How Fury-Usyk Saudi Arabia fight set up a future for boxing

Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk during the official weigh-in for their anticiptaed fight for the undisputed heavyweight championship in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Richard Pelham/Getty Images

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Oleksandr Usyk wore a stone-cold scowl as he methodically walked to the ring at the sold-out Kingdom Arena, a square-shaped venue in the center of BLVD City, a bustling hub of shops, restaurants and interactive-gaming experiences.

Vasyl Zhadan's Ukrainian rock anthem "Brothers" accompanied Usyk as he stepped through the ropes outfitted in a green robe with a fur ushanka atop his head, the garments of his ancestral Cossack warriors dating back to the 17th century. Since Usyk, 37, captured gold at the European amateur championships in 2008, he's been preparing for this moment, his chance to solidify himself as the best fighter in the world regardless of weight.

A few minutes later, Tyson Fury danced at the top of the entrance ramp and sang along as Barry White's love ballad "You're the First, the Last, My Everything" blared out. The song soon changed to Bonnie Tyler's hit from the film "Footloose," as "Holding Out for a Hero" prompted Fury to shadow box as eight flames sprayed out with fireworks blasting out behind him. And with that, Fury tossed his hat and started his patented dead sprint to the ring.

Fury, 35, immediately taunted Usyk once inside the ropes as Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield -- the all-time great heavyweights who last battled for the undisputed championship in November 1999 -- stood in the ring carrying belts.

The cinematic entrances -- along with the fact Usyk and Fury were walking to the ring at all -- were a welcome sight to boxing fans as talks collapsed at the 11th hour over a financial disagreement as the bout was being finalized for April 2023 at London's Wembley Stadium.

Enter Turki Alalshikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority, a government department that regulates and develops the country's entertainment industry. He stepped in with a vision and satisfied the pair of boxers with career-high, guaranteed paydays to bring the fighting from social media to the ring. According to sources, Usyk-Fury generated upward of $50 million in pay-per-view revenue with 1.5-million-plus PPV buys (the vast majority from the U.K., where Fury is a megastar). The event also made $40 million in sponsorship and another $3 million-plus in ticket sales. All in -- production, fighter purses, entertainment, travel, etc. -- the event cost in the neighborhood of $120 million.

Alalshikh controls the largest purse strings in boxing and put the Kingdom's vast financial resources to use, producing the sort of pomp and circumstance befitting of a major sporting event.

Alalshikh, 42, is a passionate and longtime fan of the sport. And like his fellow supporters, he's frustrated with boxing's many existing issues. Too many weight classes, too many titles, not enough major fights. He said he's begun to chip away at the problems over the past eight months with stacked undercards and a grand presentation through five events.

"We see Vegas is important and we never want to take its place, but I think it's our right to have big events in our country," Alalshikh told ESPN in April. "Why now is Riyadh taking from Vegas, why not any other city? But you know what's the difference? We do it amazingly. And get attention."

Since December 2018, Alalshikh has delivered top musical acts and sporting events to Saudi Arabia. His commitment to restore boxing to its place atop the global sporting hierarchy appears to be unwavering. He's already managed to bring together opposing forces -- the presidents of all four major sanctioning bodies and boxers aligned with six-plus rival promoters for one night -- at last unifying the heavyweight division's four belts as Usyk defeated Fury via split decision on May 18 to become ESPN's top pound-for-pound boxer.

"We are committed to the long-term success of this industry, prepared to navigate challenges as we work towards our goal," Alalshikh said. "We will collaborate with all stakeholders to advance boxing and optimize the market. For that, everyone understands that we're taking this very seriously."

Critics have claimed the Kingdom is mostly investing in sports as a way to bolster the nation's global standing and reputation. This focus on sporting events is part of the Kingdom's Vision 2030 plan, a socioeconomic strategy that aims, among many other goals, to increase tourism and promote fitness, particularly with children.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman addressed detractors during a September interview with Fox News.

