Since Turki Alalshikh and Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority went all in on turbo-charging the heavyweight division they have had to be light on their feet.
Take the first boxing foray of Riyadh Season, when Tyson Fury was dropped and given a huge scare by former MMA champion and boxing novice Francis Ngannou last October. The damage WBC champion Fury suffered during that fight pushed back his proposed December 23 undisputed showdown with IBF, WBA and WBO king Oleksandr Usyk.
Chaos created opportunity, with Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder the big draws on the “Day of Reckoning” card, ostensibly to set up a long-awaited showdown this March. Joshua kept up his end of the bargain, battering Otto Wallin to a fifth-round defeat, but only after a listless Wilder was upset and soundly beaten by Joseph Parker.
No matter, Joshua could simply be paired with everyone’s favourite wildcard option Ngannou on March 8, with the winner promised a shot at the winner of Fury vs. Usyk on February 17.
Last week, the best-laid plans went up in smoke as Fury suffered a cut in sparring that required 11 stitches. Fury vs. Usyk was pushed back again. Alalshikh had some work to do and there was no time to waste.
Tyson Fury vs Oleksandr Usyk rescheduled for May 18
When images of the gruesome cut suffered by Fury emerged on Friday, there was speculation over how long he might be out of the ring and not much of it was particularly kind. Most estimates settled on the second half of 2024 as a best-case scenario, while members of Usyk’s team goaded the “Gypsy King” over retirement.
Fury addressed these suggestions in animated fashion over a video call on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour, where he spoke alongside Alalshikh and Usyk was flanked by his manager Egis Klimas.
Klimas referred to Fury as a “coward” when initially discussing the injury and again insisted on Saturday that he “didn’t want to fight Usyk”. The outspoken British fighter angrily called Klimas “a rat b******” before being calmed by a hand on the shoulder from Alalshikh.
Indeed, the most compelling part of the entire 20-minute segment was the sight of Fury being largely subdued, in stark contrast to his highly charged and provocative appearance at the launch press conference for the Usyk fight. The most disruptive kid in the school was sitting next to the principal on his best behaviour, seemingly contemplating some lunchtime monitor shifts.
Class was in session and Alalshikh had an announcement to make
“The most important thing is for the fans,” he said. “I put something clear now for the two magnificent champions, for the fight of the century. We have delayed times.
“The last call we can deliver this fight, and I choose the day, it is the 18th of May. We delayed it until the 18th of May.”
What is the Fury vs. Usyk $10m penalty clause? What happens if Fury or Usyk pull out on May 18?
Alalshikh and, by extension, the Saudi government, has been welcomed into boxing by the old establishment as a breath of fresh air and a man who gets things done. Bottomless pits of cash tend to help in that regard.
However, fighters are a different breed and the prospect of any sort of steep financial penalty will always prick their ears up, no matter how well-paid they’ve been throughout their career. And penalties don’t come much steeper than the one outlined by Alalshikh in the event of any further pullouts.
“I guarantee for both of the fighters $10 million if someone escapes from the fight. This is the first thing,” he said. “And the second thing, I guarantee a big fight on the same night for [the fighter that does not withdraw] and make the people around the world and the fans know if someone is scared or wants to escape from this fight.”
Clarifying where the penalty payment would come from, Alalshikh added: “Ten million, not from us. We guarantee it. Ten million from their own money.
So who will step in if either Fury or Usyk don’t make the opening bell? It feels prudent to ask. We’ve been burnt enough times already.
“On the 18th of May, we will have Tyson-Usyk, Usyk-Tyson. If Usyk is scared I will call for Joshua-Tyson, if Tyson’s scared I will call for any fighter Usyk wants. It is in my name this thing.”
Will the February 17 boxing card go ahead in Saudi Arabia?
In the immediate aftermath of Fury’s withdrawal, Team Usyk spoke of their desire to go ahead and fight on February 17 against another available opponent. Undefeated Croatian Filip Hrgovic, who is Usyk’s IBF mandatory, appeared to be the frontrunner.
That now will not be happening, with Alalshikh intending to move the entire “Ring of Fire” card to May 18 en masse, along with another unnamed blockbuster addition.
“We will delay, if they accept we will delay it. All the fighters on the same card of the 18th and upgrade it more also. We are talking now about one big fight on the undercard,” he said.
