With talks taking place to bring Olympic boxing medallist Amir Khan to Dubai for his next fight, Leah Oatway examines whether the emirate can really become a destination for the noble art.
Finding the right formula for the sweet science
DUBAI // In three months the British boxing promoter Frank Warren hopes to do what no promoter has done before: stage a major title fight in Dubai. Mr Warren wants to bring the WBA lightweight champion, Amir Khan, out to fight. It would be the first high-profile professional match in the UAE since Chris Eubank took on Camilo Alarcon at Dubai's Tennis Stadium in 1997 - a disappointing affair, according to some spectators, that was over before the crowd had even settled into their seats. If he cannot stage the fight, Mr Warren and Khan, 21, will join a long list of big name fighters and promoters - including Don King, Jess Harding, Laila Ali and Oliver McCall - who have failed to put on bouts in the emirate.
The 56-year-old promoter is talking with various business heavyweights about bringing Khan to the Emirate in the spring. There is, he said, every possibility the boxer, from Bolton, England, could defend his title in a fight next month, if things moved quickly enough. But Mr Warren faces a tough battle to pull the promotion off. Local and international promoters complain that a lack of sponsorship and support are to blame for Dubai not joining London and Las Vegas on the boxing map. So far, Mr Warren said, his dealings with local contacts claiming to be able to help him with a venue and sponsor have been fruitless. "The main challenge so far has been getting some guarantee," he said. "I have had various conversations with various people but as yet nothing has happened. "What I need is to find a hotel or even a company interested in sponsoring the event and gaining some great exposure in return. It's finding a venue that will put up a site guarantee. It's as simple as that. "There have been a lot of chats and a lot of promises, but we need action." Mr Warren's predicament is one with which the former British heavyweight boxer turned promoter Jess Harding has empathy.
Three years ago Mr Harding, in collaboration with Dubai contacts, prepared to stage a professional fight night in Dubai with boxers Oliver "The Atomic Bull" McCall and Hasim "The Rock" Rahman. "I never really got to the bottom of what happened," Mr Harding said. "There was funding involved, a lot of money had been laid out, but it all fell apart just weeks before it was due to happen when the sponsor pulled out." The British expatriate and events organiser Mark Povey, said he was also aware of at least two attempts to bring Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali's daughter, to Dubai to fight. Mr Povey said the second was just weeks from going ahead at Dubai's Aviation Club last year when it was cancelled. "The big problem is the money, finding a sponsor," he said. "I know of at least four or five attempts at organising boxing events that failed for this reason." With no professional boxing regulatory board in the UAE, anyone promoting a title bout would also need to involve a regulatory board, such as the British Board of Boxing Control, to oversee it. That would mean finding a sponsor to underwrite the cost of flights, accommodation for three judges, a referee and medical staff, millions of dollars for big-name fighters, flights for their entourage and accommodation, as well as the regulatory board's standard fee. Attempts to fly in lesser-known fighters for smaller-scale fight nights have been met with dampened enthusiasm from Dubai crowds, said Zack Taumafai, a Dubai-based boxing trainer and promoter. Mr Taumafai said this contributed to the success of White Collar Boxing (WCB), for which he has been the trainer, launched two years ago in Dubai. The fifth set of competitors from Dubai's corporate world glove up and fight it out for charity in the spring. The Transguard Group event has been a success, with competitors paying as much as Dh25,000 (US$6,806) to take part in eight weeks of training leading up to the fight night, held in a hotel ballroom. Eubank was involved in marketing the first event. Leonard Daniels, the events manager for the Aviation Club's Tennis Stadium, has witnessed with growing frustration many failed attempts to bring major boxing bouts there.
A boxing enthusiast who has worked at the club for 17 years, Mr Daniels said he has been approached numerous times by boxing promoters, both local and international, planning fight nights that never happened. He said he would love to see at least one more fight at the stadium before he retired. "It's vital if Dubai wants to attract major names," Mr Daniels said. "Major sport brands need to get on board and fights need to be marketed properly here. Putting an article in local newspapers is not enough to sell tickets. There were barely 400 people at the Eubank fight." In Oct 2004, Mr Daniels's team had a visit from the legendary US promoter Don King, in town to explore opportunities for a heavyweight bout in Dubai. Five days later Mr King left. "Dubai is attractive from a UK perspective because there are a lot of expats out there and people from commonwealth countries, and boxing universally is a popular sport," Mr Harding said. In the meantime, Mr Warren is confident that Dubai could become a boxing venue to be reckoned with. "Dubai has become a big-interest destination, and it's made its presence felt in the sporting world with various top-quality events being held there," he said. "We feel there's a market there and it's a big holiday destination. "I've brought quite a few fighters like Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton through, and when these guys have fought [abroad] we brought quite a few people over from Britain to watch them. "It's no secret that big fights are broadcast around the world to various countries and it would be a great advertisement for Dubai, showing what Dubai is capable of." firstname.lastname@example.org