"If sportswashing is going to increase my gross domestic product [GDP] by 1%, then we'll continue doing sportswashing," bin Salman said. "I don't care [about the term]. I have 1% growth in GDP from sport and I am aiming for another 1.5%. Call it what you want -- we are going to get that 1.5%."

The fourth boxing event spearheaded by Alalshikh was undoubtedly the most anticipated and served as another commercial vehicle for Riyadh Season, an annual state-managed sports and entertainment festival that attracts sponsorships from some of the region's most prominent companies. And it's far from the last boxing event Alalshikh has planned.

"There is a big opportunity in boxing," Alalshikh said. "But you must improve the market. You must fix all the problems."

Boxing is not the only sport the Kingdom is heavily invested in. Major events spanning Formula 1, WWE, tennis, UFC and golf are all being staged on Saudi soil.

Like Saudi-backed LIV Golf, boxing events will be hosted by the Kingdom in the U.S., starting with the Aug. 3 Riyadh Season card in Los Angeles topped by ESPN's No. 2 pound-for-pound boxer Terence Crawford vs. Israil Madrimov. In a notoriously fractured sport, promoters worldwide rarely collaborate even when it benefits everyone's bottom line.

The U.K.'s top two promoters, longtime rivals Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren, were no exception until Alalshikh brought them together in November.

For 15 years, Warren and Hearn didn't speak to each other face-to-face. That meant many of the best possible U.K. matchups fell by the wayside, just like their stateside counterparts where the promoters rarely conduct business with one another.

"We're a professional sport," Warren told ESPN last week during a Zoom interview alongside Hearn. "And so we find our guys want to earn the best money possible and we want to make money."

Their respective promotions faced off last Saturday in Riyadh in a unique, team-based concept created by Alalshikh. The event -- presented as 5 vs. 5 -- featured a group of fighters promoted by Hearn's Matchroom Boxing against Warren's Queensberry Promotions. "Without His Excellency getting involved and without this changing landscape, we would never have spoken," Hearn said. "Because if you ain't going to do it after 15 years, you just aren't going to do it. We're both pretty stubborn. ... I think I speak on both our behalf: It's the best thing we've ever done."

Alalshikh told ESPN he's looking to stage a similar event between the U.S. and U.K. The team concept, of course, was popularized in golf with the LIV Tour.

"It is not only money," Alalshikh said Wednesday. "I solved the problem between [Warren and Hearn]. I said to them, 'I want all the people working with me to help each other. And I will guarantee them success. And if something goes wrong, we solve it.' What happened with 5 vs. 5, Eddie wants the rematch and we want it bigger. We see the model now. Oscar [De La Hoya] and [Bob] Arum want it. It's something new."

Bells and whistles aside, boxing's health -- and popularity -- has always depended on its glamor division. And since Lewis defeated Holyfield in that rematch, 24½ years ago, boxing has lacked one unquestioned heavyweight champion. For now, it's Usyk, but Fury will have a second chance to collect all four titles in the Dec. 21 rematch in Riyadh.

Alalshikh's recent impact on boxing and access to Saudi money has transformed a sport that lacks a unilateral matchmaker.

"We are people who do it right or don't do it," Alalshikh said. " ... I'll do the right cards in my country and outside my country."

The days leading up to the historical Fury-Usyk fight paint a picture of the Saudi vision for the future of the sport.

May 5

Posters and billboards begin to pop up around New York and London promoting the Fury-Usyk Ring of Fire event, a practice that's long been missing in boxing. Digital billboards are seen above several subway stations in New York -- including Delancey Street and 42nd Street-Port Authority Bus Terminal -- that include QR codes with PPV purchase information.

Alalshikh posted on X that the event reached 5.8 billion-plus impressions across all social media platforms globally. Not since Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor embarked on a four-city press tour in 2017 -- an event that generated 4.3 million PPV buys -- has a boxing match received nearly this level of promotion.

