In Saudi Arabia, a Championship Fight Is Enjoyed with 7UP

In the early hours of Sunday morning in Riyadh, Oleksandr Usyk, of Ukraine, and Tyson Fury, of England, fought to be named the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Boxing has lost much of its lustre in recent years, and the dangers it presents now seem unpalatable to many, but this was a significant occasion: the first time in a quarter century that every belt was on the line in boxing’s most prestigious division. Previous undisputed champions have included Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and, most recently, Lennox Lewis—a list that any fighter would be proud to join.

A handful of bouts to decide the title have been classics. The fight between Frazier and Ali at Madison Square Garden in 1971—which took place after Ali had been stripped of his belts because of his refusal to serve in Vietnam—was the first time that two undefeated heavyweights had vied for the undisputed title. It became known as the Fight of the Century, not only for the quality of the boxing but also for its social and political backdrop, not to mention its glamour. (Diana Ross in the locker rooms! Frank Sinatra shooting photographs for Life!) The promoters of Sunday’s fight, which was held at the Kingdom Arena, tapped into the illustrious lineage: both Holyfield and Lewis, the last men to contest the title, in 1999, were ringside in Riyadh.

In a split decision, Usyk, the ferocious and agile former cruiserweight, beat Fury, the canny and voluble giant. Fury had looked superior in more of the early rounds, frequently dropping his arms to mock his opponent and making faces for the crowd. But, in the fight’s second half, Usyk roared back, and in the ninth round he landed a volley of head shots that sent Fury careening into the ropes, his arms suddenly limp at his sides, and his long legs warping beneath him. Usyk likely would have won by knockout had not the referee, for some reason, intervened with what felt like a glacially slow eight-count, allowing Fury to recover enough to finish the match. It was an absorbing contest: a clash of sizes, styles, and temperaments, and a reminder of how seductive boxing can be. I watched from a seat a dozen rows from the ring.

The Kingdom Arena opened in January, and it was built unnervingly quickly. (A government employee told me that the building was constructed in sixty days.) It’s the highest-capacity covered arena in the world, and the design is imposing. When I entered, from the warmth of the Riyadh evening to the artificial chill of the interior, I gaped at the vast expanse above me: the roof is a hundred and fifty-four feet high. In a reception area for spectators with seats near the ring, there was a bar serving fruit juice and 7UP—no alcohol. (Although public attitudes are changing, Saudis can still be imprisoned or flogged for drinking or possessing alcohol; a foreigner would likely be deported.) Waiters circulated with trays of tiny cakes. My kids would have enjoyed these refreshments, but they were odd fare for a fight night.

I had only ever been a boxing spectator among crowds of beery, raucous fans. The atmosphere in Riyadh—at least in the hours building up to the fight—was more muted, though still colorful. Saudi men in white thobes and red-and-white shemaghs (I saw no Saudi women in my section) mingled with non-Saudi tourists and expatriates. Most of the foreigners were from the U.K., though some Ukrainians, dressed either in Usyk hoodies or in full national tracksuits, had also made the trip. Many men supporting Fury wore luridly bright shirts, and the women had generally dressed with a nod to their hosts, covering up a little more than they might have done for a fight in, say, Manchester. When a British woman walked past, having gloriously flouted the unspoken dress code in a red tube top and a miniskirt, I heard a Saudi spectator comment, half exasperated, in English, “Come on, man.”

By the time I arrived, at about 11 P.M., the fights on the undercard had been going on for hours. In the main hall of the arena, a four-sided jumbotron hung over the ring, displaying video of dazzling clarity. But the audience was calm. Barring a few shouts from family members of the boxers, there was little noise. (During a cruiserweight bout, a cry of “Fuck him up, Jai” resounded like a bell.) From my seat, I could hear punches landing. In the row behind me, shortly after midnight, an English boy began crying from fatigue. His father reassured him, “It’s Fury next, O.K.?”

Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury fight in Riyadh.Photograph by Fayez Nureldine / AFP / Getty

The Kingdom Arena is so big that it is home to a soccer team, Al Hilal, which plays on an artificial field that—for our event—lay underneath a broad matting onto which temporary seats had been placed. Between bouts, one of Al Hilal’s star signings, the Brazilian forward Neymar, chatted ringside with another soccer galáctico, Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays for a rival club, Al-Nassr. This situation alone would have been unthinkable until the beginning of the great Saudi sports grab of the past five years, which has seen the Saudis create a breakaway golf tour, buy English soccer teams, bolster its home league with expensive talent, and entirely conquer the sport of boxing. Sitting next to Ronaldo, in a thobe, was Turki Alalshikh, the head of the General Entertainment Authority of Saudi Arabia. Now boxing’s undisputed potentate, Alalshikh has become a celebrity in his own right, with twenty-three million followers on Instagram. In addition to bringing fights to Saudi Arabia, he is helping to stage them in the U.K. and the U.S.

Why is Saudi Arabia suddenly interested in sports? There is no single answer, but oil has made the country comically rich, and, if its leaders want a new arena, they can begin building one instantly. (The Kingdom Arena cost half a billion dollars.) Between 2016 and 2023, Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, made profits of seven hundred and twenty-two billion dollars, making it, by some distance, the most profitable company in the world. (During the same period, Apple reported only five hundred and fifty-eight billion in profits.) Mohammed bin Salman, the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, foresees a future without oil, and hopes to diversify the economy. The Public Investment Fund, which is dedicated to that end, is worth nearly a trillion dollars. Such numbers make the giant purse for the Usyk-Fury bout—a hundred and fifty million dollars—seem like pocket change.

A boxing match watched by millions also offers Saudi Arabia a chance to burnish its image. Outsiders have called this strategy sportswashing—meaning that the Saudis have been staging flashy events in order to launder a less-than-spotless human-rights record. (A countervailing observation is that, too often, the only time that criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record circulates widely is when it stages such events.)

The infusion of foreign visitors may have helped propel social change in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom remains an autocratic regime, and it has always been a conservative and patriarchal country governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia law. But, cajoled by a booming younger generation, the government is loosening its grip. Women now have more rights and opportunities: in 2018, they finally were allowed to drive; in 2023, the country selected its first female astronaut. Single women no longer need male guardians and may legally live alone. Six years ago, playing music in restaurants or elevators was considered taboo; Saudi Arabia now holds major music festivals and teaches music in its public schools. These developments may seem laughably minor to Western eyes—there are many charges still on Saudi Arabia’s docket, not least the detention of dissidents; the dire treatment of migrant workers; the murder of Jamal Khashoggi; and the dangers faced by L.G.B.T.Q. people—but, within Saudi Arabia, the pace of change feels heady.

At 1:15 A.M., the main event began, and the room at last came to life. A group of Brits alongside me began singing “There’s only one Tyson Fury” to the tune of “Winter Wonderland.” The men paused as the Saudi national anthem was played, then resumed. When the announcer introduced Usyk, boos intermingled with cheers. Usyk, who had volunteered as a soldier for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, and who continues to connect his sporting combat with his country’s struggle, walked into the ring wearing a Cossack jacket and a fur hat with feathers. Someone behind me shouted “Slava Ukraini!”—“Glory to Ukraine!”

The Brits near me began chanting “Wanker!” A line of young Saudi men in thobes, who were Fury fans, found this hilarious, and joined in. To show that they got the joke, the Saudis made the universal sign of Onan with their right hands. Fury then emerged, in a green robe, to Barry White’s “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything,” smiling broadly and singing along.

Now that the vaudevillian preliminaries were over, the fight could begin. For three-quarters of an hour, both men had to summon reserves of willpower and courage, in an atmosphere that finally began to resemble the bear pits one associates with the sport. The judges were unanimous that Fury won the twelfth and final round; it wasn’t enough. Boxing is a savage activity, but it is also strangely intimate, and after Usyk was declared the victor both men looked vulnerable. The champ bellowed and wept. Fury’s reactions oscillated between sourness and generosity. At first, he claimed that he’d actually won the fight, and that Usyk had been named the winner only because “his country is at war.” But then he planted a kiss on his conqueror’s head. Fury wants a rematch and will get one: it’s in the contract. Naturally, the bout will take place in Riyadh. ♦

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