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The Sweet Science and the Sovereign Fund

Boxing gets paid in Saudi Arabia

For decades, professional boxing in America existed primarily as a property of premium cable. To watch the top fighters in the world swap left hooks required not only taking out a cable package but also plunking down an extra $10 to $16 for a subscription to either HBO or its less regal counterpart Showtime—to say nothing of the fact that the most tantalizing matchups almost always landed on their pay-per-view arms. There were other outlets like USA (Tuesday Night Fights) and ESPN (Friday Night Fights) that showcased boxing matches, but their remit was relatively minor, although never unimportant, as they provided a shelter for fledgling prospects, jaded journeymen, and washed-up greats.

A chaotic sporting pursuit in terminal decline since the postwar years, boxing, by the end of the 1980s, had lost its spot on broadcast prime time (ABC’s Wide World of Sports), just as cable was rounding into shape. It would nevertheless make the most of its then-marginalized status on HBO and Showtime, finding within these media boltholes some semblance of structure, reliability, and, at times, staggering remuneration for the fighters and their handlers. The money was well-earned. Throughout the 1980s, an incredible one-third of all HBO subscribers were attributable to its boxing programming—or really, to Mike Tyson. Indeed, in 1989, one-fifth of HBO subscribers identified Tyson as the reason for their subscription at a time when the HBO subscriber base hovered around 17 million and the “churn rate,” or percentage of customers lost per month, still posed an existential threat. Recognizing the extraordinary bankability in Tyson, HBO handed the former Brownsville juvie a $26.5 million to stay put with the network. Boxing was ratings gold, and to say that HBO in particular would not have become the cynosure of the so-called Golden Age of Television without the sport as an early programming cornerstone is not an overstatement.

On premium cable, boxing approached something like a tradition of quality. From the late 1980s to early 2010s, you tuned in to those channels to witness fistic hellraisers in their brilliant primes: first Tyson, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and Thomas Hearns; then Pernell Whitaker and Roy Jones, Jr.; and, later, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, and Manny Pacquiao. At the same time, of course, the networks were guilty of greenlighting atrocious mismatches over the years—the kind of consumer fraud that would warrant a looksee from the FTC. Indeed, boxing goes hand-in-hand with flimflam, recruiting not only its fighters but its promoters, trainers, managers, and other go-betweens from the seedier pockets of life. For every breathless mention of boxing as the “Noble Art” or the “Sweet Science,” boxing is riddled with less flattering sobriquets attesting to its threadbare (dis)organization: the “Wild West,” the “Last Bastion of Laissez-Faire Capitalism,” the “Red Light District of Sports.” Premium cable did not change this: the sport continued to operate at a perpetual moral low ground, remaining an ideal breeding ground for hucksters and profiteers of all stripes, from the flamboyant hypeman Don King, a former Cleveland numbers runner with a murder conviction, to short-lived fringe operator Rick “Elvis” Parker, who fixed fights (and likely poisoned one of his former fighters) in between cocaine benders.

The cable paradigm officially expired in December, when Showtime eliminated boxing and its entire sports department at the behest of its parent company, Paramount Global. The embattled media conglomerate (is there any other kind these days?) cited a need to “efficiently allocate resources”—corporate babble for the desperate measures being undertaken by boardrooms to stem the hemorrhaging wrought by the advent of streaming. Five years earlier, HBO had quashed its own coverage, ending forty-five years of live boxing programming. “This is not a subjective decision,” Peter Nelson, then executive vice president of HBO Sports, explained to the New York Times. “Our audience research informs us that boxing is no longer a determinant factor for subscribing to HBO.” Stephen Espinoza, the final head of Showtime Sports, did not say anything as straightforward as Nelson in his own parting address, electing instead to blame the demise of the program on the vagaries of the “rapidly evolving media marketplace.”

With HBO and Showtime now out of the picture, boxing finds itself lurching in the gutter seeking its next lifeline.