Other promotional efforts include a Hollywood-esque Western-themed trailer where Fury and Usyk ride on horseback and meet for a duel. It was released Feb. 1 ahead of the original Feb. 17 fight date before Fury was cut in sparring. Each Riyadh Season event so far has been pushed by a similar trailer. Anthony Joshua vs. Francis Ngannou, for example, was based on the Street Fighter video game franchise. The Fury-Ngannou trailer won a Sports Emmy last month for Outstanding Promotional Achievement. That fight was promoted on the Sphere in Las Vegas. The reported cost to beam advertisements onto the Madison Square Garden Company-owned venue is reportedly $450,000 per day.

May 7

Alalshikh's influence isn't just restricted to boxing, but also the UFC and WWE. He and UFC president Dana White announce a strategic agreement between Riyadh Season and the UFC that extends their partnership and includes the sponsorship of UFC 306 in September at the Sphere.

Alalshikh tells ESPN the deal includes plans to stage a major UFC event in Riyadh at the end of 2024 or beginning of 2025, a card far bigger than the June 22 Fight Night headlined by Robert Whittaker vs. Khamzat Chimaev.

"This is a strong message to the market with [this] UFC [partnership]," Alalshikh says. "We are working with everyone. My favorite is boxing, but we will try to make Riyadh one of the biggest cities around the world in MMA."

Alalshikh said an enhancement to Saudi Arabia's existing agreement with WWE will also be announced, as he looks to bring the Royal Rumble or the promotion's top event, WrestleMania, to the Kingdom.

"We will do big things with the UFC and TKO," Alalshikh says.

May 10

Leaflets are passed out around New York and London by walking promoters, pushing awareness of Fury-Usyk until the day of the fight. It's a practice virtually unheard of in the 21st century as promoters flock to social media to push boxing events, eschewing tried-and-true, boots-on-the-ground methods. It's also expensive and requires more effort as there is a team of 40 people spread across four cities on two continents.

May 14

Former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua posts images from a training session at the Mike Tyson Boxing Club -- connected to Kingdom Arena -- as he stays in shape ahead of his planned Riyadh Season return at Wembley Stadium. He is expected to face Daniel Dubois when the vacant IBF heavyweight title could be on the line.

That will be the first Riyadh Season event in the U.K., and the second outside the Kingdom.

Joshua has competed four times in Saudi Arabia, starting with his victory over Andy Ruiz Jr. in a unified heavyweight championship rematch in December 2019.

Fans flock to watch Fury and Usyk's grand arrivals, taking place in the Music World zone of the 220-acre open-air destination for locals and tourists. BLVD City is full of American restaurant franchises such as McDonald's and Raising Cane's, as well as carnival games and interactive experiences, one of which is designed for WWE fans.

The boxers arrive through a tunnel next to a Dunkin' Donuts onto a stage full of shooting pyrotechnics and comment on the magnitude of the event.

"It feels absolutely fantastic to be in the great Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," says Fury, who is wearing a vest that features stained-glass depictions of himself, and a black flat-brimmed hat with "Undisputed" embroidered at the base.

"All the big stars are here," he says.

May 15

A wide range of celebrities -- rapper Lil' Wayne, chef Gordon Ramsay, actor Jason Momoa, soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to name a few -- begin posting selfie videos to their Instagram accounts encouraging Fury to defeat Usyk. Many of the posts are shared across Fury or Alalshikh's Instagram handle, which has 24 million followers.

Jai Opetaia, ESPN's top cruiserweight, begins to shake out at the public workout in the center of BLVD City. Opetaia made headlines when the Australian was stripped of his IBF title at 200 pounds for fighting in Riyadh in December rather than face his mandatory challenger, Mairis Briedis, in a rematch.

"I fought through absolute agony to win that belt and it saddens me to relinquish it," Opetaia said at the time. "But the fact is, Briedis isn't ready to fight on Dec. 23 and I need to stay active. I simply can't turn down a career-high payday."

