How a Saudi Official Is Putting the Kingdom at the Center of Combat Sports

The modus operandi that Turki al-Shaikh applies in boxing does not evoke the same deference in the Middle East as it does in the combat sports industry in the West

How a Saudi Official Is Putting the Kingdom at the Center of Combat Sports
Turki al-Shaikh poses at a press conference in London, England, in November 2023. (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

On Christmas Eve 2023, the image of Irish Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Conor McGregor talking over a visibly uncomfortable Cristiano Ronaldo went viral. McGregor was talking to a Saudi billionaire on the other side of the football star. The Saudi official, a man in his 40s, wearing a red-and-white headdress and dark glasses, listened politely. The two sports stars were watching a boxing show he had organized in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, called the Day of Reckoning. Several months later, a British newspaper named that man, Turki al-Shaikh, the most influential power broker in boxing and combat sports.

How did al-Shaikh rise so quickly, considering that he has only been in the business since 2017? He had beaten UFC boss Dana White and boxing superstars such as Saul Canelo Alvarez to the top spot. Admittedly, he has a lot of Saudi money behind him, but that is only part of the story. If the Reddit boxing forums, with their 2 million followers, and the YouTube comments on the boxing channels are an indicator, then he seems to have earned himself a place in the hearts of boxing fans.

This is an incredible achievement. Boxing fans are a cynical lot, and they praise him because he puts on the fights that they want to see. At the Day of Reckoning, where he sat with Ronaldo and McGregor, he put three former heavyweight world champions — Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Joe Parker — on the same bill. That is practically unheard of in heavyweight boxing, and the bouts did not disappoint. The matchups were tantalizing and gave the fans answers to questions they had been asking for a long time. And that’s why it worked. If al-Shaikh carries on like this, not only might he restore boxing’s popularity to the levels seen when only the best fought the best, but he could possibly wrest combat sports away from the West, changing the cultural landscape forever. The future of combat sports may be in Saudi Arabia.

While his appearance on the stage in the West was quite sudden, the billionaire has been a familiar figure in the Middle East for a long time. Yet the modus operandi that he applies in boxing, namely a large cash injection to bring the best to Saudi Arabia, does not evoke the same deference in the region as it does in the combat sports industry in the West. In fact, such behavior divides opinion and even attracts derision.

Al-Shaikh is from the Saudi establishment and is a loyal supporter of the Saudi ruling family. He positions himself behind Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and his father, Salman bin Abdulaziz. Al-Shaikh refers to them as his “two mountains” that he leans on. This is to be expected, given that he belongs to the family of Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi doctrine that was historically embraced and promoted by the kings of Saudi Arabia. Hence the surname al-Shaikh which means “the family of the sheikh.” The alliance between the houses of Saud and Abd al-Wahhab was an important element in the formation of the early Saudi kingdom, and al-Shaikh’s family has shaped the austere vision of Islam that his country practices.

However, instead of following in this tradition, al-Shaikh has taken a wholly different path. As his own Instagram page declares, he sees himself as a creative, an influencer even — someone who loves sport and dabbles in poetry, writing and film. With the crown prince taking the country in a new direction with his Vision 2030 plans, which include economic diversification and a larger cultural and entertainment sector, new opportunities have opened up for al-Shaikh to pursue his passions. He has gone from serving in Saudi Arabia’s interior and defense ministries to being responsible for cultural and sports events in the country.

In 2017, he was made the chairman of the Saudi General Sports Authority. Around the same time the billionaire became the chief financial backer of Egyptian footballing giants Al Ahly. The club made him an honorary president. However, after an initial honeymoon, the relationship soon turned toxic and he resigned. His massive cash injection was followed by the departure of several of Al Ahly’s players for the Saudi league. They were followed by Argentine coach Ramon Diaz, who was set to join the club. At the same time, Al Ahly’s rivals, Zamalek SC, announced that al-Shaikh was funding their new stadium. Such was his largesse that in 2018 they likewise offered to make him honorary president, which he refused. After leaving Al Ahly, as if to rub salt into their wounds, he bought the newly promoted club Al Assiouty Sport in 2018. He renamed it Pyramids FC and moved it from Beni Suef in Upper Egypt to Cairo, pumping in money and bringing signings and TV deals. It appeared like cultural colonialism to many Egyptians and Al Ahly fans never forgave him for this behavior. They chanted derogatory insults directed at al-Shaikh during the club’s matches.

Critics in the Arab world, mostly those who are pro-Arab Spring, also depict him as the region’s chief distributor of bread and circuses: there to distract the populace and rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s image abroad. He has been interviewed on Arab TV channels, accused of bringing artists and sports stars to Saudi Arabia to buy goodwill. To which he replies: “So what? Why are the same questions not asked of the likes of China or other countries who do the same.” Each country, he argues, wants to elevate its position and there is no need to apologize for his actions.

