Saudi Arabia's first fight proves there is room for boxing to grow in region
WBSS super-middleweight final held in Jeddah for first time was a success, even attracting such figures as Evander Holyfield and Rashed Ali
Organisers of Saudi Arabia’s first professional boxing event heralded Friday’s debut for the sport a success and promised to return to the Kingdom for future fights “sooner rather than later”.
The inaugural World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) super-middleweight final was held in Jeddah, where the action took place in front of a sizeable audience at the 10,000-capacity Indoor Sports Hall at King Abdullah Sports City.
The eight-fight card included victories for two Saudi Arabian boxers, while the night concluded with Callum Smith’s explosive seventh-round stoppage of WBA champion George Groves in the roster’s main bout.
Rasheda Ali, daughter of three-time heavyweight world champion Muhammad Ali, presented Smith inside the ring with a trophy named after her father. Other notable attendees included Evander Holyfield, the only four-time heavyweight world champion in history, and Prince Naseem Hamed, the hugely popular former featherweight world champion.
The event, the first time the region has staged a fight of such magnitude, is part of the Saudi General Sports Authority’s (GSA) growing portfolio, as the Kingdom seeks to diversify its economy beyond oil.
“We saw the first big boxing event in Saudi Arabia, and we’re very thankful and grateful for the excellent partnership with the GSA,” said Kalle Sauerland, whose Sauerland Promotion created the WBSS. “We look forward to promoting many fights here to come.
“It’s certainly been a long and emotional journey for all of us involved. We’re delighted with the success here in Jeddah. We’ll certainly be back with fights in the future, sooner rather than later.”
Given the make-up of the WBSS final, questions had been raised about the legitimacy of the event taking place in Saudi. Groves and Smith are both English, and it was felt the bout would have been more suited to the UK.
However, Smith said those doubts were answered on Friday night. In defeating Groves, the Liverpool-born boxer increased his unbeaten professional record to 25 fights, with 18 coming by way of knockout.
“The Saudi people have been brilliant for me all this week, such as the people in the hotel – I can’t praise them enough,” Smith said. “They made the week here perfect.
“There were a lot of questions about what the atmosphere would be like with two English people and not a big fan base coming over, but it was just as good as any I’ve boxed in front of. I got a great reception, as did George. So I just want to thank the people of Saudi for that.
“It was a big occasion, a big deal for Saudi to hold its first boxing event. And what an event it was: the final of the World Boxing Super Series, with the Muhammad Ali Trophy. Hopefully there’s many more to come.”
Prominent promoter Eddie Hearn, whose Matchroom Sport stable includes Smith and reigning IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, said he had been equally impressed with the interest generated inside Jeddah by the groundbreaking event.
“I’d just like to say congratulations to the World Boxing Super Series on this event,” Hearn said.
“The whole concept’s been great, but this event: you’ve got two UK fighters, one from London and one from Liverpool, and I know there was a little bit of criticism that this fight should take place in England.
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"But when you come here and see the arena and the atmosphere and the way this sport has been welcomed to this region, it makes you realise that it is a global sport. And although British boxing’s flying at the moment, and we plan on major events in Britain, there’s a whole world out there.
“So for Kalle and the team to come and build from a blank canvas in terms of commission, infrastructure, doping, paramedics – there’s so much work that goes into the tournament. But the people of Saudi made it a great event.”
One of the loudest cheers of the night was reserved for Zuhayr Al Qahtani, the Jeddah-born boxer who defeated England’s Mohammed Mahmoud on points to win a fifth professional fight.
“I am extraordinarily excited, I’m very happy,” Al Qahtani said.
“It’s a hell of a feeling. I feels like I just won a world title; it feels something astonishing. My mum, my wife, everyone was watching this. There’s no words. Praise be to God.
“And thanks to the Sauerland for making history. No other promoter did what they did.”
Speaking before Friday’s fight, Naseem Hamed, a British-born Yemeni, could not hide his delight that the WBSS was being staged in Saudi.
“When I was fighting there was no boxing in Saudi Arabia because it was forbidden,” he said. “But now we have this and it’s long overdue. Thank God we’re at this point and long may it continue.
“Saudi has opened its doors to something that’s going to hopefully be the start of something amazing for boxing in the region. I’m just hoping for boxing to expand throughout the region. You never know, we might have some Prince Naseem academies in Saudi and throughout the Middle East someday.”
Updated: September 29, 2018 01:45 PM