Opetaia went on to reclaim that title with another victory over Briedis, this time on the Fury-Usyk undercard.

Usyk enters the ring and begins to glove up for his workout. Twelve minutes later, Fury glides around the ring with trainer SugarHill Steward and pumps his right fist to the beat of The Killers' "Mr. Brightside."

"I'm having fun. I always do, don't I?" Fury tells ESPN following his 15-minute workout. "All these fight weeks I enjoy."

If Fury can end Usyk's undefeated run and grab his three titles too, he should cement himself as the best heavyweight of his era.

"I'm not really interested in all that," Fury says as he walks off from the ring. "[It will] establish me as a mega, uber-rich heavyweight who can feed his family and give them whatever they want for breakfast, dinner and tea."

The bout -- one Fury calls "the fight of the century" -- is three days away.

May 16

Teddy Atlas arrives at the Mike Tyson Boxing Club to train a group of Saudi boys and girls -- he estimates around 50 people between ages 8 to 20. Atlas, who trained Tyson in the 1980s, is in Riyadh for the third time.

Alalshikh, who initiated the gym's creation, has put it to good use as a centrally located place for boxers to train once they arrive for their fight in Riyadh, but also toward the Kingdom's Vision 2030 goal of increasing youth fitness.

"I want the next generation to like [boxing] because sometimes when I get back to my home it bothers me when I see my children stay [on] YouTube or on the iPad or the PC for 12 hours or eight hours," Alalshikh says.

With far more fans than the previous night -- perhaps approaching a couple thousand -- Usyk walks out to the news conference at BLVD City. Nearby, a Ring of Fire merchandise booth sells a Fury-Usyk hoodie depicting them as "Wild West" characters retailing for 460 Riyals ($122.65).

Usyk's promoter, fellow Ukrainian Alexander Krassyuk, thanks the Crown Prince and Alalshikh "for making fans' dreams come true."

May 17

Fury and Usyk step on the scales at BLVD City. Fury weighs 262 pounds, 15.5 less than he was for the lackluster performance against Ngannou. Usyk weighs 223.

"Don't be afraid," Usyk tells Fury during their faceoff as pushing and shoving ensued. "I will not leave you alone tomorrow."

"I'm going to knock that f---er spark out," Fury says. "I'm coming for his heart. That's what I'm coming for. F--- his belts. I'm coming for his f---ing heart."

A Ring of Fire watch made by Jacob and Co. -- and commissioned by Alalshikh -- is auctioned off by Sotheby's at the Baker Al Sheri Theater. The timepiece is a limited edition, with two gifted by Alalshikh to Fury and Usyk. Fury is bellowing out bids for other boxing memorabilia throughout the night, including Tyson's ring gear from his infamous Bite Fight rematch with Holyfield.

The watch is won by Fury's promoter Warren at $800,000. According to Alalshikh, all proceeds are donated to the Make-a-Wish International Foundation.

May 18

Actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, wearing a gray tracksuit and shades, has lunch at the Mandarin Oriental while former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver greets him to take a photo. The hotel is filled with celebrities, former fighters and fans in Riyadh for the biggest heavyweight title fight of this century.

Ryan Garcia is lifting at the gym at the Mandarin Oriental when he agrees to an impromptu interview following a sauna session. Garcia traveled to Riyadh for the fight following an invitation from Alalshikh on the heels of his upset win over Devin Haney in April. There's a cloud hanging over the victory: Garcia tested positive for the banned substance Ostarine and is now facing a suspension along with the probability the win will be overturned to a no-contest. One day earlier, he was mobbed by fans at the Al-Nassr FC soccer match.

"All the fans were going nuts and they all knew my name and they seen my fight," Garcia tells ESPN. " ... The amount of powerful people that come here is really insane and it's just been a blessing to meet everybody and just know that I have fans across the whole world. It's a different shift in culture, but I'm all for it. Respect the rules and how Saudi handles things, so I'm loving it so far."

