Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 May 2020

Clash on the Dunes: Zuhayr Al Qahtani ready to put Saudi Arabia 'on the map'

Unbeaten Saudi fighter says he is honoured to be part of one of the biggest boxing events of all time in his homeland

Two months ago, Zuhayr Al Qahtani was back in the UK, recovering from fracturing both his wrists during his most recent fight, when the phone call came.

Without hesitation, he said yes. Eight weeks later, this Saturday to the north-west of Riyadh, he finds himself on the bill for one of the most eagerly anticipated nights in boxing.

As the home representative at “Clash on the Dunes”, which culminates with the world heavyweight title rematch between Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua, the Saudi Arabian-born boxer takes on Kuwait’s Omar Dusary for the WBC Middle Eastern crown.

The eyes of the sport will be trained on the Diriyah Arena. Al Qahtani will have his family, which he reckons extends to “70 or 80 direct cousins” watching, a significant proportion there in person to support him.

On Wednesday, for the final pre-fight conference streamed lived to the world, he wore proudly his country’s national dress. The excitement was writ large on his face. Little wonder: this marks a huge moment not just for Saudi’s first professional boxer, but for boxing in the region.

“Another level,” Al Qahtani says, eyes wide. “Here now on a big card, fighting for a title. We’re making history; we’re putting Saudi on the map, the Middle East on the map.

“Being the first Middle Eastern boxer to win a title, God willing, it will be something amazing, something astonishing, a starting point for everything.

“I’ll boost the Middle East into the world rank. The world will speak about the Middle East and they’ll know that yes, there are talented fighters there. And one of them is Zuhayr Al Qahtani.”

Now 30 and with seven unbeaten pro bouts under his belt, Al Qahtani has become accustomed to fighting in Saudi despite relocating to London aged 12.

He was an undercard winner at the trailblazing World Boxing Super Series Final, staged in Jeddah in September last year. This summer, the same when Amir Khan fought Billy Dib at King Abdullah Sports City.

Yet, as he declares with a broad grin, this is “another level” indeed.

“The whole world’s watching,” says Al Qahtani, whose siblings – older brother, young brother, sister – all box. “We’re talking Mexico, America, United Kingdom, Europe. And me being part of this bill? It’s what I exactly need. I’m here, doing what I need to do. We're making moves; we’re not here playing about.

“Diriyah is a historical city. This is the land of our forefathers, and for me to be part of this land, and win my title on this historical event… words just can’t express how I feel. It’s just wow.

“The support has been tremendous; it’s going to be massive. My surname speaks words itself. But I’m not worried about my cousins and everything. I’m worried about the whole Saudi. I've got a kingdom behind me. And putting Saudi to one side, I’ve got the whole Middle East: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Kuwait. Everyone’s with me.”

That much is evident from the messages of support on his social media accounts. So many in fact – Al Qahtani reckons they number in the thousands – that he simply hasn’t had the time to respond.

“I’m getting loads from Saudi girls, saying ‘You’re paving the way for us Saudi women to box’," Al Qahtani says. "Why not? We live in an open world; our women can box as well. And they’ve got talent. Let’s bring Saudi women to the bill in future.

“This event will clear up a lot of misconceptions people have about Saudi. Saudi’s an amazing place. And it’s staging a world-class event. It’s taking over from Las Vegas. The world will be coming here. 'Vision 2030' is becoming a reality.”

As for his hitherto undefeated opponent (8-0), and the pressure of Saturday night and the 15,000 fans at the arena and the millions tuning in, Al Qahtani seems intent on taking it all in what he hopes to be his history-making stride.

“As a fighter, I black out everything. I just see the ring,” he says. “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to go to the ring and knock him out. That’s it. There’s two lions in the jungle and there’s one preying for the other. I just know anything I do will overcome anything he can bring.”

Asked what it would mean to have his hand raised come the final bell and belt around his waist, in his place of birth, in front of his compatriots, and for the first time Al Qahtani falls silent.

"I don’t know man, I feel like crying telling you this," he says. "My heart drops into my stomach... I don’t know how to express it. It’s like a shock to the system. Let me get my title first. Then I’ll tell you how it feels.”

Updated: December 5, 2019 02:15 PM

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