Instead of using the pages of this week’s Boxing News magazine to wrap up his fish and chips, Frank Warren may want to keep it for prosperity. As well as staging what is surely the most stacked British card of 2023 this weekend, the Hall of Famer is at the heart of a seismic shift in the sport of boxing that arguably makes him the most influential promoter in the entire sport.
And he told us it was coming. Game changing was the term he used, a term that was laughed at, when it was announced that heavyweight belt-holder Tyson Fury would be taking on debutant Francis Ngannou in a fight that would open Riyadh Season in Saudi Arabia.
It became apparent that we may have been a little too hasty in our judgement when it was later confirmed that Fury – once he’d made mincemeat out of this UFC imposter – would take on Usyk for all the heavyweight belts later in the Season.
But nobody could have predicted that Ngannou, much better at boxing than he had any business to be, would almost beat Fury over 10 rounds. Not a joke, then, but a genuine scare and a genuine fight. Few would have foreseen the sheer scale of the carnival that occurred in Riyadh, either. A cool half a billion was reportedly spent on making it look like the greatest event that boxing had ever seen. Eminem brushed shoulders with Manny Pacquiao while Ronaldo made small talk with Mike Tyson. If that opening of Riyadh Season was designed to show everyone what the Saudis can bring to the boxing world, what’s brewing for the rest of this year and beyond will prove they’re here to take over.
The original plan was for Fury and Usyk to at last come together on December 23. But with Fury nursing black eyes, alongside physical and psychological exhaustion after surviving the shock of Ngannou, it simply could not occur then. It will soon be formally confirmed that Fury and Usyk will fight in February, likely on the 17th.
But let’s rewind for a moment. On Monday October 30, two days after Ngannou had scuppered the end of year Fury-Usyk extravaganza, Queensberry Promotions – led by Frank and son George Warren – sat down with the General Entertainment Authority (GEA) and were told to get busy building a fight card on December 23 to replace Fury-Usyk.
What they’ve managed to put together in the space of a fortnight is frankly astonishing. There are plenty of intriguing fights, others not so much, but with the swift deadline in mind, and therefore certain fighters making weight a potential issue, this again had to be anchored in the heavyweight division.
On Wednesday (November 15), it was announced that Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder will co-headline the eight-fight event in separate bouts. Joshua will take on Otto Wallin while Wilder, inactive for 14 months, will fight Joseph Parker. Two genuinely appealing matchups, both with serious jeopardy attached to them. Okay, it’s not Joshua vs Wilder, a contest we’ve long been promised, but this is the first time in far too long that plans, real ones, are now underway to match them. There’s every chance it could all go belly-up with one swing of an underdog’s glove but, frankly, only those who’ve tried and failed to make the fight in the past should be to blame if that occurs. And if that does happen, one hopes those currently pulling the strings are taught an important lesson.
Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter and long-time rival to Frank, was this week in Saudi, posing for photos. Boxing News understands this will be a Queensberry Promotions event, however, and will be in association with Matchroom, Wasserman Boxing, Top Rank and Bomb Squad, Wilder’s own promotional company. The British Boxing Board of Control – like at the Fury-Ngannou event in October – will preside over the card to provide officials and doctors.
It’s too early to say if Riyadh Season will become a permanent fixture in the boxing calendar like, say, the big Las Vegas weekends in May and September. That is currently the idea. And what’s more, if it does indeed become longstanding, one can imagine that the fighters not currently on the radar of the Saudi’s will do all they can to ensure they are come the start of the next season. October to March is now the time for the biggest fights to take place, it seems, with March to October, perhaps, becoming a qualifying period for consideration.
And though some will understandably bemoan the biggest fights heading exclusively to Saudi, a nation whose reputation to the rest of the world is, to put it mildly, a work in progress, we could soon have a situation where we now know those biggest fights will inevitably occur. Imagine that for a moment. It’s a scenario that hasn’t happened for an awfully long time, if at all. Would we prefer them in London or Las Vegas or New York? Of course. But would we prefer them in Saudi than not happening at all? The answer again is obvious.
We’d be foolish not to be cautious. Billions can be extracted from the sport as quickly as they can be invested. And the convoluted nature of boxing – the belts, the mandatories, the rival broadcasters, and the warring promoters – may one day soon convince those in control of the Middle Eastern riches to spend their time and cash on something without such complications. Or – another scenario that shouldn’t be discounted – after observing the promoters and the commissions they currently trust to make the fights, and after nurturing good relationships with the fighters themselves, they may decide they don’t need any outside help at all.
For now, though, the likes of Warren remain an essential cog in the enterprise. Look at the heavyweight leaders and try to identify a fighter who Warren hasn’t either worked with in the recent past or won’t be working with in the near future. Look at the division’s hottest prospect while you’re at it. Teenager Moses Itauma is very much Team Warren.
Frank Warren may have started the year grimacing with a bad back and losing sleep over the frustrations that trying to finalise Fury-Usyk caused. By the time Christmas comes along, however, expect the old master to have a smile on his face far wider than the rest.