Garcia, too, has heard the critics about Fury-Usyk happening in Riyadh rather than London.

"To be a world champion, maybe fight around the whole world," he says. "I mean, Muhammad Ali fought in Africa and in other places, so I plan to do that, too. I plan to fight in Saudi Arabia one day, the U.K. I want to be a world champion."

Soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo is seated ringside at Kingdom Arena, flanked by Joshua and Alalshikh to his left. Ronaldo signed with Saudi soccer club Al-Nassr in December 2022 on a two-year deal worth more than $200 million annually.

Heavyweight luminaries were also ringside alongside a host of other celebrities. Van Damme, along with soccer legends Neymar, Andriy Shevchenko (supporting his countryman, Usyk), Steven Gerrard and Egyptian model Yasmine Sabri are all in attendance.

Belfast's Anthony Cacace scores a major upset with an eight-round TKO victory over Welshman Joe Cordina to capture the IBF junior lightweight championship.

"From here on out, I want to be boxing in Saudi Arabia every time," says Cacace, who won his first world title at age 35. "No more back in the U.K., Saudi Arabia is the place. Turki Alalshikh, I like to say thank you very much for having me."

Announcer Michael Buffer appears at the top of the entrance ramp and introduces the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's national anthem as the green-and-white flag is displayed on the Jumbotron.

Highlights of Fury and Usyk are then shown as the screen levitates to reveal American rap star JID performing in a box above the ring.

Music and boxing have long been intertwined during fighter walkouts, but actual performances alongside the fights have been a rare sight recently in Las Vegas.

Once the performance ends, Buffer's digital likeness is displayed with his catchphrase "Let's get this party started." And with that, the ring walks begin.

Buffer, now in the ring, kicks off the festivities for the introductions, making sure to thank King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and His Excellency Turki Alalshikh.

And with his patented "Let's get ready to rumble" and referee Mark Nelson's final instruction, the fight is finally underway.

With less than a minute left in the opening round, Fury staves off Usyk's attack and then grabs both ropes in the corner. He sways back and forth with a big grin, playing to the crowd, which roars in laughter.

"I'm being paid a s--- ton of money from Saudi not to turn up and do a boxing fight, but to put a show on and put Saudi on the map," Fury told ESPN in April. " ... The world's largest traveling showman, me, 'The Gypsy King.'"

The bell rings to signal the end of the fight as anticipation fills the air ahead of the decision's rendering.

An undisputed heavyweight champion is crowned in epic fashion as Usyk is announced the victor via split decision -- 114-113, 115-112 and 113-114.

The heavyweight showdown lives up to its lofty expectations and cements itself as one of the greatest fights in the storied history of the division that dates back to the late 1800s.

Jose Mohan, president of the Middle East Professional Boxing Commission, offers his perspective on the growth of boxing in the region. "Ten years ago, there was only one fight per year and today regionally we are talking 15-plus fights not including the super fights and world-title bouts taking place in the Kingdom," he says. "Boxing activity has been on a good rise. More young people look to pursue boxing as their career and we have seen that growth in terms of more amateur events taking place, more Arab fan bases coming to the events and more online interaction on social media. Moreover, men and women started to take boxing as an important part of their weekly fitness routines."

Moran believes a homegrown star will take the sport to new heights for the Saudi Arabian fan base.

Fury leaves the news conference and heads to a shuttle downtrodden after saying he's not sure if he'll do the rematch, contradicting his claim from moments earlier.

Usyk, it's said, won't appear at the news conference as he's headed to a nearby hospital for an examination. Fury claims he broke Usyk's jaw.

Usyk later shows up to address the media, with four stitches in his right eye and heavy bruising around his face. He is presented with two Ukrainian flags signed by military service members at the Russian border.

