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NOTES FROM THE BOXING UNDERGROUND: THE SAUDIS' (DEADLY) LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

By Paul Magno | June 17, 2024
NOTES FROM THE BOXING UNDERGROUND: THE SAUDIS' (DEADLY) LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

The year was 1985. 

Ric Flair’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” played over the sound system as he made his ring walk to meet Hulk Hogan for the undisputed heavyweight wrestling championship. 

150,000 fans had crowded into Chicago’s Soldier Field (which was no small feat since the stadium’s capacity is 67,000) to see the United Wrestling Federation’s main event, capping off an epic 4-hour card of wrestling’s best fighting wrestling’s best. It was fucking rad.

My cousin and I had come up with the Universal Wrestling Federation just months earlier, intent on creating a league featuring all the best wrestlers from every organization fighting regularly. It was a resounding success...in my bedroom, using Star Wars action figures as the wrestlers and staging it all on a small suitcase I had fashioned into a makeshift ring. I was 10. 

Turki al-Sheikh, the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, is pretty much proposing the same thing for boxing. He’s a grown man. 

Actually, the widely reported proposed Saudi boxing league seems to be a larger-scale thing than just one guy’s fantasy organization-- even if that guy does act like he’s commanding his own roster of action figures. If put into place, it could completely change the course of boxing, restructure its foundation, and create brand new historical timelines. 

Culled from info reported by Reuters and The New York Times, the league, funded by the Saudis’ Public Investment Fund (PIF) to the tune of anywhere between $2 billion and $5 billion, would see them sign about 200 of the top male boxers in the world and divvy them up into twelve weight classes, creating 15-man rankings in each division. Fighters would be obligated to compete a set amount of times, only against ranked opposition. Promotional companies Golden Boy and Matchroom are, according to Reuters, involved in the discussions. The Saudi goal, though, is to bring all of the major promotional companies into the mix. It’s unclear whether that means buying them outright or “investing” in the companies for influence to force such a thing. 

Since the story became public, the league has been described by several media people as a “UFC model” where the best fight the best on a regular basis and it’s been lauded as an idea that will “save” boxing. I guess someone should break the news to these cheerleaders that “the best” fight “the best” in the UFC only because the UFC tells you who the best are. More on that later.

Anyway, this league idea could take flight as early as the first half of next year if everything goes according to plan. 

There are tons of issues with this takeover raising tons of red flags, beyond the ethical ones related to cutting deals with dedicated abusers of human rights, of course. 

Just from a pure boxing standpoint, how do you run such a league without, ultimately, burying the sport? 

Let’s take the lightweight division, for example. Let’s say they buy out all of the top talent at 135. We’d get Gervonta Davis vs. William Zepeda and Vasiliy Lomachenko vs. Shakur Stevenson. Awesome, right? Then the winners would fight one another. Double awesome, right? Then, maybe the losers fight one another? That’s good. Maybe Keyshawn Davis gets brought into the mix? But then what? Crickets. Nothing but second tier names and second tier talent, recycled endlessly, in bouts with no real market appeal. In short, we’d get 18 months of good stuff, but then have to suffer through years of malaise. For a sport that relies on big events and star power to sell itself to the masses, this would be a slow suicide. 

How do you create new stars for the future when all the focus is on the present tense stars? With no real domestic market for young talent anymore, there’d be no payoff for promoters and managers, who suffer through years of in-the-red events until they get their young fighters to the next level. So, why would they work in boxing? Even the promoters bought-out and brimming with oil money probably wouldn’t be too eager to operate minor leagues for boxing emperor Turki and his play-toys. 

In this regard, you very much would be getting a “UFC model” for boxing-- one where the same names are shuffled around again and again and incoming new talent is of diminished quality because, beneath the UFC, the talent is coming from strip mall dojos and from whatever could be stolen from very secondary MMA companies. 

Within 5-7 years, high-end boxing would erode in quality and more closely resemble Misfits Boxing. 

Most likely, though, you’d see boxing’s real earners stay free of the Saudi plan and keep doing their own thing. This would see them fighting a lesser level of opposition because the Saudis would have all the other big names. In turn, the fighters in the Saudi league might not have access to some of the top fighters to build their own star power. 

