By Elliot Worsell
RIYADH SEASON – or, in Arabic, موسم الرياض – are the two words on everybody’s lips at this present time, particularly if you happen to work in boxing and are known to lick your lips whenever you see the opportunity to make a few quid.
In fact, so fixed in the boxing lexicon has Riyadh Season become you can’t help but be caught up in it all, intrigued by it all, and want to know more. It’s almost as if by constantly mentioning it and hashtagging it that is the very goal; to deflect, via the use of words like “festival” and “celebration”, from the simple fact that, in sporting terms, there is little to celebrate when it comes to Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou, Riyadh Season’s rather bizarre opening act.
Yes, the people paid to work on the event will tell you otherwise, but that doesn’t mean these words nor the people saying them should be taken seriously. They will, per their job description, invariably use phrases like “just a bit of fun”, or, in the context of freakshow fights, “It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last, son; Ali-Inoki, innit.” They will also be the first to call it a “celebration”. A celebration of combat sports. A celebration of heavyweights. A celebration of big men with big power. More accurately, a celebration of wealth.
Indeed, of those four causes for celebration, the last is by far the most pertinent. It’s the reason, ultimately, Fury, the world heavyweight boxing champion, agreed to indulge Ngannou, a mixed martial artist about to make his boxing debut, in the first place. It’s also the reason why many boxing people, those who have helped make this happen, see no issue with it, nor acknowledge what it says about either the health of boxing generally or the state of boxing’s heavyweight division. “It’s a game-changer,” they will say – and have been known to say. “Remember: all it takes is one punch.”
At first, and understandably, the Middle East influence, growing by the year, was greeted with great concern and suspicion in boxing. However, now one can’t help but wonder how the sport will look in the future without it, especially if it holds the key to fights like Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk and Deontay Wilder vs. Anthony Joshua. After all, with bastions like Showtime and HBO now gone, and with DAZN believing the future of boxing involves “fights” between chronically online children who can’t box, and with Sky Sports looking like the woman who wants to dump her man but is afraid of upsetting his parents, who else is equipped and prepared to invest in a sport countless suitors have pillaged but never once seen as marriage material?
In many ways, you might say Saudi Arabia is the ideal match for a sport like boxing; something never more apparent than in the case of Fury vs. Ngannou. Because aside from the money it has cost to stage Saturday’s mammoth event (apparently the ring itself has set the organisers back a million pounds), out in Saudi you also have a contained bubble in which there is a willingness on the part of everyone involved in the event to dutifully pretend it is something it is not. In short, you have the perfect storm; the kind that in boxing is no longer seen as a storm at all but instead a light breeze; one that will, like all the ones before it, soon pass.
You also have Riyadh Season, don’t forget, the constant referencing of which is neither an accident nor coincidence. In fact, if you cast your mind back to when Saturday’s “Battle of the Baddest” was officially unveiled at the first press conference, you will recall that you couldn’t go thirty seconds without hearing someone at the top table saying the words Riyadh Season. If it wasn’t the two fighters, Fury and Ngannou, saying them, it was the two promoters, Frank Warren and Bob Arum, neither of whom, given their experience, expertise, and the respect they command, should feel beholden to anyone at this late stage in their respective careers.
Yet there they were, all four of them, speaking in glowing terms about a festival a mystery to most, doing so with all the sincerity and self-awareness of a Jake Humphrey podcast. It was all rather amusing, too. Amusing because what you essentially had were four men pretending to care about something that in the end is merely the PIN they must enter in order to all get paid: R-I-Y-A-D-H-S-E-A-S-O-N.
As for what Riyadh Season actually represents, it is basically this: a state-sponsored entertainment and sports festival which is part of the larger Saudi Seasons initiative (which includes Sharqiyah Season in March and Jeddah Season in June). It has been held since 2019 and runs from October to March; wintertime in Riyadh.
According to the chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, the government generated a staggering six billion Saudi Riyals (1.3 billion pounds) in revenue from the festival’s first incarnation in 2019, which attracted 10 million visitors, while in 2021 the event’s opening ceremony alone was attended by three quarters of a million people, all of whom flocked to the boulevard district to watch a parade, fireworks, and a concert by Pitbull.
This year, in what is the fourth edition of the festival, Fury vs. Ngannou, the so-called “Battle of the Baddest”, will kick things off on October 28. There will then be a WWE Crown Jewel event, which will be held in Mohammed Abdu Arena on November 4, in addition to the Riyadh Season Tennis Cup, which takes place on December 26 and 27, and UFC Fight Night 236, set for Boulevard Hall (Kingdom Arena) on March 2, 2024.
Football is getting in on the act, too, with not only AS Roma plastering “Riyadh Season” across their shirts as part of a sponsorship deal worth eight million euros a year but various matches and minor cup competitions scheduled to happen during the festival itself. There will, for example, be a Riyadh Season Cup, involving teams from the Middle East and/or with Middle East backing, as well as a Turkish Super Cup game between Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe at Al Awwal Park on 30 December 2023, plus additional games involving teams from both Italy and Spain.
I’ll admit, when seeing it written down like that, it all sounds kind of fun, this Riyadh Season. Imagine, too, the breadth of content. Imagine every piece of identical content you will get from two men eager to play Content Providers for one week rather than fighters in the traditional sense; aware that it is essential if they are to entice the masses and together make loads of money. Imagine all the things you could ask Tyson Fury after getting talk of the “fight” out the way. You could ask him, for instance, to make another joke about the size of Francis Ngannou’s “cory”, just like he did at the press conference – hahaha. Or you could ask him about Anthony Joshua paying two grand to spend four nights alone in a dark room. Or you could ask him about something Eddie Hearn said the other day about someone to someone else. Or you could ask him about something Simon Jordan said on talkSPORT and get him to CLAP BACK. Or you could ask him what he thinks of builders. Or you could just say, “Say something funny, Tyson. Or, if not in the mood, how about calling someone a ‘sausage’ instead?” There’s plenty of other stuff as well. Topical stuff. Like Storm Babet and how the “Gypsy King” would go about fixing the flood damage. Or Sandro Tonali and his 10-month ban. Or the time Gordon Ramsay’s father-in-law encouraged him to sell his Porsche so he could afford the deposit for his first home. Or being the MOST WATCHED THING EVER ON NETFLIX OF ALL TIME. Or stuff that’s not only topical but, I don’t know, serious, important, relevant…
“Okay, let’s move down the line now,” a publicist will at that point probably say. To which you will then reply, “Mate, I still haven’t asked about Riyadh Season,” and discover that because Riyadh Season is the correct password you are not only granted a stay but told, “Absolutely. Crack on. Tyson loves Riyadh Season. He always has. It’s probably his favourite of all the seasons, in fact, Riyadh Season. Even prefers it to summer.”
Don’t we all.