JEDDAH: One fighter took home $10 million and the inaugural Muhammad Ali Trophy, the other took home $5 million — but the real winners on a historic night in Jeddah were the Saudi boxing fans.
Thousands of them packed the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium on Friday to watch Callum Smith, from Liverpool, beat Londoner George Groves in the World Boxing Super Series final to become the new WBA super-middleweight champion.
The first professionally sanctioned fight night in Saudi history came with a sense of wonder and excitement; an aura of mystique that was enhanced by subtleties such as the hazy mist emitted from the swinging light projectors surrounding the ring.
The atmosphere and energy generated by the crowd was infectious. The constant stomping of feet caused the floor to rumble, a vent for fans eager to release the excitement within. The combination of crowd cheers, jeers, and whistles, along with constant camera flashes and blaring music, created a sort of twilight zone of sensory overload. Thousands of smartphones among the crowd, their flashlights turned on, illuminated the arena like fireflies on a summer night.
“This experience was amazing,” said Ahmed Saif, a lawyer from Jeddah. “Having the opportunity to witness live boxing makes us so happy. Tonight had everything. Decisions and knockouts. Both Saudi fighters also won their fights so we are all very proud of them.”
Before, Saif would always be looking elsewhere on extended weekends to have fun and disconnect from work. “We used to travel for these kinds of events and the expenses for travel and logistics were always felt. Now the entertainment is coming to us, the ticket prices are affordable as well, so we are very happy and just thankful to both the GSA and GEA (General Sport Authority and General Entertainment Authority) for continuing to bring these fun and exciting events to Saudi Arabia.”
The event was hailed as a resounding success by fighters past and present on a memorable sporting night. The crowd appeared to side with Smith during the fight and the new champion was full of praise for his hosts.
“There were a lot of questions when it was announced, but Jeddah has been brilliant,” he said. “The people we’ve met, the hotel — they can’t do enough for me. I’ve been here nearly a week and they’ve made it as comfortable as possible.
“I can’t praise the tournament enough. The atmosphere was just as good as any I’ve boxed in front of. I got a great reception, as did George, and I want to thank the people of Saudi Arabia for that.”
Smith’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, has put on boxing shows all over the world and was impressed by Saudi Arabia’s maiden offering, applauding the vision of organisers.
He said: “When you come in here and see the arena and the atmosphere and the way the sport has been welcomed to this region, it makes you realise that boxing is a global sport.
“It’s tough to build from a blank canvas in terms of commission, infrastructure, anti-doping, paramedics. We didn’t know what to expect, so congratulations for trying to push the boundaries.”
For the two local Saudi fighters on the card, Zuhayr Al-Qahtani and Abdulfatah Julaidan, it was the opportunity of a lifetime in Jeddah. A partisan home support waved flags and made their voices heard, helped by the fact both men delivered convincing points victories.
“I just wanted to have fun and show the crowd what I can do,” said Al-Qahtani, who continued the unbeaten start to his professional career. “I loved it every second of it.
“It was everything I hoped for and more. I have struggled all my life, performing all over the world and getting booed — today I felt proud to be King of the Ring in Saudi Arabia.
“Wembley has had its time. The 02 has had its time. Las Vegas has had its time. Now it’s our time; it’s Saudi time.”
Julaidan, who won his second pro fight just two weeks after his first, added: “It is an amazing feeling — a first victory in my country is something I can’t describe but we did it.
“This was a victory for Saudi Arabia as much as for me and it is a dream come true. To have kids waiting there for me, asking for my autograph — this is a night I will never forget.”
The youthful make-up of the crowd will have been encouraging to organisers Comos and the GSA, who hope the event will be a launching pad for the sport in the Kingdom.
And the appetite for boxing did not go unnoticed by legendary British fighter Prince Naseem Hamed.
The former three-weight champion, who was born to Yemeni parents, commands great respect in the region thanks to his Arab roots.
He addressed the crowd in Arabic and English, saying: “I feel honoured to be in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is a breakthrough with our first major fight in Jeddah. It’s great to be a part of it — there were some good fights, and a great atmosphere.
“It would have been amazing to fight here. It wasn’t written for me but I’m here today to witness history, and I am proud.”