FIRSTLY, are you okay?
I hope so.
It feels very strange indeed sitting here writing about Oleksandr Usyk signing with Saudi Arabia-backed Skill Challenge Promotions. I imagine you might have been feeling a lot like I have: shaken; troubled; let down; worried for the wellbeing of people on all sides of what’s been going on. And full of questions.
The first of those is probably this: What on earth is Skill Challenge Promotions? And the second is likely this: Why has Usyk, seemingly in a position of power, decided to now pledge his allegiance to them?
Well, unfortunately, like most things currently trending in a world increasingly bizarre, this is yet another subject clouded in mystery and grey area. It is not a subject easy to talk about, nor investigate too deeply, and only its lingering stench offers an indication that all is perhaps not positive as far as the wellbeing of the sport is concerned.
Usyk, we hoped, would be Saudi-proof, as naïve as that may sound given one of his biggest wins took place out there only last year. Certainly, though, there was a belief with Usyk, this globetrotting saviour of both cruiserweight and heavyweight divisions, that he would be able to construct his own route to the top and not have to rely on Saudi influence to get him the fights his reputation alone should, in an ideal world, deliver. He was, after all, for so long a man anti-establishment in the best way possible. Content to fight outside Ukraine for years, and for obvious reasons of late, Usyk had no issue beating men like Krzysztof Glowacki, Marco Huck, Mairis Briedis, Murat Gassiev and Tony Bellew in their home countries, and then did the same at heavyweight with Anthony Joshua in 2021. He was, in other words, a refreshing addition to a sport in which so much of a boxer’s success is predicated on winning the pre-fight political power battle. Usyk, unlike the rest, seemed nonplussed by such matters and therefore incorruptible. He got by purely on his skills and acumen. At both cruiserweight and heavyweight, he did things the right way and his own way.
What’s more, in a division in which most of the top fighters have tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, Usyk also comes with the added bonus of being one of the few who so far hasn’t. That’s not to suggest he is a clean fighter, of course, for these days we just never know, but clearly, in light of both this and his 20-0 pro record, his reputation is about as stain-free as you can expect from a professional boxer in 2023.
That now changes, however, due to his linkup with Skill Challenge Promotions and what this says about his character and career. Because it would be remiss of me, or anyone, to ignorantly approach this partnership as merely a case of a boxer joining a new promotional group in order to secure fights otherwise too difficult to make. That, in 2023, would be a view naïve in the extreme, especially as we know enough by now, as a sport, to know why and how the biggest fights are happening in the Middle East.
That Usyk has elected to sully himself in this way comes as a disappointment to anyone who believed he was better than that or, simply, above that. In the eyes of some, those who responded with an ‘Oh no, not Oleksandr as well’ reaction to the news of this deal, it is something like the final nail. After all, what kind of message does it send if aligning with Saudi Arabia is the only way for the biggest fights to get made? Not a good one, that’s for sure. Dig a bit deeper, too, and you’ll come to realise that plenty of fights being made elsewhere, including in the UK, have a certain Middle Eastern flavour to them these days, albeit never overbearing or too powerful a taste once it hits the tongue and the back of the throat. Last week, in fact, when speaking with someone in the industry disillusioned with what’s going on, I was reminded, rather perceptively, that “many of the people who speak loudest on social media, and do the most interviews with these YouTube channels, are only in boxing as public faces for people behind the scenes. Either that or they’re literally being paid by them to have a job in the sport.”
True or not, boxing is facing a major challenge at the moment, one made all the more difficult by the sudden prevalence of Middle Eastern money in the wider sporting world. Daily, it seems, high-profile footballers just past their prime are being wooed by astronomical contracts to play in Saudi Arabia and, admittedly, it’s hard for as long that’s going on – and the Formula One, and the golf – to come down too heavily on boxing for essentially doing the same: going where the money is. That said, as always with boxing, there is an extra layer of grime and mystery to what is currently unfolding and, unlike football, this global religion, one wonders what sort of state a niche sport like boxing would find itself in if certain powers were prevented from almost single-handedly propping it up and ensuring it function. If, to put it another way, this flow of money was suddenly cut off at source, does boxing still have enough autonomy to sustain itself the old-fashioned way (through ticket sales and television money)?
It seems highly unlikely, which is a worry. What’s just as worrying, though, is how quickly it has all been normalised and accepted, this idea that the biggest heavyweight fights must take place in the Middle East where both the money and secrets are kept. In some ways, it’s as though all the key players in the sport have settled for the Rosemary’s Baby approach to claiming power and securing what they want from life. Otherwise struggling, they have, like Guy Woodhouse, cut a deal with the devil, sold their soul, and seen their fortunes change overnight. They have then impregnated the others, like Oleksandr Usyk, with their dirty seed and left him with a choice at the end that becomes no choice at all. If you want to be the very thing you have always wanted to be (in Rosemary’s case, a mother; in Oleksandr’s case, a stinking rich heavyweight champion), you must look into the eyes of your offspring and make peace with the fact they are yellow, just like their father’s.