But viewership ratings for boxing telecasts on Showtime had been diminishing for years, and the beancounters at Paramount Global presumably reached the same conclusion as HBO, and anyone else who has closely followed the sport without a pair of pom poms: boxing had outgrown its welcome in the age of cordcutting. By the time of its demise on HBO, boxing telecasts were reportedly drawing per event a woebegone 2 percent of the HBO subscriber base, which was around 40 million. Somewhere along the line, it became grossly evident that boxing was being subsidized by the networks, not driving them. “You don’t spend money on an entertainment event that opens and closes the same night,” the irascible promoter Bob Arum told the New York Post in reference to the end of boxing on HBO. “Their competition is one competitor and that’s Netflix—not schmuck boxing.”

With HBO and Showtime now out of the picture, boxing finds itself lurching in the gutter seeking its next lifeline. Currently, the only two major outlets that feature boxing in the United States are ESPN and DAZN. A sports streaming app bankrolled by Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik, DAZN has cooled off considerably since it barged into the American market in 2018 with a $1 billion budget and boorish declarations of killing off the pay-per-view model for good. (It has lost billions and, in a much-lampooned turn, started to implement pay-per-views itself several years ago, while shifting its focus to the UK market). Moreover, it is not certain if ESPN will continue to show boxing when its exclusive deal with the promotional company Top Rank Boxing expires in the summer of 2025.

On March 30, Amazon Prime Video will air its inaugural boxing card (regrettably, via pay-per-view) on a new multiyear deal with Premier Boxing Champions, the management outfit founded by the powerful dealmaker Al Haymon—more than 150 fighters are thought to be aligned with the former concert promoter whose name was once warbled by Drake in a song—and which had provided Showtime the bulk of its fights during its final years. Amazon may very well be the first major Silicon Valley incumbent to get behind boxing, but it is unclear what kind of financial guarantees they have committed to the PBC. (From the looks of it, not much.) The proliferation of “influencer boxing”—TikTokers, Twitch streamers, and other dilettantes looking to cash in on their cyber clout—and other gaudy celebrity mash-ups speaks to a vacuum in the sport and a desperation, perhaps, for new ideas.

One thing, however, remains clear: boxing has seldom seemed so expendable and fragmented as now. DAZN, after all, initially viewed the sport as “beachhead,” a relatively cheap stepping stone en route to tackling glitzier live sports properties like the NBA and NFL, neither of which ever became realistic targets for the platform. PBC executed the most audacious proof-of-concept strategy in recent memory back in 2015, when it attempted to deliver boxing back to network television (NBC, CBS, Fox) using a $500 million war chest—only to find itself back in the lap of premium cable a few years later. Other upstarts, like Ring City, a streaming series aimed at propping up the unheralded “middle class” of boxing, opened to great enthusiasm before flaming out after just a handful of shows. Much of what has transpired in boxing in the past decade brings up the image of a shuttlecock jolting from racket to racket. The latest volley has sent the sport sailing into a monarch state in the Middle East. Schmuck boxing, then, for the sand dunes.

A moolah machine and one of the top heavyweight boxers for nearly a decade, Anthony Joshua, thirty-four, has been for some time a biannual sporting attraction in his native England, where his fights bear more comparison to spectacles featuring the Rolling Stones or Manchester United than any analog found in boxing. Joshua is handsome and urbane, if at times imperious, with a rippling physique that could hardly be improved, much to the delight of his myriad sponsors. Yet despite the cachet he merits at home, three out of his last seven fights have taken place in Saudi Arabia, beginning with his 2019 rematch with tubby underdog Andy Ruiz Jr. in Diriyah.

On March 8, the British powerhouse fights again in Saudi Arabia, this time against Cameroonian-French former mixed-martial artist Francis Ngannou. Amiable and soft-spoken, Ngannou is also making an improbable appearance. A former heavyweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Ngannou made his debut last October against the volatile British titlist Tyson Fury, the Merry Prankster of the heavyweight division, in one of the many recent “crossover” fights: glorified mismatches between boxers and ex-UFC fighters, held under boxing rules. For all his success inside the Octagon, Ngannou should have had no business being in the ring with arguably the top heavyweight boxer in the world; even by the low standards in boxing media, there was no shortage of critics who lambasted the matchup as cynical and crass. But Ngannou managed to acquit himself implausibly well, even scoring a knockdown of Fury before settling for a split-decision loss on the slimmest of margins on the scorecards. For his troubles Ngannou reportedly received a $10 million purse, possibly more than his entire career earnings from the UFC; according to his manager, Ngannou will net another cool eight-figure purse against Joshua.

