History will be made in Jeddah on September 28 when George Groves and Callum Smith do battle in the World Boxing Super Series final. It is the first major boxing event to be held in the Kingdom and represents the latest show of sporting intent from Saudi Arabia as it looks to attract more world class spectacles to its shores.
The fight has courted some controversy in its build up, with concerns about ease and cost of travel for fans keen to make the trip from the UK for the all-British clash.
Groves has admitted that “there will be a few regular faces who won’t be able to make it and that will be disappointing” but also insisted he just wants to “get on with business”.
Renowned BBC boxing analyst Steve Bunce recognises fans’ frustration but insists it is not a slight on Saudi Arabia as a host venue.
“The fight should be in Britain because both boxers are British,” Bunce tells Arab News. “That has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia and its ability to host the event.
“There would be moaning if the fight was in Berlin. Yes, boxing fans like to travel but it has to be realistic.”
The World Boxing Super Series final is the culmination of a knockout tournament that first began with eight fighters in September 2017. Groves and Smith are the last men standing in the super-middleweight division, with the former set to defend his WBA title in Jeddah.
“It’s also great chance for people from the UAE or Bahrain to watch professional boxing.”
And while Bunce believes this specific World Boxing Super Series final might have been better suited to a UK arena, he feels the decision to take a boxing event to Saudi Arabia is an exciting step for the sport.
“I’m honestly delighted that we have a fight in Saudi Arabia,” Bunce tells Sport Industry Insider. “The country’s ancient and modern history is fascinating and it should be a good event.
“Hopefully we will see people from the other Gulf countries attending, too. It’s a great chance for people from the UAE or Bahrain to watch professional boxing.
“I’ve covered fights in Las Vegas, Istanbul, Mexico City, Copenhagen, Rio and now I will be able to add Jeddah. I can’t wait.”
Aside from concerns about the travel arrangements of British fans, there were also suggestions that the boxers’ partners and female family members would be unable to attend the fight at King Abdullah Sports City.
It will not be the case, with Saudi Arabia having changed the law last year to allow women into all sports stadiums. Bunce feels the claims made about Saudi Arabia stem from an innocent lack of understanding about a country that has traditionally been quite closed.
“Some of the comments that I’ve seen I think were just down to the boxers being a bit confused about the venue,” Bunce says. “They needed assurances that their female family members could attend and they’ve got them – which is ideal.”
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The Groves vs Smith fight could pave the way for more world class boxing to come to Saudi Arabia but it remains to be seen exactly how enamoured the local crowd will be with the sport.
The explosion in popularity of boxing in the Philippines since Manny Pacquiao’s emergence exemplifies the value of an ‘icon’ and Bunce admits that the development of boxing in the Kingdom would be greatly aided by a Saudi figurehead.
“A homegrown hero would help for sure and I’m told there will be a Saudi fighter on the undercard so here’s hoping some talent can come through.
“There are a lot of new events and competitions arriving in Saudi Arabia but I think boxing is one of the simplest sports for them to adopt. If you fly in two football teams it will be hundreds of people. Boxers travel light, the logistics work.
“A big boxing event two or three times each year is the start. The World Boxing Super Series final is an elite, brilliant event – an event any fight city in the world would want to host.”