Saudi Arabia has overtaken Vegas as the world’s fight capital

It is a figure that discombobulates the mind every bit as sharply as a right hook to the temple. When Tyson Fury fights Oleksandr Usyk in Saudi Arabia for the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO world heavyweight championship belts in the early hours of Sunday morning, local time, he will reportedly earn a guaranteed £81.5m. And if pay-per-view sales are rosy enough, it could even balloon to more than £100m.

It is a brain-swelling amount of cash. Yet as both men prepare to step into the ring in Riyadh, history is also on their minds. Because, for the first time since Lennox Lewis defeated Evander Holyfield in November 1999, boxing is about to get another member of a very exclusive club: that of undisputed heavyweight champion.

The legendary promoter Bob Arum, who even at 92 can sell a fight with the best of them, describes it as the “biggest event in boxing in decades”. Unsurprisingly, that bullishness is also shared by an executive from the streaming channel, Dazn, which will show the fight to 20 million premium subscribers in more than 200 countries. “It will be the biggest pay-per-view fight in history,” he tells the Guardian.

But aside from the hype and history, this fight is also about symbolism and shifting sands. About where boxing is, and where Saudi Arabia is going.

The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, once suggested that “heavyweight-championship fights, from the days of John L Sullivan onward, are stories, morality plays … it is not enough that one man shock another man’s brain and send him reeling. There must be politics, too – or, at least, great lumps of symbol, historical subplots, metaphysical frosting.”

From Jack Johnson becoming the first black fighter to win the title in 1908 and destroying the narrative of white supremacy onwards, those words have rung true. Think of the American Joe Louis boxing the German Max Schmeling amid the looming shadow of a second world war. Muhammad Ali demanding “What’s my name, [Uncle] Tom?” to Ernie Terrell in 1967 when he refused to use his Muslim name. Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. And countless other stories before and since.

Fury versus Usyk? Well, that is significant too, as it marks another major step on big-time sport’s elopement with Saudi Arabia. It has been a staggeringly speedy romance. When another British heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, fought in Diriyah in 2019, his promoter Eddie Hearn predicted that the kingdom would overtake Las Vegas as the world’s premier venue for mega fights. That prophecy has already become a reality.