That Saudi Arabia has managed to pluck an economic powerhouse such as Joshua from his usual ecosystem with all its perks and comforts—and pay a neophyte like Ngannou such dividends—speaks to the vast resources, impunity, and ambition of a country whose only tangible historical connection to boxing is Muhammad Ali’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1972. The March 8 contest marks the third high-profile boxing card to be held in the country in little more than five months. It would have counted as the fourth show, but the “undisputed” heavyweight championship between Fury and the brilliant Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk, originally set for February 17, was waylaid after Fury reportedly suffered a deep cut over his right eye during training; the fight has been rescheduled to May 18.

The vertiginous pace borders on the reckless, given the logistical hurdles of putting together a boxing card and the outsize personalities that have thus far been assembled. Then again, with the way the oil-rich Saudis have been splurging for the past several years, pouring billions of dollars from the sixth largest sovereign wealth fund in the world into sports as varied as golf, tennis, Formula 1, soccer, horse racing, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts, and, yes, boxing, “reckless” is just a relative concept—save perhaps for those watchdogs and moralists who point to the country’s intractable human rights abuses: the dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018; the deplorable treatment of migrant workers in dangerous trades like construction; the brutal crackdown on dissenters with as little as ten followers on X; the mass executions à la Robespierre; and the disastrous war on Yemen, to name a few examples.

Accusations of sportswashing hinge on the premise that the Saudis are concerned foremost about rehabilitating their image in the eyes of westerners.

Credit for these moves in boxing must go to Turki Alalshikh. While he shares no blood relations with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the much-hyped thirty-eight-year-old autocrat tasked with weaning his country off of crude oil, Alalshikh is thought to be a key advisor of the MBS inner circle. According to the Guardian, Alalshikh played a major role as enforcer in the 2017 palace coup, which saw MBS force the harrowing resignation of the previous crown prince in a scene straight out of The Godfather. (“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Phil Mickelson, the prime mover behind Saudi Arabia’s brazen incursion into golf, once told his biographer Alan Shipnuck.) Political muscle aside, Alalshikh, forty-two, also appears to be independently wealthy; his acquisition of the second-tier Spanish soccer club Almería smacks of divertissement and was reportedly purchased without state funds.

Although Saudi Arabia hosted significant boxing matches as early as 2018, it was not until Alalshikh asserted himself last summer and muscled out the previous backer of fights in the country that boxing has become a regular feature of its sports portfolio. Under Alalshikh, who chairs the General Entertainment of Authority, a governmental body tasked with boosting the tourist sector through various cultural offerings, Saudi Arabia has quickly become a boxing boom town on the basis of nothing more complicated than presenting career-high oodles of cash to fighters and their representatives. Whereas a boxing promoter typically negotiates a purse for each fighter based on projections of the financial pot (site fee, pay-per-view revenue, ticket sales, foreign television rights, sponsorships, etc.), ensuring carefully that the promoter does not end up at a deficit, Alalshikh has no need to heed such concerns. The Saudis are throwing money around, says a prominent boxing handler who requested anonymity because he represents fighters that may appear on future fight cards in Saudi Arabia. “This isn’t a profit-making thing. They don’t operate under the same rules as, say, a regular promoter.” (This spendthrift ethos is mirrored in the curious mishmash of celebrities Alalshikh has lured to Riyadh, which, to wit, have included Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Costner, Mark Wahlberg, and Eva Longoria.)

If less than a year ago no one in boxing knew who Alalshikh was, now the powerbroker has rival boxing promoters—not a species known much for their sense of bonhomie—holding hands (literally) with each other and drinking at his personal trough, as they take turns trading paeans to “His Excellency,” which is Alalshikh’s title. The royal court advisor apparently places a premium on personal interaction. “I deal with the boxers, the sportsmen, and their promoters as their brothers,” Alalshikh said at a recent press conference. “They all have my private number and deal with me directly.” In a sign of how quickly he has managed to consolidate power in the sport, a recent listicle published by the British newspaper the Independent ranking the fifty most influential figures in combat sports in 2024 pinned Alalshikh at the top spot, ahead of old hands like UFC strongman Dana White and Canelo Álvarez, the biggest boxing star in North America.

