Saudi Arabia is swiftly becoming the centre of the boxing universe. The controversial Kingdom has had to contend with shouts of sportswashing, the act of trying to hide their questionable human rights record behind glitzy sporting occasions. But there is no doubt that their efforts, however malicious in their intent, have led to a slew of high profile boxing matches getting made.
This week has been a hive of activity in that regard, with Saudi Chairman of the General Entertainment Authority Turki Al-Sheikh setting many incredible fights in motion. It has been hard to keep up with all his pronouncements this week. Therefore, in a week which gave us the Anthony Joshua vs Francis Ngannou press conference in Riyadh, we offer up a decidedly Saudi-themed Five Boxing Stories You Might Have Missed.
Joseph Parker vs Zhilei Zhang Is On
Anthony Joshua’s upcoming bout with Francis Ngannou being confirmed a few weeks ago left Joseph Parker and Zhilei Zhang at a loose end. Both boxers, along with Filip Hrgovic, were understood to be on the shortlist to fight ‘AJ’ next. But with the Watford man opting to take on the former UFC champion, the two highly-ranked big men have turned to each other.
It is a cracking piece of matchmaking, with both fighters coming off banner years. Zhang knocked out unbeaten British hope Joe Joyce before repeating the trick in a rematch a few months later. Meanwhile, Parker went 4-0 in 2023, culminating in perhaps the upset of the year, beating Deontay Wilder. Now the heavyweight pair will tangle on the undercard of Joshua vs Ngannou. The victor has a great chance of being matched with the winner of the main event.
Jai Opetaia Gets Mairis Briedis Rematch
Another upcoming Saudi heavyweight card has had a major match-up added this week. All eyes will be on the main event on 17th February when Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk clash for the undisputed heavyweight championship. But the undercard will boast a superb cruiserweight clash to whet our appetites.
Turki Al-Sheikh confirmed that The Ring cruiserweight champion Jai Opetaia will face Mairis Briedis in a rematch from their 2022 clash. That fight was Opetaia’s breakout on the world stage, as he beat IBF champion Briedis in an upset.
The IBF saw fit to strip the Australian of his title last month for fighting Ellis Zorro in Riyadh, rather than their number one contender Briedis. But the Latvian was injured and gave his blessing for the Zorro fight to take place, with the promise he could fight the winner. The IBF stripped Opetaia anyway and, ridiculously, will now put their vacant belt on the line in this fight. What a mess, but the fight itself should be an excellent aperitif for the historic heavyweight main event.
Beterbiev vs Bivol Is Happening
The ring had barely been dismantled in Canada when Artur Beterbiev’s next move became near-official. The WBC, IBF and WBO light heavyweight champion had just finished thrashing Callum Smith to a seventh-round TKO defeat when news filtered out of Saudi Arabia that talks were underway for an undisputed light heavyweight title fight with WBA boss Dmitry Bivol.
The fight is arguably the best that can be made in boxing outside the Fury-Usyk clash. Like that collision, it is two unbeaten world champions coming together to unify the four major belts. Similar to its heavyweight counterpart, it is also a fight that divides opinion over the potential winner. In a sport that has erred too close to foregone conclusions in recent years, it is great to see another hyper-competitive match-up get made.
While no official date has been locked down, June or July seem to be the targets for this bout. Such scheduling makes sense given the Saudis are starting the year with the Fury-Usyk and Joshua-Ngannou cards. It also gives Bivol, who fought in December, and Beterbiev who boxed this month time to recover and re-enter camp.
But Wait, There’s More…
Not content with rubber-stamping fights involving Beterbiev, Bivol, Opetaia and Briedis, Turki has conceived of a de-facto elimination process involving these four athletes. Well, three of them.
Speaking to DAZN, the Saudi entertainment chief said “The result of Beterbiev-Bivol play against [cruiserweight] Opetaia, and the fans want to see this fight.”
Briedis was overlooked in Turki’s statement, which is a little unfair on the former two-time cruiserweight champion of the world. But even putting that aside, this is a curious eliminator. Beterbiev and Bivol are light heavyweights while Opetaia is a cruiserweight. Why exactly should whoever becomes the newly-minted undisputed 175 lb king move up to 200 lbs?
The answer is the same as it always is in Riyadh: a massive sack of money. But what an almighty risk to take on. Opetaia is a big cruiserweight who rehydrates to around 215 lbs on fight night. Asking fighters used to making 175 lb to bulk up and match that is dangerous. But money talks, especially in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Nick Ball Gets Rey Vargas Shot
This one is tucked away among the heavyweights and pound-for-pounders is a slightly lower-profile world title match-up. The March Joshua-Ngannou card will host Liverpool’s Nick Ball as he takes on WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas. While these fighters aren’t yet mainstream superstars like Fury or Joshua, their fight on the undercard of the latter might well be one of the best fights Riyadh stages this year.
Ball earned this shot with a unanimous decision win over former WBO super bantamweight king Isaac Dogboe last time out. Meanwhile Vargas is actually rebounding from a loss. The featherweight titlist moved up to super featherweight in an unsuccessful challenge for O'Shaquie Foster’s WBC super featherweight strap.
Vargas had hardly dazzled in his previous outing either, being knocked down on the way to winning a controversial decision over Mark Magsayo. The unbeaten Brit might just be coming into this fight at the right time. Could Britain be about to secure its first new world champion of 2024?
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