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Ed Dixon | Saudi Arabia has the resources to unify boxing but would do more damage to the sport than good

Ahead of Anthony Joshua’s rematch against Oleksandr Usyk, SportsPro’s senior staff writer looks at Saudi Arabia’s latest boxing investment and considers why the country could find a natural ally in its quest for sporting influence, even if the consequences present a moral dilemma for fans.

19 August 2022 Ed Dixon

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Rarely has a marriage felt so inevitable and yet potentially destructive.

Saudi Arabia’s latest union with boxing will see the kingdom part with a reported US$80 million to host this weekend’s hotly-anticipated heavyweight rematch between Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk and Britain’s Anthony Joshua. We – or rather the Saudi state – have been here before. Prior to losing his world titles to Usyk last September, Joshua travelled to Diriyah to initially reclaim the belts against Andy Ruiz Jr in December 2020. This time, he heads to Jeddah, the site of the 2018 World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) final.

Saudi Arabia’s wider sporting interests have been well documented and rightly scrutinised. Those investments are likely the tip of the iceberg, even though accusations of sportswashing and human rights abuses endure. The country’s long-term designs on sport, most notably flaunted through its Public Investment Fund (PIF) investing in LIV Golf and Newcastle United, have prompted outrage from human rights groups and fans. Soberingly, that is feeble currency compared to the financial might of the PIF, which boasts estimated assets of US$620 billion.

As we’ve already seen, Saudi Arabia and its sovereign wealth fund are unfazed by all the opposition. Boxing, though, offers a natural home for their ambitions.

A list of the sport’s problems is in danger of becoming exhaustive. In a nutshell, the best fight the best too rarely, which is largely due to a fractured landscape compounded by weak governance, hostile promoters and an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies. For the uninitiated, the organisations considered the ‘big four’ are the World Boxing Association (WBA), the World Boxing Council (WBC), the World Boxing Organization (WBO) and the International Boxing Federation (IBF).

It doesn’t stop there, though. The WBA, for example, has both a ‘regular’ and ‘super’ world champion – a quirk as confusing as it is unnecessary. Despite the plethora of belts, they are vital leverage to the fighters who hold them, their world championship status providing a crucial bargaining chip to snaffle bumper paydays.  

But if Saudi Arabia wants to continue making global statements about its sporting ambitions, it could do a lot worse than turning its attention to the already fractured fight game.

The major boxing organisations have the history to ensure their titles are sought after. But they remain at the mercy of the fighters. Indeed, we are approaching the 30-year anniversary of Riddick Bowe quite literally binning his WBC strap after failing to agree a fight with Lennox Lewis. Fighters tolerate the four boxing bodies because that is where the prestige and, more importantly, the money chiefly sits. The former is really just a welcome addition to the latter.

Calls for an overhaul of boxing’s governance have rumbled on for years. Suffice to say, the current climate means things are not going to change within the existing structures. The PIF, on the other hand, has the resources to cut through boxing politics, unify the sport and make the kind of far-flung impact Saudi Arabia craves.

If the money is right, fighters and promoters will gladly dispense with boxing’s four biggest organisations. Should a Saudi-backed entity house top athletes under one roof – akin to the Endeavor-owned Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – there will be little doubt over where the elite will want to ply their trade. A precedent of sorts was set in darts in 1992 when players split from the British Darts Organisation (BDO) to form what would become the dominant Professional Darts Corporation (PDC). There are early signs of something similar happening in men’s golf, which is becoming increasingly splintered following the emergence of LIV.

Purely from a sporting perspective, there is much to like. Bouts would be made with comparative ease and, perish the thought, there might even be one recognised world champion per weight division. It is also difficult to begrudge fighters earning as much as they can during their short, punishing careers.

There is a sizeable ‘but’ to all this, though. Saudi Arabia’s past deeds and current actions present an uncomfortable dilemma. With my cynical hat firmly on, and going off previous form, most fighters are unlikely to care. The Rumble in the Jungle, after all, was held in Zaire to help generate positive publicity for the regime led by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

To clarify, I am not calling for the PIF to open the chequebook. Such is boxing’s infuriating nature, I do often find myself apologising on its behalf when asked if I am a fan. But give me a flawed sport over one that is used to cleanse a country’s image any day of the week. Perhaps even boxing has a limit to its penchant for depravity. But I write that in hope rather than expectation.

After all, in one corner you have a globally recognised sport riddled with bitter division that has hampered growth. In the other stands a multibillion dollar state-backed entity looking for willing dance partners. Together, the pair may end up landing a telling blow.

Ed Dixon covers the international sports business for SportsPro and is a contributor to the SportsPro Podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.

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