Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and the simple truth behind Saudi Arabia’s boxing revolution

Riyadh will host a colossal night of heavyweight action, enabling rivals to come together after His Excellency Turki Al-Sheikh’s grand plan for the sport

Steve Bunce
In Riyadh
Saturday 23 December 2023 08:37 GMT
Anthony Joshua predicts Day of Reckoning undercard results

At first it was Las Vegas, then Atlantic City and now Saudi Arabia is leading the latest boxing revolution.

The business of boxing is simple: build something, find the heavyweights, in this case Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and several others, find the money and they will come. It really is that easy.

It was casino cash in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and now it is investment money from the government that has attracted the boxers, their entourages, promoters, fixers, floaters and other assorted characters in the boxing circus to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In the Seventies when Las Vegas opened the vault and the Eighties when Atlantic City’s bloody history started, there were fears that boxing would be isolated forever; the worry was that the cash wall, provided by the deep vaults at the casinos, would end free trade. The same false fears have been raised over the ambitions of the current boxing regime in Saudi Arabia. The brutal truth is that it is the responsibility of promoters all over the world to get their act together to compete for the big fights.

The eight fights in Riyadh on Saturday night are only taking place because of the money made available to the rival factions from all over the world. However, nobody uses the word money; the preferred word is “resources”. Well, it has been the “resources” that have made boxing work for over 150 years. There is nothing original about cash turning heads in boxing – cash is the only thing that turns heads in boxing. They are called prize fighters for a reason and the prize is money.

The night is spectacular, make no mistake, and that is because, in addition to the correct resources, there is a vision attached and a degree of quality control. Only one of Saturday’s eight fights is below average; the other seven could all be the main event anywhere in the boxing world. It is possible to argue that as many as nine of the top 15 heavyweights in the world are on Saturday’s bill; there are no major heavyweight belts on the line, and it feels more like the launch of a fighting league than a night of championship fights.

The man on the ground in Riyadh is His Excellency, Turki Al-Sheikh, who has had various roles but retains the important title of, Saudi royal court advisor. Well, add to that, genuine boxing nut. The eight fights on Saturday were put together during a few frantic days, rivals became partners, broadcasters had to work together and like magic, everybody fell in line. In addition to the Day of Reckoning, which is the name given to Saturday’s eight fights, the overdue unified fight between Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury was also announced. It will take place in February, in Riyadh, after a year or so of collapsed negotiations – make no mistake, this fight looked lost.

Anthony Joshua (left) with his promoter Eddie Hearn (Getty Images)
Promoters Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren met for the first time at the launch of the Day of Reckoning (Getty Images)

The main attractions on Saturday are Joshua and Wilder, who shared three years and two months as world heavyweight champions without coming close to a unification fight. Both are in hard, hard, hard tests and, if they both win, they will meet back in Riyadh in March. The resources, you see, were made available and the men in charge of the boxers were asked to make the fight. There has never been anything complicated or subtle about the boxing business; the promoter with the most money, gets the most fighters and gets the most control.

And the vision? Well, Mike Tyson has a smart new gym in Riyadh, which is run by Manchester’s Joe Gallagher, and beginning in February there will be trials for the 1,000 hopefuls who have applied to be part of Tyson’s new team of fighters. It will be a reality show for real and then Tyson’s fighters will be on the planned bills, and it seems that this is also Turki Al-Sheikh's idea.

Turki Al-Sheikh has put together a huge night of boxing in Riyadh (PA)
Heavyweight rivals Joseph Parker and Deontay Wilder (Getty Images)

There are currently 1,413 registered heavyweight boxers in the world; 12 are on Saturday’s bill, the other 1,401 are wishing they were and waiting for the call.

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