I’m not one of those “boxing is dying/dead/on its last legs” guys. Realistically, nothing is going to “kill” boxing, except for, maybe, a widespread human awakening of compassion that brings a big CANCEL to all blood-lusting combat sports. And, even then, somebody, in some dark corner somewhere would be squaring up to fight and somebody else would be trying to make a buck off the violence.
But if there was ever one thing that could put the sport in a “shut down” recessive state, it’s Saudi Arabia’s increased investment in boxing.
Forget for now the realities behind who/what Saudi Arabia is. Forget the sportswashing to cover up for real and true (and current) human rights abuses. We’re just talking plain economics here.
The Saudis are filthy with money and, with their recent Tyson Fury-Francis Ngannou event, they’ve shown their willingness to operate deeply in the red for the sake of showcasing themselves in a positive light on the world stage. Exempt from traditional business constraints, they present a real and super present danger to the natural flow of boxing business. If PBC and DAZN could be tagged as “bad for boxing” by overpaying talent to get their feet in the boxing door, then the Saudis are “bad for boxing” times a thousand.
On the surface, though, many might not see things that way. In the short term, it looks like the Saudis are merely getting shit done.
The slated event for this coming December 23 is proof positive of what can be done when infinite money is thrown at a task and turning a profit is not really a concern.
The proposed card for that day would see Anthony Joshua vs. Otto Wallin and Deontay Wilder vs. Joseph Parker as co-headliners.
Underneath those bouts would be four heavyweight clashes featuring Filip Hrgovic vs. Mark De Mori, Arslanbek Makhmudov vs. Agit Kabayel, Frank Sanchez vs. Junior Fa and Jarrell Miller vs. Daniel Dubois.
Beyond the heavyweight action, there’s also a title defense for WBA lightweight champ Dmitry Bivol and a title defense for IBF cruiserweight champ Jai Opetaia as well.
That would make for six heavyweight bouts featuring three former world champs, two undefeated top contenders, two undefeated rising stars, and a handful of recognizable names on one card, plus the light heavyweight and cruiserweight world title defenses…put together in a relatively short period of time, with just about six weeks from public mention to fight night.
Most of these aren’t great matchups, some aren’t even good. This card is more like a buy-in-bulk Costco deal. But, still, the logistics involved in getting something like this together in such a short period of time? Fucking insane.
But, again, things like this can be done when the organizer doesn’t have to worry about details like turning a profit or long-range business plans.
The December 23 card will hemorrhage money. It’ll hemorrhage money in the same way Fury-Ngannou did, although probably not to the same extent. The staging will be the best money can buy, celebrities will be flown in at great expense to help hype the event, and the fighters will be paid several times their true market value. Because money is no object. Because the goal of these events is not to put on a financially successful boxing show, but, rather, to serve as an investment in washing the blood off Saudi Arabia’s streets and turning the nation into an appealing tourist destination.
In the big picture, for the Saudis, a couple hundred million in the crapper here and there means nothing compared to what they hope to gain by turning their nation into Dubai-meets-Vegas, times a hundred.
So, how is this bad for boxing? Fans are getting a big card on the 23rd and, supposedly, Fury-Usyk in Riyadh on February 17, plus a rumored Joshua-Wilder clash later on. All on the royal family’s dime.
Well, it’s bad in the same way overpaying for content is big-picture bad. Although paying above market value is good for the fighters in the short term, the business suffers over the long haul as fighters stay inactive longer, waiting on the big paydays that always seem just within their reach.
There’s also the matter of pulling fights away from areas where there IS a market for boxing (like the US and UK), into a spot where interest is comparatively limited and where actual fans can’t afford to see them in person. This goes hand in hand with pulling FIGHTERS away from areas where there’s a market for boxing– something which could hit existing boxing markets hard.
The high-level talent that could be participating in sport-growing legacy fights for fans would find itself in the hands of the Saudis, whose matchmaking has been cynical and just plain “meh” at times. The end result could be fewer shows that matter in areas that matter with the stars that matter.
Right now, we’re talking about just a handful of fighters in a small handful of events, mostly heavyweights and Euro boxers. But that’s of Saudi Arabia’s own choosing. If they wanted to, they could scoop up lots more talent, American talent, and turn a sometimes unsure/unstable American boxing market into a semi-ghost town.
And the sad reality is that, given boxing promoters’ historical propensity for taking easy money at the expense of the sport’s long-term health, it’s likely that everyone and everything could be shopped to the Saudis.