Alalshikh, who hides behind dark shades and a Cheshire grin, speaks in gruff, broken English, and has no difficulty letting his authority be felt. In response to an American promoter who expressed some reservations about staging fights in Saudi Arabia on publicity grounds, not moral ones (God forbid), Alalshikh responded, “We will miss him.” To Gervonta Davis, the brash knockout artist from Baltimore, who insisted he would need “two Ferraris” to even begin thinking about fighting there, Alalshikh quipped, “We will send you two gloves if you want to play in Saudi Arabia—that’s it.”

It should be said that Alalshikh appears to be a genuine boxing fan. His favorite fighters are Roberto Durán and Larry Holmes, choices that have immediately endeared him to boxing’s hardcore fanbase. Indeed, there has been far more approbation than outrage in boxing circles in response to the rise of Alalshikh. His appeal, in one sense, is not hard to explain. Unlike other professional sports, boxing is a wholly decentralized business, a fact that has been brought into relief with the loss of HBO and Showtime and the sport’s plunge into streaming. There is no league in boxing, no czar, no barrier to entry, no coherent schedule, no one set of uniformly agreed-upon regulations, no fighters’ association. As a result of such fragmentation, there is never any guarantee that the top two fighters in a weight division will fight each other, as questions of promotional and broadcast affiliations are routinely prioritized over notions of competition. This adherence to anarchy and ad-hoc arrangements, the persistent infighting and factionalism, can make the sport a frustrating experience for a fan who simply wants to see the best fight the best.

With the underwriting provided by Alalshikh, the best indeed seem poised to fight each other. After two years of bitter, fatuous negotiations, Fury and Usyk will square off on May 18 in what will decide the first undisputed champion in the heavyweight ranks since Lennox Lewis did so in 1999. And it appears Alalshikh is on the brink of finalizing yet another highly coveted matchup that has eluded fans for several years later this summer: a light heavyweight title unification between Artur Beterbiev and Dmitry Bivol, two of the most talented fighters in the sport, regardless of division. If Alalshikh can circumvent the usual overwrought negotiations and political squabbles that regularly prevent compelling bouts from materializing by guaranteeing payouts over and beyond what prices those fights would fetch on the open market, it will not be long before his name gets etched in a bronze plaque at the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, Amnesty International be damned. In this sense, sportswashing is a perfectly acceptable proposition for denizens in boxing so long as Saudi Arabia continues to overpay as an organizing principle. “It’s more money for boxers right now, boxers that for whatever reason [the Saudis] want to see,” says the boxing handler. “So I can’t knock it.” 

Frank Warren, the veteran British promoter of Tyson Fury and Alalshikh’s chief promotional ally, perhaps summed up the situation best by casting it in realpolitik terms. Without the Saudis, “these fights just would not be happening. That’s a fact—doesn’t matter which way you want to dress it up,” he says, adding that this is just what boxing fans have been crying out for for years. “Now it has changed. And it’s happening so quickly, so fast, and it’s one after one, great fights . . . If you’re a boxing fan, you’re in boxing heaven. So, for me, personally—and I think I speak for everyone in boxing—thank you, Your Excellency, for all you’ve done to help to make these events happen.”

A sport long wedded to tropes of corruption—pinky rings, crooked fedoras, cigar smoke—is perhaps the last place to expect a moral hardline. Until recently, large swaths of the boxing business were connected to the trigger-happy Irish narco-terrorist Daniel Kinahan, on whose head the U.S. government levied a $5 million bounty in 2022. Illegal doping, which, for a blood sport, invites implications that go beyond mere questions of competitiveness, continues to proliferate in the absence of a legitimate judicial apparatus.

Always in search of its next benefactor, boxing, moreover, has a long history of soliciting dictatorships to fund fights. In the 1970s, Muhammad Ali fought in Mobutu’s Kinshasa, in the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos, and in Indonesia, when it was still backed by its murderous dictator Suharto. And in what is probably the most infamous example of moral amnesia in boxing, promoter Bob Arum staged fights in apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s.

What is less seldom talked about is how much of sports is tied into an earnestly national agenda of the MBS regime.

