Bunce Diary: The day before the carnival, I cast my eye over some Saudi amateur boxing

NOBODY knew I went to the Saudi Arabian Central Region amateur boxing championship on the Saturday before the carnival.

As part of the rich boxing event, there had been plans for a slick trip to a gym to meet a Saudi female boxer. I avoided that. It seems nobody knew that at the amateur boxing, there were nine female fights, female referees, judges, officials and doctors. And dozens of female fans in the seats.

A man called Kevin Smith is in charge of the Saudi boxing team now. He was at the Golden Gloves in Liverpool for 20 years, then Scotland, the Philippines, Nigeria at the 2012 Olympics and then Australia for eight years. He is not part of any public relations gang; Kev is a proper scouser. I reached out, I jumped in a dirty taxi and made my way to the edge of town for the amateur boxing. I was on my own, the rest of the media horde were stalking Deontay Wilder and Mike Tyson. And then attending a gala evening meal. I had biscuits and tea.

It was free to get in, by the way. Boxers, it turns out, like to bring a kid with a drum when they fight. At ringside there was one official Saudi princess. I recognised her from the two Anthony Joshua fights. She was just about the only woman wearing traditional clothing. Her favourite fighter, a lightweight called Asmayel Kadegh, had dyed her hair blonde. The pair happily posed after Kadegh won. Then Kadegh made her way upstairs to the stands and was high-fiving her fans – both male and female. No propaganda machines, no cameras, soundbites or fakery.

I asked Smith about the relaxed feel, the easy mixing of men and women in the seats, the noise, the female referee. “I guess it’s just boxing, the real stuff,” he replied. We both agreed that the venue, a classic piece of concrete from the Seventies, the boxing and the crowd made it feel like the Schoolboy semi-finals in 1984. It was a bit edgy, the venue not great, the quality mixed. I would have been no more shocked if Thor the walrus had led Tommy Fury out the following day.

The numbers registering for the Saudi regional championships (there are three regions and the National championships are in Riyadh this weekend) have doubled in three years. These are figures from the new records that Smith has started to keep; the PR firm running the giant media ship at the Fury v Paul fight, had no real idea what I was talking about when I told them about the event. It had slipped under radars, a long way from Mike Tyson and the carnival.

The night before, there had been a boxing princess in the semi-final and she had lost; Smith had wanted to take her to a tournament in Europe but it is not easy to travel if you are part of the ruling family. There are rules and regulations and he dropped her. “Next time, who knows?” he told me.

There were a few eccentrics in the finals; one woman pulled her gloves off and launched them fifty feet when she was stopped. She does it all the time, apparently. One of the men, asked for the fight to be halted for a second so that he could ask his coach a question. One of the women took 15-second breaks between letting fifteen punches go. We timed her. A female coach was removed for excessive shouting and I thought she might have to be evicted from the building. It was like an amateur show from my (and Smith’s) history. We ate our biscuits and drank our tea. And smiled a lot.

Naseibah Al-Jeffery is from Jeddah. She is a referee and she once worked on the breakfast show on BBC radio Stoke. It’s hard to invent this stuff. During a prayer break I had a chat with her. She liked boxing, applied to be a referee and started a year or so ago. Last December, Smith sent her to Bangkok to watch and learn at the Asian Under-22 tournament. She was impressive. She works in the media, producing television. In 2019 she fell in love with boxing when she attended Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.

Smith has been on site for just over one year and is putting in  place a team he can trust. He also needs a gym, a national centre. There are bold plans, he is listening. There are people listening to him from inside the new Saudi boxing system. I found that out the next night.

“There are ways to get things done here. I call it the genie,” Smith said. “You can be bashing your head against brick walls trying to get something done and then you find the genie. You get it done straight away. The genie is not in a lamp, it’s on the end of the phone – you just need the right number.” The local name for Smith’s genie is wasta.

The genie, however, can’t magic a fighter; Smith will have to be patient and work with what he has. The genie can help with things like documents, access. And that includes serious papers.

Last Saturday, the youth super-heavyweight, a proper handful, won in the first round. He is just 17 and raw like all big lads in the top division. Last year in Cairo, he got a bronze at the Arab Under-18 championship. Alzahran Ahmad can fight, make no mistake. Thirty minutes after his win, he was out in a t-shirt and shorts, cheering on Kadegh; she can really fight and she has the flavour for it.

“She’s not bad, her,” Smith said. “But there is another lightweight – she is better.” There certainly is.

I love a story like this.

Last December at the Saudi Games, there were seven boxing weights; three for women. The lightweight winner was Hadeel Ashour. She beat Al-naimi Ragad in the final and Ragad made history on the Fury undercard when she became the first female Saudi professional. Ashour was paid one million Saudi riyals for the win (all winners, in all sports received the same fee). It is the equivalent of 220,000 pounds.  “I like her a lot,” Smith said. Ashour might go on the road soon with a touring party of Smith’s first group of Saudi boxers.

Knowing Smith, it will not become a publicity stunt.

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