You probably wouldn’t have to worry too much about this complication after awhile, though. The all-powerful Saudis could wait out the petulant Western stars and then have the power to put a cap on their own fighters’ growth and earning potential so that the only “stars” anymore would be those designated by them. Again, very much a “UFC model.”

Another issue for this Saudi boxing league centers around legality. Much of what they propose violates existing antitrust laws in the US and the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. Some of what Turki has done, already, flirts with illegality. For instance, when “His Excellency” approached David Benavidez, who is under contract to promoter Sampson Lewkowicz, to offer concrete fight proposals. Then, there were the “partnerships” he’s made with sanctioning bodies, the WBA and WBC, as well as broadcaster DAZN. 

But, once again, you probably wouldn’t have to worry too much about this complication after awhile since a Saudi-owned boxing league would simply move operations away from territories where they couldn’t do whatever they wanted. 

There are many other issues that would stem from boxing being taken over by people with a culture of despotism and a history not exactly filled with examples of fair play and even-handed concern for the common man. Drug testing, fighter safety, fair compensation, and even fighting the urge to rig outcomes for the league’s greater good-- I wouldn’t trust Turki with any of that.  

This is, after all, the man who went on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour and had this to say about the IBF complicating one of his planned fantasy matchups:

“I hope nobody stands in our way...because, in the end, if we want it, we will do it…”

And from a spokesman for a crew linked to the strangulation and dismemberment of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi (along with the brutal executions of many, many other fellow citizens and migrants), that’s not a statement to be taken lightly.  

On the surface, the Saudi boxing league idea may sound appealing. The best fighting the best, all the time. That’s a satiating promise to a fan base chronically complaining of malnourishment. It also promises some forced clarity to a frustratingly complex boxing business landscape. But this is not a good idea in the same way selling one’s soul for a Lamborghini and a pocket full of cash is not a good idea. Sooner or later-- and usually sooner-- the toll is collected and everything falls to shit.

In the long run, this Saudi takeover would be absolutely disastrous for the sport and smart boxing people would tell you that-- if there weren’t so many looking to siphon some money off the Saudis by playing cheerleader.

This is a “get in, get out” project or, at the very least, a “get in and wrangle this into submission” endeavor. It’s not something introduced by people with a long-term interest in the business.

Saudi Arabia’s desire to diversify their economy and become a tourist destination is public knowledge. The use of sports and entertainment has been their major tool in the effort. In boxing, they’ve found an inroad to the common Western sports fan-- and a chaotic organizational mess ripe for exploitation. By operating at a constant loss and even giving away broadcast rights to their shows for free, they’ve made it clear that their investment in boxing is a loss leader, money willingly lost to promote their ultimate goal. And, I hate to break it to people, but that “ultimate goal” is NOT to run a competitive and profitable boxing business for all eternity. Maybe, possibly, that could be why their league proposal looks to be more of a 5-10 year plan, at most.

In reality, the Saudi boxing league is only a good idea if your goal is to facilitate a collapse in boxing that would force a smart, cooperative, fan-friendly business rebuild. 

A positive is that this aggressive move to take over the sport may light fires under some complacent asses, inspiring some companies to make the cross-promotional fights fans have been clamoring for, such as a rumored Gervonta Davis-Vasiliy Lomachenko bout. According to Matthew Brown of BrunchBoxing.com, an anonymous Top Rank official has affirmed his company’s stance on resisting Turki al-Sheikh’s advances. 

What we do know for now, though, is that a LOT of boxing people will absolutely sell out for a quick Saudi payout. Fighters, managers, and promoters are all about money in a business where no future is guaranteed. We’ve already seen how quickly and effortlessly Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren rented away pretty much all of UK boxing. The boxing media is nothing but a mess of compliant humanity perpetually looking for money, gigs, and a loving sugar daddy. The sport’s sanctioning bodies are shams. The commissions are worthless. Even something like the Ali Act is not truly enforced. 

There are very few adults in the boxing room-- and, of those few, most don’t have any real power. That’s why this crazy and ultimately deadly Saudi boxing league idea can’t be ruled out. If someone walks into a whorehouse with enough money, they’ll probably be able to do whatever the fuck they want. 

Got something for Paul? Send it here: paulmagno@theboxingtribune.com

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