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Saudi Arabia’s Impact On Boxing Can’t Be Denied, But Is That An Entirely Good Thing?

Posted on 11/18/2023

By: Sean Crose

In June of 1980 boxing superstar “Sugar” Ray Leonard lost his WBC welterweight title belt in a stunningly impressive battle against the already legendary Roberto Duran. The fight, an instant classic, went down at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Less than six months later, a much improved Leonard regained the WBC title from Duran when Duran suddenly and inexplicably quit in the eighth round of their highly anticipated rematch. That fight, one of the more notorious in the sport of boxing’s often notorious history, went down at New Orleans’ Superdome.

Yet Leonard’s next big victory – this time against fellow future legend Tommy Hearns -would go down in a more flashy location for a major fight – Caesar Palace’s in Las Vegas. The following year WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes would stop popular contender Gerry Cooney in a Caesar’s Palace hosted bout so wildly hyped it actually made the cover of Time Magazine. By then it was obvious to anyone with a sense of clarity that Las Vegas was now the home of major boxing.

It had all started just a short time earlier, when Holmes battled the way over the hill Muhammad Ali at Caesar’s Palace in October of 1980. Las Vegas had presented boxing for years, but not at such a level. For the next several decades, every major bout, with few exceptions (1988’s Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks fight being one) would go down in Las Vegas. Now, however, over forty years after the 1981 Leonard-Hearns battle, Las Vegas is facing a real challenge – and from the most unlikely of places – Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, two major heavyweight cards, one involving a plethora of big names, the other featuring a fight for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world, were announced this past week to much fanfare. Both cards are being hosted by the Middle Eastern kingdom. The reason for this change? Why money, of course! Saudi Arabia has a seemingly endless supply.

It’s a financial and political winner for all involved. The Guardian’s Donald McRae writes of “the uplifting transformation of Saudi into a gleaming new state where sporting icons beam down at the changes they are apparently helping to spread.” Yet McRae isn’t a gullible man, and fight fans shouldn’t be gullible, either.

The truth is that , if the Saudi government has it’s way, the country is going to be home to a lot more than top boxing cards. “Boxing began this sporting embrace of Saudi,” writes McRae, “and, ever since Anthony Joshua regained his world heavyweight titles from Andy Ruiz Jr on the outskirts of Riyadh in December 2019, this money-driven relationship has deepened. Golf and football followed, while cricket wonders what might happen when a proposed new Saudi league threatens to transcend the Indian Premier League billions.”

Suffice it to say, all of this may help distract the world from the more disturbing aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. For instance, McRae writes of Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi Arabian activist who found herself imprisoned for displeasing the Saudi Government. Apparently one of her offenses was protesting for the right of women to drive an automobile. “Her family,” writes McRae, “claim she was kidnapped in the United Arab Emirates and brought back to Saudi Arabia, where she was jailed for 1,001 days.” Suffice to say McRae reports that Loujain al-Hathloul is now living in Belgium – in exile.

But unpleasantries certainly don’t end there. Want to attend religious services in Saudi Arabia in public? Unless those services adhere to Sunni Islam, you can forget it. Equal rights for homosexuals? You can forget that, too. Read all the books you want? Watch all the shows you want” Sorry. Your choices are limited. What about speaking your mind? That’s fine – as long as what you say is government approved. Long story short – the Saudi government is most distinctly NOT in the business of seeing the world the way westerners do.

So what are fight fans to make of this? “Firstly, we understand the imperative of a boxer’s career, which is to make money,” McRae quotes Amnesty’s Felix Jenkins as saying. “We don’t tell anybody that they shouldn’t ply their trade in Saudi Arabia.” Still, Jenkins claims that if Fury (and no doubt others) could raise his “voice to counter the sportswashing narrative of the Saudi authorities (it) would be incredibly powerful.”

One doesn’t have to be a full throated supporter of Amnesty or any other organization to appreciate Jenkin’s words. Boxing and other sporting contests in Saudi Arabia don’t have to be avoided or ignored…but fighters and even fans (to whatever extent they can) might also be able to use the opportunity to confront the injustice they know exists there.

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