights from Turki Alalshikh, this is great—what the fuck have Kieran Mulvaney and Eric Raskin ever done for me? I don’t give a shit about them. Shut up. Piss off. We want our fights.’”

On April 24, Alalshikh did an AMA on Reddit and was greeted with notes like “Mr. Turki, You’ve been giving the fans the fights they’ve wanted,” “Great job bringing boxing back in the spotlight,” and “His Excellency Turki AlAlshikh, I think we can all agree you've breathed an incredible breath of life into this incredible sport. As boxing fans, I think we all feel lucky and blessed that you chose to put in so much effort into giving the fans of boxing the absolute best matches we've seen since the 80s.” 

“It sort of saddens me how many people, even without being on the payroll at all, covered the Saudis’ involvement in boxing without seeming to make any mention of sportswashing and what it’s all about,” Raskin told me. “Go ahead, chop up a journalist, as long as it’s not me. It’s sad to see some of that out there.”

Neither Raskin nor Mulvaney begrudge the boxers themselves for accepting huge paydays—given the dangerous nature of their trade, they should take every penny offered to them. But even if the best fighters in the world get everything they’ve always wanted, not all the sport’s issues will be solved. What is to become of the low-profile boxers? Most viewers won’t give a shit, with all the top-caliber fights suddenly on display. But the other boxers and their promoters won’t possibly be able to compete with Saudi money. The middle and lower classes of boxing, which were not in a prosperous position to begin with, might find themselves bled dry completely. There’s also no telling how long the Saudis’ interest in boxing will last, and LIV Golf hasn’t done anything to demonstrate that the Public Investment Fund can competently sustain a sports league.

“While everyone’s very enthusiastic about the idea of getting fights made and getting lots of money in the sport, whenever you have just one entity running everything … be careful what you wish for, basically,” Mulvaney said.

“I wonder, at this moment, how close we’re coming to the end of independent boxing journalism,” Raskin speculated. “That part is pretty worrisome. If all of the media is effectively doing press releases and doing podcasts and radio shows that say only good things about the promoters and the fights, that’s obviously bad news for the sport.” Like struggling fighters and promoters, some form of writing will always operate outside the center of the boxing universe, but Saudi influence threatens to decimate or absorb the relevance of any other body within the sport. Would you be that confident in betting on a boxing journalist, already in a mess of conflicts of interest with promoters and networks, turning down money from the Saudis? Raskin himself even admits that though unlikely, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of one day taking money from the regime if it ever outweighed his moral concerns.

“It’s exhausting,” he confessed, of trying to remind listeners of the downsides to the recent bounty of great fights. “Every time the Saudi promotion comes up, to have to slip in, ‘Oh, by the way, this is sportswashing, and oh, by the way, here are their horrible human rights offenses. You start out saying that initially, and eventually you decide, well, I’ve said that, everyone knows this is my position, I’ll stop saying it every time. And then there are the people who never said it in the first place, and just went along with the program.” Despite the different intentions, Raskin observed, those two viewpoints eventually converge in the same place: talking about Saudi Arabia in relation to boxing rather than human rights violations. “This rumored news comes out this week, and the great majority of outlets are reporting it as simple boxing news without any mention of the sportswashing element.”

“I don’t think that the people involved are even bothering to think about whether it's wrong or right, at this stage,” Mulvaney said. “I think they’ve given up. I think most people in boxing have answered that question to their own satisfaction. And it’s, ‘Nah, fuck it, this is great. Let’s do it.’”

The sale not happening is difficult to imagine. Boxing would have to resist the takeover in ways it has not come remotely close to so far. “Boxing just exhausts me,” Mulvaney said. “It’s such a horrible fucking business, it really is. And I guess I’m not surprised, it’s just deflating in that, Well, I didn’t think it could get any worse, but here we are.

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