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The Middle East Makes a Case for Being the New Global Hub of Combat Sports

Move over, Las Vegas. Later, London. Awash with cash that is being spent to revamp economies and images, the Middle East — and Saudi Arabia in particular — is emerging as a, if not the, new global hub of combat sports.

The trend comes amid a wave of investment into fighting sports by entities in the Middle East, as countries and other figures vie for soft power and new tourism opportunities. Saudi Arabia scored its most high-profile goal in late October when it was awarded the 2034 FIFA World Cup, but the kingdom is also getting deeply involved in fighting, WWE and motorsports.

Boxing may have been the start of what some human rights groups refer to as “sportwashing,” or spending money to improve reputations through sports, when Saudi Arabia staged its first heavyweight fight in 2019 between Anthony Joshua of England and Andy Ruiz Jr. of the U.S., billed as the “Clash On The Dunes.”

But in 2023, the pattern has accelerated significantly. Through its SRJ (pronounced Surge) Sports Investments subsidiary, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund this past summer invested nine figures into the Professional Fighters League. That cash infusion made it possible for the PFL to acquire Bellator, a deal announced last week that will make PFL a more legitimate competitor with Ultimate Fighting Championship.

As for UFC, it recently announced plans to go to Saudi Arabia for the first time next March, in a move set up by TKO Group Executive Chairman Vince McMahon, as SBJ first reported. WWE has been going to the kingdom since 2014.

In a bid to grow the prestige and tourism of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority had a heavyweight boxing match with Tyson Fury and former UFC champion Francis Ngannou kick off the multimonth Riyadh Season in late October. And the scenario of Saudi Arabia being a bidder for other major boxing matches is becoming an increasingly occurring phenomenon.

“Saudi Arabia is absolutely the new fight capital of the world,” said Peter Murray, CEO of the PFL. “They believe in combat sports, and MMA in particular, as a growth sport globally and regionally within [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia]. There’s an opportunity to develop the sport and athletes at each stage across all combat sports starting with the grassroots and Olympic combat federations, including the Saudi MMA Federation and pro athletes, with an opportunity in the longer term to develop regional and global champions. It really starts with a vision and understanding MMA and combat sports overall, but there’s a real opportunity for KSA to be at the forefront of MMA globally, as well as regionally, at an athlete level and from an overall business standpoint.”

Because the kingdoms and sheikhdoms of the Middle East have such deep pockets, fighters looking to maximize their income in the dangerous sports have a big incentive to accept offers from the region. Ngannou, the former UFC fighter, used to fight for what he said at times could be as low as mid-six figures in UFC bouts. But in his fight versus Fury, the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion of the world, Ngannou made “easily in the eight figures,” or more than $10 million, his agent, Marquel Martin, confirmed to SBJ.

Fury is set to fight again in Saudi Arabia early next year for the title of undisputed heavyweight champion versus Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usyk. Usyk also fought Joshua in 2021 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in a bout dubbed the “Rage on the Red Sea.” Reports at the time pegged both boxers making an eye-popping $40 million each for participating. The Ngannou-Fury fight last month featured elaborate production elements such as a pre-fight concert from rapper Lil Baby and a ring that was hydraulically lifted from below ground level.

In December, Deontay Wilder and Joshua will fight separate opponents as part of another upcoming card in Saudi Arabia.

“I personally love it because it offers the athletes more opportunity and the fans a new experience from a viewing perspective alone,” said Martin, a former CAA executive.

Source : gulflive.com