By George Gigney
I WOULD like to make a formal apology to Misfits Boxing and everyone involved in it. A few weeks ago, after Tommy Fury eked out a decision win over YouTuber KSI, I lambasted the event and others like it in this column. I stand by those comments – it absolutely sucked – but it was nowhere near as depressing as what we saw this past weekend.
In case you do literally live under a rock, here’s what happened at the weekend: Tommy’s older brother, Tyson, came desperately close to losing to former UFC champion Francis Ngannou in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The problem, at least for this writer, was not the crossover fight itself. Ngannou was, frankly, incredible and proved that Fury should have taken him far more seriously than he apparently did. It was a fun fight. The issue is the stage it was performed on.
Boxing, as a sport, has developed a close relationship with Saudi Arabia over the past five years and will now be a staple of ‘Riyadh Season,’ a months-long state-sponsored annual festival that features hundreds of entertainment and sports events that some claim is also a blatant attempt at washing away people’s awareness of the abhorrent human rights violations committed by the powers that be in the country.
But we knew all that before the Fury-Ngannou circus. And it really was a circus. All through fight week we were bombarded with video clips of all the various celebrities and sporting stars the Saudi government had likely paid to attend. Cristiano Ronaldo! The first Ronaldo! Eminem! Some guy from TikTok! Who cares about the 54-year-old teacher who was sentenced to death for tweeting criticism of the Saudi authorities to his 10 (ten) followers on Twitter when Kanye West and Luis Figo are sitting on a table together!?
That was the angle the broadcasters involved in this event (TNT Sports, ESPN and DAZN) were left with. Prior to the fight, there was almost no point in trying to break it down technically because it was such a gross mismatch on paper. And there was no way broadcasters would be allowed to engage in any sort of discourse about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University student, was given a 34-year prison sentence for just tweeting about women’s rights.
What’s frustrating is that there is room to discuss both sides: we should call out the transgressions of power but we can also acknowledge that positive changes, particularly with regards to women’s rights, are happening in the region.
Instead, fight night almost served as just an advert for Saudi Arabia. The phrase “no expense spared” was uttered seemingly every five minutes. A sit-down interview between TNT’s Caroline Pearce and Turki Alalshikh, Saudi’s Chairman of General Authority for Entertainment and the man now pulling the purse strings for boxing in the country, was just a series of fluff questions designed to let him list off everything happening during Riyadh Season.
Now it should be made clear at this point that TNT Sports, who aired the event in the UK, cannot be blamed for the areas of the broadcast that were blatant sportswashing. The parts of the show TNT did have control over – punditry and commentary, for example – were very good. They were just in bed with a regime that demands almost complete control over the narrative. Whether or not they should have gotten into that bed in the first place is a more difficult question to answer. And perhaps it isn’t the place of sports broadcasters to criticise governments for their actions.
On the topic of TNT’s punditry and commentary, credit is due. Laura Woods, Carl Frampton and Dan Hardy (drafted in for his UFC and MMA expertise) were the core punditry team, sometimes joined by the likes of Steve Bunce, Lennox Lewis and for some reason Rio Ferdinand. I don’t think even they knew quite what they had signed themselves up for, because they had to do an obscene amount of talking.
The pacing of this boxing event was arguably the worst in recent history, maybe ever. Again, it’s important to clarify this is down to its organisers, not the broadcasters involved. The broadcast began in earnest at 7pm GMT. The first bell for the main event did not ring until 11.45pm. During that four hours and 45 minutes, there were 31 minutes and 50 seconds (give or take) of actual boxing. That is over four hours of filler. Much of that was spent by the TNT team doing their absolute best to make it entertaining through interviews, analysis and predictions for the main event, but there really was only so much they could do. It was obvious that the organisers cared more about the pomp and circumstance rather than the actual boxing.
There was an ‘opening ceremony’ for the main event, which featured several musical acts before, finally, Fury and Ngannou made their way to the ring (which rose from the ground – exactly what the sport had been missing.
Darren Fletcher and Richie Woodhall covered the fight well, not shying away from the fact that Fury looked awful and Ngannou was a revelation. Though the TNT team might have got a bit too caught up in Ngannou exceeding expectations, as Frampton had him five rounds up (with the knockdown) after four rounds and almost all of them felt he had been ‘robbed’ by the split decision in Fury’s favour.
What did seem to be skipped over was how off Fury seemed. Not only during the fight (he looked as though he hadn’t even sparred for this) but afterward – he looked shell shocked but, more worryingly, he seemed very low. Oleksandr Usyk was dragged into the ring afterward but Fury, and his team, did not seem at all interested in thinking about that fight. It would be genuinely stunning if it does happen on the rumoured December 23 date.
So yes, boxing suffered significant damage on Saturday night, and not because the best heavyweight on the planet almost lost to a debutant. The soul of the sport, already withered and bent, is being draped in diamonds and silk to be paraded around as a distraction. And all we can do is watch.
Boxing on the Box
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Coverage begins at 7pm
Yokasta Valle-Anabel Ortiz
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Efe Ajagba-Joseph Goodall
Sky Sports Arena
Coverage begins at 1am
Jamel Herring-Nicholas Molina
Coverage begins at TBC