The Beltline: Without Middle Eastern promises, does the heavyweight division even exist?

8 Min Read

ASIDE from the more obvious and well-documented reasons why boxing in the Middle East is not necessarily a good thing, another reason why it should perhaps be approached with caution is because of how it has warped the minds of fighters who now see only the money they can make from fights in that part of the world.

It’s true, unfortunately. In just a few short years we have seen fighters, particularly at heavyweight, experience an inflated sense of worth due to either what they have been offered to fight in the Middle East or what they have heard others have been offered to fight there. This, naturally, has caused a cost of boxing crisis, a problem easy to ignore until now.

Until now, the idea of big-name fighters getting together in the Middle East and being paid handsomely had seemed okay on the whole. Sure, there was the ever-present cloud of sportswashing hanging over it, as well as other equally questionable practices we are taught to ignore, but, for the most part, what’s the harm in boxers being paid a lot of money to put their lives on the line and fight each other? If it gets the fight made, who, in the end, really cares where the money comes from? What’s more, only an ignorant fool would claim that all the money that once funded the adored superfights of old was entirely kosher or easily traced.

The issue, I suppose, and the thing that makes the Middle East influence such a dilemma for boxing in 2023, is the sheer size of the paydays they are promising fighters – again, mostly at heavyweight. This, to these heavyweights, is no issue at all, of course, for their main goal is to get paid, yet the damage this reckless generosity is doing to the sport, long-term, could be irreparable if something isn’t done to manage it at some point.

Consider, for one, the very real possibility that in the future any big fight worth anything to anyone will not take place in its natural habitat – say, an all-British world heavyweight title fight in Britain – but will instead immediately be pushed towards Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi, where the pot of gold is buried and where, they will tell you, it makes (financial) sense. Consider, too, the fact that inactivity will become rife, even more so, on account of these top-shelf fighters simply waiting for opportunities they expect to bring them the sort of windfalls only fights in the Middle East can offer.

Like spoiled children given whatever they want by weekend dads, we are creating in these fighters a sense of entitlement and an overblown impression of themselves that does nobody any good. It does the fighters no good, these competitors who would have otherwise had at least half an eye on creating a legacy, and it doesn’t exactly benefit promoters, either, who are now handcuffed by their own inability to generate commensurate paydays and promote at home.

Now, just like the fighters, promoters are looking for an easy ride. They don’t have weekend dads desperate to spoil them, but instead have Middle Eastern sugar daddies for whom the goal is very similar. Such an arrangement as good as allows these promoters to throw someone else’s money at their fighters and then sit back on fight night inside a dead arena and watch the gluttony exhibition unfold before their eyes. Such an arrangement spares them having to do the hard graft, both at the negotiating table and on the event itself.

This is all new to them, just as it is new to us, and just as it is new to the boxers. In many ways, if you happen to be consumed by money, it’s the Promised Land, the end of the rainbow, the ultimate chance for them all to get rich and never again have to think about fighting three times a year or risking it all against rivals in dangerous fights. For, after all, what is the risk when so much cash is at stake? At best, it’s a calculated risk, a sensible risk, with the only risk being the obvious one: punches coming at you from a big man. That aside, there is no safer bet, and no safer night’s work, than a boxing match in the Middle East, where arenas are stripped of their soul, rings are stripped of all authentic competition, and two men are stripped bare for horny sheikhs at ringside.

As for the likes of Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder, all of whom have been linked to some pie-in-the-sky heavyweight tournament in the Middle East later this year, one starts to wonder if any of them have any interest in competing in meaningful fights anywhere other than in the Middle East. Because at this stage, with so much money on offer in that neck of the woods, there is a feeling that any fight between those four is somehow too costly to end up anywhere else, which, in turn, begs the question: Do any of them really want to fight for anything other than monetary gain?

That, of course, has been the driving force behind prizefighting since its inception, but there did seem to at least be more of a balance – or, at worst, an attempt to pretend – back when fighters had to fight their rivals in order to be paid the kind of sums they were pursuing. Here, sadly, it seems to be markedly different. Here, with Fury, Usyk, Joshua and Wilder, there appears to be no desire whatsoever for them to fight each other, or prove anything against each other, or even fight anyone else, regardless of what it may or may not do to their respective legacies. Instead, thanks in large part to the Middle East overpaying for events, as well as this backwards notion in society that wealth is somehow the only barometer of success, we have four heavyweights whose legacy – their combined legacy – is in danger of being defined by greed rather than courage.

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