However, it is far harder for al-Shaikh to counter the criticisms from the more conservative elements in Saudi society who accuse him of sullying the religious nature of the kingdom by inviting singers from Western countries such as Mariah Carey and David Guetta to perform. Such a spectacle would have been deemed unthinkable a couple of decades ago. In 2018, al-Shaikh was made the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority. But who can argue against former and current world champions like Mike Tyson, Devin Haney and Badou Jack — all converts to Islam performing Umrah, the minor Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca known as the “little Hajj,” while attending one of al-Shaikh’s boxing shows?

Although al-Shaikh divides opinion in the Arab world, boxing fans, mostly male baby boomers and Gen X, don’t seem particularly troubled by this. If the “Rumble in the Jungle” happened today instead of in the 1970s, boxing fans would still tune in to watch Mohammed Ali fight George Foreman in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. They would be unconcerned that the fight was hosted by dictator Mobutu Sese Soko and that the prize money was financed by Moammar Gadhafi. Remember that the sport they love is nicknamed the “hurt game,” and doesn’t quite make sense to anyone outside of it. In this “sport” one man can legally kill another in a square which is curiously called a ring. If one pugilist beats another to an inch of his life, in one of the more famous boxing centers such as Las Vegas, perhaps the act becomes even more glorious. Fans will put away their ethics in the darkness of their souls, punch the air as the bell rings and urge their man to kill the other. They will then rediscover their ethics, for the sake of their sons and daughters, once the fight is over and the defeated is carted off to hospital. The hurt game doesn’t make sense, so al-Shaikh doesn’t have to either.

And so when al-Shaikh applied his Egyptian strategy to boxing in 2017, his stock rose. As the boxing commentator Gareth Davies remarked, Saudis “have underwritten and lit a fire under the sport, I can’t remember a time when this level of investment was brought into the sport … his [al-Shaikh’s] modus operandi is to get things done as soon as possible.” It resulted in fights that shocked the sporting world.

Moreover, al-Shaikh brought together two of boxing’s biggest promoters, namely Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren. To the detriment of fans, the two could barely sit in the same room due to a long and bitter rivalry that existed between Warren and Hearn’s father. Many fights were impossible while the promoters kept their boxers apart. Al-Shaikh, however, managed to smooth over their differences with his customary charm and a healthy injection of money, and fights that once appeared remote became a real possibility.

Diehard fans also know that al-Shaikh is one of them; he cites obscure or long-forgotten fighters celebrated only by those who know. Roberto Duran and Larry Holmes are his favorite fighters. Only a connoisseur of the sport would cite boxers like that.

There are many more signs that al-Shaikh is serious about breathing new life into boxing. He is planning a showdown between Dmitry Bivol and Artur Beterbiev in the summer of 2024. To hardcore fans, these men, both world light-heavyweight champions, are Russian masters of pugilism. Bivol, handsome and clean-shaven, is long and rangy with an elegant style; while Beterbiev is a rough-looking bearded pressure fighter with hands of steel. Beterbiev has knocked out every opponent he has faced. The question in the ring of truth is this: How in God’s name is Bivol going to survive Beterbiev and figure out a way to beat this beast? The fight is akin to Theseus fighting the Minotaur. Whatever the result, it is an intriguing matchup that the hardcore will pay for.

Unfortunately, your casual fight fan simply doesn’t know who these legends are. Both are quiet men, professional and not prone to trash-talking, so they bring little in terms of show business. The casual fan won’t pay for such a fight. And that is why negotiations between the two fell through in April 2023; it was simply an unprofitable venture.

Enter al-Shaikh, who put the Kingdom’s wealth behind the fight, arranging it for the summer of 2024. Then he promised hardcore fans a bonus: The winner will fight the Australian Hercules, Jai Opetaia, another world champion. It is no wonder the fans adore him. One Reddit boxing fan, Bibbellybomac, summed it up for many: “Thank Allah for Turki Alshaikh. He is making big events and the fights we want to see. He is a true lover of boxing.”

However, al-Shaikh also understands that boxing can be bought: After all, it used to be known as prizefighting. There is a reason why sports commentators call boxing the red-light district of sports and it’s not just because of its brutal nature. Unfortunately, boxing is seedy, corrupt and awash with scandal from the amateur to the professional game. In 2019 the International Olympic Committee barred the International Boxing Association, an amateur federation, from being involved in the Olympic Games because of its corruption.

