Promoters of the inaugural World Boxing Super Series Final say this week’s groundbreaking event in Saudi Arabia makes the UAE “a certainty” to host high-profile bouts in future.
For the first time in history, the Kingdom will stage a major boxing clash, when Englishmen George Groves, the reigning WBA super middleweight champion, and Callum Smith do battle in Jeddah on Friday for the Muhammad Ali Trophy.
The event, taking place at the Indoor Sports Hall at King Abdullah Sports City, marks the culmination of the first World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) and provides an undercard that includes Chris Eubank Jr, the son of former world champion Chris Eubank. Friday’s action will be broadcast to 120 countries.
It represents potentially a watershed moment for the Middle East, which has for some time been mooted as a destination for hosting elite boxing. The UAE in particular has been repeatedly cited, yet for a variety of reasons, nothing has come to fruition.
However, Kalle Sauerland, whose Sauerland Promotion created the WBSS, says Friday’s fight-night will blaze a trail for the sport in the region and lead to similar events being held in the Emirates.
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“I think it makes it a certainty,” he said. “Just look at the trends: if there’s an event in the region in a certain sport then you know there’s going to be more to follow. It’s about getting over that first hurdle.
“To finally bring this to the region, I believe the first one will bust the dams. I expect us to stage many events in future there, especially once people see the excitement the sport can bring.
“We’ve discussed bringing big fights to the region and to the Emirates many times - heavyweight fights and stadium fights - but there’s never been any concrete developments, for many reasons. It just needs a focused effort. I’ve spoken to people there and I think it’s natural.
"There’s a huge expat population, but that’s not the only reason to do it. Abu Dhabi and Dubai is a hub now where people are used to travelling to the region. The infrastructure seems to be there. You just look at Dubai with the Expo 2020.
“But I feel that when people see this, and how good this event can be, that others will quickly follow. It’s just a matter of time. It’s a very competitive region.”
In Groves and Smith, the WBSS Final pits against one another two boxers in their prime, making it the premier boxing event to take place in the Middle East. In 2007, American Michael Moorer fought Shelby Gross in Dubai, but as the final fight in the former world heavyweight champion’s flagging career, it made little impact.
Since then, money-spinning bouts involving marquee names such as Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Amir Khan and Anthony Joshua have been touted for the region, although as of yet have not been delivered.
Sauerland believes the WBSS format - an eight-boxer elimination that began last September - makes it sustainable for the Middle East, though. Part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, in which the Kingdom seeks to diversify its economy, the General Sports Authority (GSA) added the WBSS last November to its growing portfolio, after the event had already gotten under way.
“What’s really interesting is there is potential for a long-term relationship in the region to bring what we believe is the biggest event in boxing, the Champions League of boxing: the WBSS and its final, which will only get bigger and bigger every year,” Sauerland said.
“So the question of why has this worked? That’s very much credit to the WBSS brand. This is an event of a massive magnitude, which the GSA acquired without knowing who would be in the final. It was about the WBSS final being staged in Jeddah. That speaks to the brand, without a doubt."
Sauerland says there was interest in hosting the final from Las Vegas, New Jersey, Atlantic City, the United Kingdom and Macau.
“People say it’s just about money, but that’s simply not true," he said. "Of course, finances are a factor, but there would probably be more attractive offers from UK football stadiums. It’s about building something that is sustainable. That’s what the WBSS is about. It’s not about a one-off event. That’s a very clear message.”
Sauerland has likened the Jeddah event to two of boxing's most famous bouts, the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thrilla in Manila" involving Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, both celebrated as seminal fights for the sport in Africa and Asia.
“Some people have said to me you can’t compare these to the Ali fights, but I can," Sauerland said. "I’m not saying George Groves or Callum Smith is Muhammad Ali, but we’re doing the first big fight there. The most appetising part about the offer from Saudi Arabia was to bring boxing to the region.
“This is something very special. It’s simply about bringing the sport to new territories. And in our sport you can only equate that to those two big fights: the 'Rumble in the Jungle', which opened up boxing in Africa and the 'Thrilla in Manila', which opened up the sport in Asia. There are parallels. The eyeballs of the world are on the region. It’s pioneering.”