With far more legitimate sports having thrown their lot in with Saudi Arabia, that has given boxing, perversely, a degree of rhetorical cover. “I’m not at all happy about it,” says Kurt Emhoff, an attorney who has been involved in boxing for nearly three decades and longtime proponent of organizing the sport. “Fucking PGA golf is there, and golf is as white-collar and spiffy as you can get. And their commissioner got on his knees and was willing to take whatever Saudi wanted to give him for money. Is it enough that everybody else is doing it? No, it’s not. But this is where we are. If it makes dollars, it makes sense.”

Accusations of sportswashing—the preferred cudgel used by mainstream outlets like the Guardian and the New York Times to criticize the country—hinge on the premise that the Saudis are concerned foremost about rehabilitating their image in the eyes of westerners. But this framework overstates Saudi anxiety of the Global North and ignores the broad concatenation of economic and sociopolitical moves going on with their involvement with sports. “Sportswashing has become so overused that people are not actually stopping and asking what’s going on,” says Natalie Koch, a political geographer at Syracuse University focused on the Middle East. “Of course there are legitimate concerns about their human rights records and all sorts of awful things going on in Saudi Arabia today, but just writing it off as sportswashing misses the fact that this whole sports enterprise is taking place completely with the buy-in and enthusiasm of a lot of Western actors.”

Saudi Vision 2030, the much-cited Saudi pitchbook spearheaded by MBS to turbocharge and transform the Saudi economy, freeing it from a century of oil dependence and a rentier social contract, has been regarded by some as sportswashing boilerplate. But if the charges that the Saudi government is burnishing its reputation with these events hold true, its economic concerns remain legitimate, existential even, as the oil crash of 2014 demonstrated. About 40 percent of the GDP of Saudi Arabia is derived from crude, an unhealthy ratio in a world increasingly going green. OPEC projections show global oil consumption beginning to drop off in 2045, giving Saudi Arabia essentially twenty-five years to diversify its economy. Sports, as MBS explained in a rare interview with Fox last year, is expected to play a part in shoring up this endeavor. “If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1 percent, then I will continue doing sport washing,” MBS said. “I don’t care . . . I have 1 percent growth of GDP from sports, and I am aiming for another 1.5 percent. Call it whatever you want, we are going to get that 1.5 percent.” 

What is less seldom talked about is how much of sports is tied into an earnestly national agenda of the MBS regime. “Alongside Donald Trump saying Make America Great Again, and President Xi saying Make China Great Again, and Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak saying Make Britain Great Again, you also have Mohammed bin Salman effectively saying Make Saudi Great Again,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School. “What we’re now seeing is a rise in national self-interest. So I think we have to be absolutely clear: Saudi Arabia is pursuing an agenda that will benefit Saudi Arabia.”

As Saudi Arabia looks outward to remake itself, it is also working to calibrate the volatile centrifuge that is their domestic politics with the gambit of a new jingoism. With roughly 70 percent of a population of 36 million people under the age of thirty-five, Saudi Arabia is essentially a Gen Z country. In the wake of the Arab Spring and the recent rise of broad pan-Arab support for the Palestinian plight in response to Israel’s genocidal campaign on Gaza, no Gulf monarch can tend to his citizenry without the thought of unrest and even insurrection hanging over his head. Sports are then a strategic hedge aimed at placating a young population from rising up against the state. “Essentially what is now happening is that we’re seeing the implicit renegotiation of the Saudi Arabian social contract,” says Chadwick. “All these Gen Z youngsters, you want great [soccer] players, you want fantastic auto racing events, you want top boxing bouts? Then you got them. We’ll give them to you. But in return for that, the implicit agreement is that you do not question us.”  

And there will be no questions either from Anthony Joshua or Francis Ngannou or Tyson Fury or Oleksandr Usyk or Deontay Wilder so long as Alalshikh et al. continue to keep the merry-go-round running. When it ends—and it invariably will—boxing will surely hobble to its next Faustian pact. In the meantime, for fans in the United States uninterested in taking a stand, schmuck boxing rolling in the sand dunes may just mean having to get used to the time difference, the best fighting the best on Saturday afternoons and the graveyard slots.