Many Ukrainians were in attendance to support Usyk during this turbulent time for the nation, including Wladimir Klitschko, whose lengthy title reign was ended by Fury in 2015. They are among 7,800-plus people who attended the fight, Alalshikh told ESPN. Starting with Fury-Ngannou in October, tourists from 80-plus countries purchased tickets to the four Riyadh Season boxing events through the Kingdom's WeBook app. The sold-out Kingdom Arena welcomed 23,000-plus fans overall to Fury-Usyk. Alalshikh said the Kingdom's goal as part of Vision 2030 is 100 million-plus visitors.

Riyadh Season, which started in October, exceeded its target of 12 million visitors before the halfway point of January, according to officials. By the end of March, the country had 20 million visitors compared to the inaugural 2019 edition which drew 9.6 million-plus people.

Russia's Dmitry Bivol, 33, arrives at King Khalid International Airport and is greeted with a bouquet. One of the world's finest boxers, the light heavyweight champion defeated boxing's top star, Canelo Alvarez, in May 2022, becoming just the second fighter to do so after Mayweather in 2013.

Bivol was set to meet fellow Russian Artur Beterbiev on June 1 in Riyadh in what would have been the Kingdom's second long-awaited undisputed championship fight in as many weeks.

The sport's inability to deliver the matchup has long frustrated boxing fans as Bivol is ESPN's No. 4 pound-for-pound boxer with Beterbiev two spots behind him. Beterbiev underwent knee surgery last month, and the bout was rescheduled for Oct. 12 in Riyadh.

May 20

Alalshikh posts photos of "the amazing gifts" he received from Usyk, addressed to "His Excellency": the ushanka he wore during his ring walk, along with signed and dated Ukrainian flag-colored gloves he used to punch his way to the top of the sport.

"You deserve the great win," Alalshikh writes. "And I'll keep those historical gifts for my grandchildren and I will tell them about the story of this fight."

THE NEXT TWO Riyadh Season events won't take place in Saudi Arabia's capital but in Los Angeles and London as Alalshikh's influence in boxing spreads to two more continents. Crawford will seek to become a four-division champion vs. Madrimov, a fight that could serve as a precursor to the proposed megafight with Canelo that Alalshikh wants to stage early next year in the U.S.

"There's a lot of respect that comes with Turki and myself," Crawford told ESPN at New York's Gotham Hall in April. " ... He's seen the road that I had to take to get to where I am now. And he just wanted to display respect for the sport of boxing and not just somebody that's coming to hold these type of fighters down and not let the world see him. It's an honor that he chose me. He could have chosen anybody else. So I'm definitely grateful."

Rapper Eminem, who accompanied Crawford to the ring last July when he knocked out Errol Spence Jr., will perform in L.A. moments before the boxer fights Madrimov, Alalshikh announced via social media Wednesday. The rap star was ringside in Riyadh for Fury's win over Ngannou in October. Alalshikh and Crawford teamed up to help convince Eminem to perform, per sources.

"He's [Crawford] important for my strategy in the future," Alalshikh said.

Alalshikh will deliver his first Riyadh Season event at London's Wembley Stadium on Sept. 21 with one of the U.K.'s top stars, Joshua, likely vs. Daniel Dubois. Boxing will return to Riyadh on Oct. 12 with the rescheduled Beterbiev-Bivol undisputed light heavyweight championship bout and Dec. 21 with the Fury-Usyk rematch.

There are no plans for the Saudi-backed boxing events to stop there. Alalshikh told ESPN he sees Beijing and Berlin as untapped markets for Riyadh Season events as his -- and the Kingdom's -- grip over boxing continues to strengthen.

"The finances available for Riyadh Season have made a different landscape altogether," Warren told ESPN. "But that's rippled all around the world now. This big show coming up in L.A, we've got a big show coming up in Wembley and our other shows are benefiting from it.

" ... It's really a brilliant time for boxing, brilliant time for us, and we've got to embrace it and we'd be complete schmucks to mess it up."