Saudi is the new destination for big-time boxing – Frank Warren

“Saudi is the destination for big-time boxing, there’s no doubt about that,” said Frank Warren.

The Hall of Fame promoter has seen a lot in his decades in boxing, but even he admits what is going on in boxing today is new to him.

Saudi Arabia has launched its financial might behind the sport, and while they got the combat sports world talking when Tyson Fury fought Francis Ngannou earlier this year, they have far grander plans ahead of them.

“That’s where it’s all happening, that’s where it’s going to happen,” Warren continued. “There will be big fights here, there will be big fights in Vegas and other countries but I think for the heavyweight division at the moment, that’s where all the action is going to be and as a result of that, anyone who is involved with any heavyweight of note will be working together, because that’s what will happen.” 

When discussing how much the fighters are making, Warren said: “They’re making millions and millions.”

Asked about his working relationship with Matchroom ahead of this weekend’s December 23 event in Saudi Arabia, Warren spoke of how others are working together now with Saudi money doing the talking. Warren is promoting the show, but Matchroom have Anthony Joshua, Jai Opetaia and Dimitrii Bivol on the show.

“But we’ve always worked with people,” Warren continued. “We work on a regular basis with promoters, it’s just on this particular show that Matchroom have Anthony Joshua and Matchroom are involved. But we will continue to work with them when the need arises. There’s no problem. I have never had a problem [with them]. Years ago, I talked about sitting down and trying to do something with them. That was about three or four years ago, so it’s now happening and that’s brilliant.”

The show features several fights that could be a main event, but the heavyweight clashes between Anthony Joshua and Otto Wallin and Deontay Wilder and Joseph Parker lead the way. Asked which event would close the show, Warren said: “I think that will be sorted out early in the week. It isn’t a problem. You’ve also got to look at time zones, for example America is further behind the UK in time zones, and so Deontay’s fight will want to be seen by a bigger audience and so forth, it’s a joint main event, the timings will be sorted out and they will be announced. The most important thing is, they’re on. Done it.”

Frank’s son, George, was instrumental in putting the show together, and at short notice, but Frank admits it’s been a combined efforts from all involved.

“It's a combination of everybody led by Turki [Alalshikh], he’s been instrumental with these fights saying ‘Let’s get this on. Let’s get this done’. And it’s been his vision they have and it’s the resources they have to make these fights occur. There was a request to get numerous fighters on the card that were all discussed. Obviously everybody wasn’t available, but the ones that were available are on.” 

Along with Tyson Fury-Oleksandr Usyk in February, there have been suggestions that 

Joshua and Wilder could meet in March. How far forward is the planning?

“I think you’re going to see quite a few big events in 2024,” Warren said. “There is a massive, massive commitment to boxing, to big fights. We’ve had numerous conversations about it. I think it’s going to be even more exciting next year, there’s no doubt about it, and they will just keep building. To be part of Riyadh Festival, most of these shows will go on during the Riyadh Season, that is brilliant for us. The Riyadh Season’s not just about boxing. It’s about cultural events, entertainment, other sporting events, and we’re part of that, and Tyson’s fight against Ngannou opened it up, so that’s the importance boxing has to Turki, who basically leads it and runs Riyadh Season, so that commitment is there. There are big fights to be made there, there are a number of fights that are in the pipeline. I can’t tell you what they are because it’s not appropriate at the moment, but at the appropriate time everybody is going to be really happy. I’m really excited. I’ve got to be honest, I have never ever seen a programme of events that is being put together [like this]. You think this card’s exciting, they just get better and better.”

Warren takes it back to Fury-Ngannou as a reason why boxing finds itself at this point. It was a gamble – some would contend an educated one, others would not – that paid off. Fury, it was felt by many, would be on another level from the former UFC star but he was dropped and given all he could handle over 10 competitive rounds. That whet the appetite for heavyweight boxing in Saudi, and now it seems like the financial floodgates are set to burst.

“When we announced Tyson fighting Ngannou, I said it was going to be a game changer,” Warren said. “The fight being on in Riyadh Season… And it is what it is. It’s a game changer. Look at this event coming up. But it’s a game changer all around in Saudi, because every sport in the world is involved there now in other events. Is it the fight capital? I think it will be. If you look back to the late fifties, early sixties or so forth when Vegas was opened, everyone was saying, ‘Who on earth is going to Vegas in the middle of a desert?’ ‘What’s going to be going on there?’ ‘What entertainment is going to happen there?’ But it happened. And the commitment is there now to make all types of events, entertainment and sport, and it is happening as we’re speaking.”

Earlier this month, golfer John Rahm signed an agreement with the Saudi’s worth a reported £450m. But the desire for boxing is there, too, and through the weight classes as well. 

“I believe so, I believe it’s not just a commitment to heavyweight boxing,” Warren went on. “In a very short space of time the division’s been shook up, got hold of and this is what is going to happen and we’re seeing the fights and they’re happening and I think that’s going to happen in other divisions. I’m quite sure of that. There’s great commitment there to make them. I’ve got to be very honest. We wouldn’t have got this card together anywhere else. Because financially it wouldn’t be feasible. Financially, it’s feasible because of the commitment from the Saudis, His Excellency, to make it happen, and it’s an extreme commitment. It’s just amazing what’s happened for the sport but it’s happening in all sports. There is a commitment to turn the Riyadh Season to become the biggest multi-cultural event in the world. There’s no doubt about that. They’ve done it. This is called professional boxing, and every bit of sport that takes place there is mostly professional and the reason it’s taking place there is because there’s a premium being paid to bring people to the Kingdom. They’re professional boxers. They wouldn’t be going there if they weren’t getting paid. They’re getting well paid and they’re going there. And is there a revolution? Yeah, there’s a revolution, like when people went to Vegas. Why do you think people went to Vegas? Because they got well paid. Why did British fighters go to Vegas? Then the game changed, when we had all the heavyweights coming from the UK and there were fights happening here. There was a revolution when heavyweight fights were taking place on a regular basis in Germany, with the Klitschkos. Because they were attractions, that’s what’s happening. They are a new destination and they’re a big destination and, let’s get it right, they don’t do things by half. Everything they do is amazing… They’re in a position to do things that we can’t do and that is great for the fans. The fans win in every way and certainly if you’re in the UK, you’re getting these fights at primetime if you’re not there.” 

Warren has a stable of fighters and a deal with TNT Sports. Plenty of his fighters have had their heads turned by the prospect of getting on one of the lucrative Saudi cards.

“Of course people want to fight out there,” Warren continued. “Everybody’s not going to go and fight out there. That’s just not going to happen. There’ll be fighters from around the world, as there is on this card and will be on future cards, who’ll be fighting there and occasionally some of our up and coming guys will appear on the card, for example Moses Itauma has already fought out there and will probably fight out there again and it’s a great opportunity for them, and if they’ve got the ambition to do that it’s really easy you’ve just got to keep winning, and get yourself into a position to fight for a world title. Anything can happen at the moment because it seems all these guys are inspired because they can see the big prize they can get now. The big prizes that are there for them.”

After December 23, there is February 17 with Fury-Usyk over the line. But Warren is tight-lipped on the future in Saudi. Their grip of golf, among other sports, has been rapid. Boxing has needed some kind of centralisation for years. Do the Saudis have a vision of a league, an organisation, that could benefit the sport and its greater-good?

“There’s a lot of things happening I can’t comment on at the moment, but I feel boxing is in a good place and they will enhance all that’s going on in boxing in a big way,” Warren said, before adding of the February 17 show, “There will be some fabulous fights on the undercard. You’re going to love it. The [UK] broadcast [deal] is being worked on.”