“If they accept. If they have a mandatory, they must play. But they will not play in Saudi Arabia.
“We are focusing now on March 8, ‘Knockout Chaos’, the end of Riyadh Season.”
Of the fights planned for the Fury-Usyk undercard, Joe Cordina’s IBF super featherweight defence against Anthony Cacace and Jai Opetaia and Mairis Briedis’ showdown for the same organisation’s cruiserweight belt would appear to be the bouts that might now have to take place elsewhere. None of the other fight appear to be subject to mandatory stipulations from a sanctioning body.
Will Oleksandr Usyk fight Filip Hrgovic?
Alalshikh storming into the heavyweight landscape, making fights in quick-time and even unveiling a bespoke “undisputed” heavyweight belt suggests he has little time for the old ways. However, he told Helwani that Hrgovic being due as Usyk’s mandatory had factored into his calculations for the rearranged May 18 date.
“Even if [Fury] doesn’t be [fully] ready on May 18 he will play,” Alalshikh said regarding questions over whether Fury will be at peak fitness for the new date. “I will accept it because we have a deadline with the IBF and I don’t want a headache with the IBF. We have a deadline, we will deliver this fight on the 18th.”
He added: “They will say ‘what about Hrgovic?’. I give him an option to play on the undercard on March 8. Now I give him six names. Choose one of them and if they both accept we want them on March 8: Hrgovic-[Daniel] Dubois, Hrgovic-[Martin] Bakole, Hrgovic-[Frank] Sanchez, Hrgovic-[Jarrell] Miller, Hrgovic-[Agit] Kabayel, Hrgovic-Jared Anderson.
“If both of them accept, we are ready to deliver to the market and the fans the fight on March 8. We are not playing.”
Was Tyson Fury cut in sparring?
Boxing and online conspiracy theorists have long been natural bedfellows and even as most evidence pointed towards a deeply unfortunate but hardly unprecedented sparring injury, plenty of keyboard critics queued up to lambast Fury this week.
Even before he announced the new May 18 date, Alalshikh was keen to dismiss any claims of foul play.
“I have a special camera in his camp to see each day the training of him and it’s happened,” he said.
“I want to tell you something, brother. If it doesn’t guarantee 100%, if it’s 1% cent doubt, I would not be here on the programme and put my reputation and my name if I wasn’t sure it was an accident and a huge cut. I would not be here in this meeting.”
When is Artur Beterbiev fighting Dmitri Bivol?
A bit like the old adage about London buses, once you get one Turki Alalshikh big fight announcement, two or three tend to come along at once.
An undisputed showdown between WBC, IBF and WBO light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev and WBC champ Dmitri Bivol has been on the Saudi wishlist for a while and the two masterful Russians now have a date.
“A big fight, we will announce it now on your show. On June 1, inshallah, Bivol against Artur in the main event.”
Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren, brought together by boxing’s Saudi cash injection after a decade-and-a-half of enmity, signed an agreement last month for a 5 vs. 5 card to pit their Matchroom and Queensberry stables against each other — another of Alalshikh’s masterplans.
Although no dates were confirmed, it was presumed that would be a standalone event. But the GEA chief told Helwani that the five Matchroom vs. Queensberry fights will serve as the undercard for Beterbiev vs. Bivol. It seems a fair assumption that it might have taken place on May 18 before the Fury vs. Usyk rearrangement forced the schedule to be compressed.
Turki Alalshikh health problems
To a large extent, beneath Alalshikh’s dark glasses and idiosyncratic bombast lurks an enigmatic figure. This time last year, Prince Khalid bin Abdulaziz’s Skills Challenge was power behind boxing in Saudi; now the whole sport dances to Alalshikh’s tune.
It was notable, therefore, that he flagged undisclosed health issues as part of his calculations when arranging the new Fury vs. Usyk date.
“This fight, I want it to happen. I delayed my health issue in New York hospitals from now until the beginning of March for this fight. I need to go to the hospitals,” he said.
“It is my health. If I thought Tyson was scared of this fight I would not waste my time.”
It remains unclear what the nature of this health issue is and what impact it could yet have on the rest of the boxing schedule in 2024, where Saudi Arabia and Alalshikh have shown that they have huge plans that extend far beyond Riyadh Season.