Current heavyweight champion Tyson Fury cannot enter the U.S. because of his association with the Kinahan drug cartel. Until U.S. sanctions were imposed, the cartel was intimately involved in the sport. According to the news site Boxing Insider, Bob Arum, Tyson Fury’s promoter, has admitted that he paid cartel leader Daniel Kinahan $4 million for each of Fury’s four fights from 2019 to 2021. Kinahan is linked to the death of at least 18 men. When Fury’s younger brother Tommy was also barred from entering the U.S. to fight Jake Paul due to the Kinahan connection, al-Shaikh stepped into the breach. He hosted the fight in Riyadh in February 2023 selling over half a million pay per views alone. It became one of the biggest fights of that year and earned al-Shaikh ringing endorsements from Jake Paul and the Fury family, and no one batted an eyelid over the cartel controversy. It is no wonder that Teddy Atlas, a hall-of-fame trainer, is calling for a national commission in the U.S. to clean up the sport.

Besides being tainted by corruption and organized crime links, boxing is also very fragmented. We live in the four-belt era, with four world boxing organizations running the sport. Each has its own world champion in 18 weight divisions. Currently there are around 60 world champions, and that’s just counting the men. On top of that, these organizations seem to create belts as and when they wish. A fighter can be regular champion, super champion, franchise champion, interim champion, email champion and so on, the belts appear to be meaningless and mere money spinners. For the casual viewer, this can be overwhelming.

Many boxing organizations, broadcasters and promoters appear to be in cahoots with each other and immensely corrupt. Failed drug tests can be overturned or overlooked, putting boxers in immense danger as they face opponents with an unfair advantage. Even Fury, the current lineal heavyweight champion (“lineal” refers to the most traditional form of title, passed on by beating the previous holder), failed a drug test in 2015, as did super-middleweight champion Alvarez in 2018. Often the organization that needs to put on the fight between the number one and number two contenders puts on the fights that bring it the most money. Sometimes the results look rigged, because they probably are.

The industry is also dominated by a handful of promoters with fighters whose records are often padded out. They make their star fighters beat lesser opponents in order to inflate their winning streaks. Unlike the UFC, where clever matchmakers put on the best fights and where an “L” (loss) on a fighter’s record means very little, the boxing promoters want their fighters’ records to be pristine. They don’t want their fighters to lose, so they put them up against no-name opponents rather than serious contenders who offer a real challenge. The fights become dull. Moreover, many of these promoters also have television deals with rival broadcasters which means that the best can’t fight the best because one champion is signed up to fight on ESPN, for example, while the other is signed up to DAZN, the sports streaming channel.

This mismanagement of the sport has led to a decline. Boxing used to be one of the most popular sports in the world, but now it’s a niche sport loved by baby boomers and Gen X who remember Mike Tyson and Marvelous Marvin Hagler nostalgically. Sadly, the new generation are growing up thinking that the YouTubers like KSI and Jake Paul on the main card are real boxers, while the real pugilists fight on their undercard. It is no wonder that the younger generation has abandoned the sport for UFC. It is telling that a fight between YouTubers such as KSI versus Faze Temperrr can sell 70,000 more pay per views than the Alvarez versus John Ryder bout last year.

White’s UFC has all the razzmatazz of boxing. The only difference is that the best actually fight the best, the scoring doesn’t seem one-sided, the commentators are not merely hype men but actually know the sport and it doesn’t matter if the fighters have an “L” to their name. And that formula has taken a whole generation away from boxing. Young people don’t look up to boxers anymore but to mixed martial arts fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Khamzat Chimaev and Mcgregor. They are the new icons of combat sports. Al-Shaikh has understood the mood, and this entry has disrupted the promoters, sanctioning bodies and broadcasters.

In 2022, UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou wanted to renegotiate his contract. He wanted more money and more freedom. He wanted a crossover clause in his contract which allowed him to fight boxers like Tyson Fury. White rejected his demands and hastened Ngannou’s exit from the UFC in January 2023. Al-Shaikh stepped in and negotiated a fight deal between Ngannou and Fury in Saudi Arabia. The fight was perfect for the casuals and had enough questions for the combat fan too: Could a UFC heavyweight champion take on the boxing heavyweight champion of the world? By October 2023 the question had been answered. Although Fury won on points, Ngannou made Fury eat humble pie by knocking him down to the canvas. It shocked the combat sports world and raised Ngannou’s stock overnight. Al-Shaikh deftly moved in to set Ngannou up to fight Anthony Joshua, the former world heavyweight champion, continuing the storyline. It was a brilliant move, for it slowly pivoted boxing away from Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden toward the kingdom. Boxing was becoming not only competitive but relevant again.

If al-Shaikh is smart, he can now emulate White and put on the fights that all fans want to see. If he follows the formula of putting on great boxing matchups and YouTuber fights he can bring boxing back to the big time, attract the younger generation and secure his place in boxing’s hall of fame. At the same time he could help to fix Saudi’s place in popular culture and that, from the kingdom’s perspective, is a win.

“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers twice a week. Sign up here.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy