By Luke Reddy
- 27 Sep
- From the section Boxing
|World Boxing Super Series final|
|Venue: King Abdullah Sports City Arena, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Date: 28 September. Time: 19:45 BST|
|Coverage: Live text commentary on BBC Sport website|
The World Boxing Super Series hoped to revolutionise boxing. Saudi Arabia wants change of its own. Maybe the two fit like hand in glove after all.
It is not Las Vegas, nor is it New York and Madison Square Garden… it is the desert. It is part of the world that has never seen boxing of this level before.
So just how has George Groves versus Callum Smith, a world-title fight, the final of the World Boxing Super Series and a bout which would fill a UK arena with ease, ended up 4,000 miles away?
Global ambition, the price of oil, a Crown Prince, a country’s freshened image and, of course money, were all parts of the puzzle that led to the King Abdullah Sports City Arena in Jeddah.
‘This is not about two Brits’
“I don’t want to compare us to Muhammad Ali but taking events like the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ or the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ has shown big events can go to new places,” says World Boxing Super Series boss Kalle Sauerland.
“We are the first major boxing event to take place in the Middle East region – that’s making history.”
Sauerland, whose family has a rich history of promoting in Germany, Scandinavia, the US and more, has always maintained the World Boxing Super Series is a global event. Great Britain may be having a boxing boom, and Groves and Smith may hail from Blighty, but so be it.
Fans asked why? This bout, mouthwatering on paper, was chiselled into the fight calendar. Some baulked at the process and cost of visas, others questioned where tickets were being sold, while internet whispers pointed to a hefty fee paid to the Super Series were it to land in Jeddah.
“I saw comments stating ‘we had to go there’. That’s rubbish,” adds Sauerland, who is about to oversee season two of the Super Series.
“It’s a site deal. I’ve done many in boxing before. It’s a simple site deal based on us going there. To be honest, financially it would have been better to be in the UK as we’d have had a massive crowd at football stadium.
“This is not about two Brits, it’s about the Champions league of boxing. As everyone knows, Champions League teams travel, no matter where the teams are from.”
From oil to major events
Fans wishing to travel to Jeddah needed a visa. To get one, they required an invite from a Saudi resident that would in turn form part of an application to the Saudi Embassy.
One of the 37 agencies who provide visas listed by the Saudi Embassy – Gulf Visa – charged £249 for the service and say the process “can be difficult to understand” on their website.
But it is here, at this potential barrier, that the country’s future aspiration becomes clear. This week, the creation of a new visa was announced, one that will be accessible for a huge Formula E event in December and one which will be easier to obtain, aimed at tourists looking to simply attend music, sport or entertainment events in the future.
The move is a small part of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s strategy for transitioning away from a largely oil-dependent economy. Oil prices plummeted from more than $140 a barrel in 2009 to just over $25 in 2016. While they have recovered to $80, the swings prompted a rethink of how a prosperous future will be achieved.
The WWE has held a televised stadium show there, Formula E has signed a 10-year race deal in the region and the UFC is expected to one day land in the desert. These large-scale events send a message that Saudi Arabia is open for the biggest events and visitors in tow.
Speaking of large scale, the world’s first 1km high building is set to open in Jeddah next year. Bold statements are being sent globally.
“The vision isn’t just to hold these events but to make them world-class, to show this country is competing,” says Hussam Al Mayman, a reporter, producer and presenter in Jeddah.
“Those in charge do have the mentality and the finances to pull something like that off. It’s more an attitude of ‘we need this, these wins are crucial’ rather than being about financial return.
“It’s more about laying the foundations for a solid platform for our future.”
‘As a country, we were fed up’
In tandem with economic change comes cultural adaptation.
The country which only allowed women to drive in 2018, one where cinemas were banned until this year, where alcohol is outlawed and where gender segregation is in place in some public places, wants to re-invent its conservative image.
Women are still asked to wear an abaya to cover themselves in public but even this law appears to be easing. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who heads up Vision 2030 – said earlier this year that a woman’s attire is down to her choice.
Some are taking things into their own hands. Despite exercise in public being largely taboo for women, boxer and kick boxer Halah Alhamrani began offering women-only combat classes in her spare room. She now boasts her own Jeddah studio called Flag Boxing – Fight Like A Girl.
There you will find women, or mums watching their daughters, thumping punch bags in this most conservative of states.
It seems widespread change is afoot. A youthful population – where stats show around 58% are under the age of 30 – are demanding it. The stigma of laws deemed stringent by western protocol may, however, take time to shift.
Zoe Robinson – a 2008 Paralympic Boccia gold medallist – has travelled the world following Smith, his boxing brothers and Manchester fighter Anthony Crolla.
“We put her application in and they said she’d be given a garment to wear on arrival,” said Smith’s trainer Joe Gallagher. “I know we have to respect the country and culture but it has understandably unnerved her a little, which is a shame.”
Al-Mayman added: “Newcomers are embraced. The country has lived in harmony with the expat community for years. So don’t believe the hype.
“I don’t see any issue at all as long as people are respectful of the culture here. I wouldn’t kiss my wife or girlfriend in the street but you can walk around with a female and no-one will really bother you. It’s very diverse as there are so many sub-cultures here.
“Certain things were part of an extreme past and that has gone mainly. As a country we were fed up of it.”
‘Are fans familiar with the contestants? I doubt it’
The message from the fighters on the venue has been humble. Asked by media if they would encourage people to begin boxing at Wednesday’s news conference they were unanimous in saying yes.
Both, though, admit they have not paid too much attention on the wider cultural impact of the bout as their focus is so intense on simply winning.
The temperature could be at around 36C when they walk to the ring at what will be around 21:00 BST in the UK, or 23:00 locally, on Friday.
Getting them there has been no easy feat. Gallagher explained every bit of kit had to be documented, energy drinks were initially not allowed to be transported, neither was simple medication such as hydration sachets.
Sauerland expects a healthy number of expats in the Arena, mixed with locals who will almost certainly be witnessing boxing for the first time.
He is the first to state his worldwide promotional work has taught him cultures engage with a fight night differently, from the quiet, studious offer German fans can bring, to the rugged gladiatorial feel brought by Danish crowds.
Al Mayman, who covered the WWE when it sold out a 60,000-seat stadium in Jeddah, added: “There is some interest in boxing here. We all grew up loving the Rocky movies.
“The fight has gathered interest as a boxing event because people are intrigued to have one in Saudi.
“But are fans familiar with the contestants? I doubt it to tell the truth. Most of the attendees will be there because it’s a first.”
British fight fans may well feel frustrated a bout of such magnitude is not on their doorstep. But when consideration is given to the fact season two of the Super Series visits America twice and Japan in the coming weeks, Sauerland’s insistence on his product being of global nature is backed up.
Saudi Arabia, Jeddah and an all-together new audience will benefit. Those watching will be exposed to a new art. For the region and the sport broadly, surely that cannot be a bad thing.
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