All neon, no buzz? How Riyadh is reacting to Fury vs Usyk fight week

The boxing world is buzzing ahead of the first undisputed heavyweight title fight in 25 years. But is Riyadh?

Alex Pattle
in Riyadh
Friday 17 May 2024 09:49 BST
Bloodied John Fury explains why he headbutted Usyk team member

This week, as Fury vs Usyk approaches, the days are taking place at night in Riyadh. And they are taking place next to an amusement park full of operational but empty rides, in front of a smattering of curious and surprised Riyadh locals. Truthfully, so far fight week has offered plenty of neon, but what about the buzz?

Even employees within BLVD City, the area hosting the pre-fight events on the outskirts of town, had to ask what was going on as they pointed to the press-conference stage. “Is this boxing or UFC?” one said. The UFC is visiting Riyadh, yes, but not for another month.

“I don’t know about the boxing, but I do like football,” one taxi driver told The Independent. And so the conversation turned to Al Nassr FC, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the like. Another seemed vaguely aware of the fight, saying with a hint of hesitance and an ever-raising eyebrow: “The British guy... and the Ukrainian guy? Boxing is not really in our culture.”

So, when Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk clash on Saturday night, the eyes of the sporting world will hone in on the ring in Riyadh, but the city itself may only catch the action in its peripheral vision.

Yet the reality is this: The people of Riyadh do not need to be invested in this fight; the relevant figures in Saudi Arabia have invested in it, in the way that really matters. It is that investment that has enabled this fight, after all, and it is that investment that has the rest of the boxing world buzzing like the lights and signs that illuminate BLVD city.

And the rest of the boxing world is buzzing, truly. This is a fight that sells itself: arguably the best heavyweight of his generation in Tyson Fury, against inarguably the best cruiserweight of his generation in Oleksandr Usyk, who has proven as classy at heavyweight as he was at 200lbs. Both men are unbeaten, both are champions, and the stylistic match-up is intriguing. Furthermore – as long as there is no draw – one boxer will emerge as the undisputed heavyweight champion, ending a 24-year wait for Lennox Lewis’s successor to be crowned.

Fury (centre left) and Usyk at Thursday’s press conference for their fight
Fury (centre left) and Usyk at Thursday’s press conference for their fight (Getty Images)

For these reasons, Fury and Usyk don’t need to build this bout with barbs or drama (John Fury, having headbutted one of Usyk’s teammates on Monday, could take note). The first jab can wait until the first bell on Saturday. And as such, at Thursday’s press conference, Fury and Usyk kept it very short and very simple.

“Hi, everybody, I am happy to be here,” Usyk said, after his promoter Alex Krassyuk had quoted some poetry by Henry Longfellow. “I’m excited, I’m grateful for his excellency Mr Turki Al-Sheikh, who made this fight happen. Let’s make history. Enough. Thank you so much.”

If any locals cheered, they were drowned out by a group of Ukrainian voices, supporting the Olympic champion.

Usyk, 37, also appeared to be scribbling something, which he referred to as his “homework”, revealing no more.

Then it was Fury’s turn. “I’m gonna make this short and simple,” said the Briton, 35. “I want to thank God for the victory that I’ve received already, and I want to thank everybody involved in putting this massive event on. I want to thank Usyk for turning up and challenging me, and that’s about it.

“Thank you to all the fans who travelled over to see me, because I know it’s tough times at the moment and money is hard, so I aim to put on a show. Thank you very much, God bless. I’m ready, I’ve got nothing to say except I’m ready for a good fight – and if it’s tough or easy, I’ll be ready either way.”

This time, there were British cheers in BLVD City.

The final Fury vs Usyk press conference took place at BLVD City in Riyadh
The final Fury vs Usyk press conference took place at BLVD City in Riyadh (Getty Images)

To the left of the stage, there was the green glow of a Starbucks sign and the pink and orange hue from a Dunkin’ Donuts logo. In the small crowd in front of the stage, Lennox Lewis sat next to Evander Holyfield, the man he beat to become the last undisputed heavyweight champion – 25 years ago.

Pressed for a final message to Usyk, Fury said: “God bless him, and I’ll say a prayer for him before we both walk out, that we both get out the ring in one piece and go home to our families, because that’s what it’s about.”

Usyk’s final message for the “Gypsy King”? “Let your hands talk in the ring.”

At the ensuing face-off, Fury refused to look at Usyk, who stared down the bigger man.

It was not a press conference that got the juices flowing or created a buzz in those who are not already interested in the bout – including most Riyadh locals, it seems. That is fine; boxing’s hardcore fans care deeply, the average sports fan is intrigued, and Joe Bloggs is aware of what is at stake in Saudi Arabia. That will do.

When night falls in Riyadh on Friday, the brutal heat will beckon another day in the Fury vs Usyk fight week. When night falls in Riyadh on Saturday, the fight of the century will arrive – however this city feels about it.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in