Pro Boxing Is Saudi Arabia’s Next Takeover Target

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Turki al-Sheikh (2nd from right) with boxer Anthony Joshua to his right, during a fight in Saudi Arabia (Photo: Hamad Mohammed/ Reuters)

An ambitious and expensive Saudi Arabian plan that would reshape the economics and structure of professional boxing is in the final stages of approval, according to the New York Times.

Under the Saudi proposal, about 200 of the top men’s boxers in the world would be signed up and divided into 12 weight classes of about 15 fighters each.

This would form a global boxing league where the best talents would regularly face off. Boxers would be able to move up the rankings tables but also be eliminated from the series and replaced by new talent.

There would also be a requirement for boxers to perform in a minimum number of events per year. This would prevent some of the top boxers from taking prolonged time away from the sport, a cause of frustration among boxing fans.

The single boxing entity would replace the sometimes chaotic system of duelling promoters and warring sanctioning bodies. It would on paper have the resources and the boxers to stage high-profile fights around the globe. And it would be funded by Saudi Arabia’s giant sovereign wealth vehicle, the Public Investment Fund.

The fund is holding final negotiations about dispersing the initial investment — estimated at $2 billion — that the proposal would require, according to the two people involved in the planning.

The project has been under discussion for more than a year, according to Reuters. If an investment decision is confirmed, the series could start as early as the first half of 2025.

Sela, a sports events company and a P.I.F. entity, would promote the events, which would be held in Saudi Arabia and around the world. Sela has already staged boxing events in Saudi Arabia, including the recent heavyweight unification bout between Britain’s Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk of Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as a key centre of pro boxing by offering huge purses and staging title fights. Turki al-Sheikh, chairman of the country’s General Entertainment Authority, has quickly become the most prominent figure in boxing.

According to NYT’s Tariq Panja, the key sticking point to the Saudi plan for boxing may be the long-term contracts that top boxers already have with high-profile promoters, many of whom are often separately tied to different television networks.

To resolve that issue, discussions have begun on the possibility of full or partial investments from the P.I.F. in several of the biggest boxing promotion companies.

Saudi Arabia has undertaken big-ticket inroads into other sports as well, such as professional golf and soccer, through the LIV Golf series and the signing of dozens of European soccer stars.

This has brought in huge amounts of fresh capital into clubs, teams, events, federations and sporting organisations.

But this has also unsettled sports industries, from professional golf to soccer to tennis, generating criticism that Saudi Arabia is reshaping perceptions of the kingdom through “sportswashing.”

Professional boxing appears to be its next target.

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