Defeat to Oleksandr Usyk at Rage on the Red Sea in Jeddah may have left former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua bruised and boxing fans asking what happens next for AJ?
For British boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, his story is far from over if Joshua’s popularity in the Middle East is any indication.
“The heavyweight division is the spectacle of boxing. When you get someone like AJ walking into the sport, an Olympic gold medalist, there aren’t many role models that can really inspire different generations,” said Hearn, chairman of Matchroom Sport.
“You know when we are doing photoshoots in the square in Jeddah and all of a sudden people are out with smiles on their faces. That’s infectious and it is amazing to have someone like that in our sport: I mean the scenes in Saudi; it’s so good for boxing when you see these people come out excited to see this fighter.”
“I think the pressure and the politics may have made him (Joshua) fall out of love with the sport, I want him back to three or four fights a year and enjoying it again, then fight for a world title.”
A bout against Tyson Fury has been mooted, and Hearn confirms that Joshua is ready for that fight any time.
But before that, big names will be coming to Abu Dhabi with the new Champions Series launched by Matchroom Boxing and the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.
The WBA Light Heavyweight world championship bout between Dmitry Bivol and Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez at Etihad Arena on Nov. 5 is the first of many, according to Hearn.
“As we grow you will see our biggest names, Joshua, and even Canelo Alverez. I love Abu Dhabi’s long-term vision for the sport.”
Hearn foresees a permanent residence for boxing in the UAE capital, with investment in smaller, strong fight cards, not just big-name, one-off events.
“I look at organizations like WWE and UFC,” said Hearn. “Although (Matchroom) isn’t an ownership of the sport, it is in a very powerful position in the market when you think about boxing. When you think about MMA you think about UFC, wrestling you think about WWE. And that is where we want to get to, as a business.”
“So, the global mission for us was just that, to make sure that we could go into key markets and build long-term, sustainable partnerships, but also help grow the sport from grassroots to the elite level. Obviously when we started doing shows in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, I looked at different countries. I looked at Abu Dhabi and particularly at Fight Island and the partnership with UFC, and I really liked what I saw. I liked that it wasn’t a one-off and I could see that Dana White was building relationships with the DCT to have a sustainable calendar.”
Hearn believes the key to building a legacy in Abu Dhabi is by generating interest among the youth and facilitating development by bringing boxers here.
“I think the strategy to build an infrastructure from the ground up, from the grassroots level, is how you grow the sport. I want to see boxing in amateur clubs grow, I want to see our business make a difference in the sport, in that country, in that region. Can you imagine when we start to build champions from the region, that changes everything.”
“That is all part of the long-term plan because you are not going to get Olympic athletes or professional champions from Abu Dhabi unless that process is in place,” Hearn added. “You must have the talent recognized and developed. By developing good-quality cards, you generate local interest, and the Abu Dhabi government is serious about funding. DCT is looking from the bottom to the top of the sport, and it is one of the main reasons they are doing this, to give opportunities to people from the UAE.”
The plan to make Matchroom Boxing an international boxing promotional company has not come without resistance from the British fight fans and boxing industry.
“I am not allowed to be ambitious,” said Hearn, laughing off the criticism he has received for taking British boxing out of the country.
“You should never be comfortable with being just a star in your own country. ‘Why are you doing the Chantelle Cameron fight in Abu Dhabi? This fight should be in Northampton’. This statement has been thrown at me a lot after I put the (Cahntelle) Cameron undisputed Super-Lightweight world title bout with Jessica McCaskill on the Abu Dhabi fight card. But I see this as a great opportunity for the fighters.”
“I mean look at Bivol, he has been out in Abu Dhabi six weeks before his fight,” said Hearn. “When I said to Bivol and Ramirez, we are doing the fight in Abu Dhabi, they were OK with it. Then they went out there for the press conference and they were like, this place is unbelievable, in fact Bivol went straight home, packed his bag, and came back to do his full camp there.”
Hearn praised the UAE’s hospitality, the facilities in Abu Dhabi, and the Etihad Arena, and is keen to show boxers a whole new fight experience by bringing boxing to the region.
He sees such events as win-win for everyone; the fighters get more opportunities, Abu Dhabi boosts its tourism, the local market benefits from making boxing a permanent sport and residents of the UAE, and Middle East region get a chance to sit front row on the big fights and not just watch them on TV.
“The key here is to create interest in the area but to bring tourism and travel to the region to watch a fantastic events calendar of which boxing would be a part of.
“Traditionally you have MSG, Vegas and the O2, but people don’t yet recognize Abu Dhabi as a boxing destination. But they will.”
Hearn confidently confirms that Matchroom is here to stay, and expresses his excitement about the Bivol vs Ramirez card.
“A lot of people are saying this is one of the best fights in the division but also for the sport as well. It’s going to be interesting to see who comes out victorious as they are two of the best fighters in the world, and I am hoping Canelo will be attending as he has a particular interest in this fight.”
“I think everyone should expect an incredible night of sport, incredible night of boxing, and the start of a new journey,” Hearn said. “The fight week and the fight itself are going to be a lot of fun, and I want everyone to come out and experience a new era for boxing and a new era for Abu Dhabi.”
“We wanted to make such an impact for our first show, that when it is finished, people will be saying ‘when is the next one?’.”