Riyadh Season 2023 opened with Tyson Fury v Francis Ngannou, a cross-discipline boxing match which now lives in infamy in the minds of boxing purists, as a debutant boxer and MMA man mountain Ngannou floored reigning WBC World Champion Fury to almost everyone’s surprise. Fast forward exactly eight weeks from that eventful night we found the eyes of the boxing world once again firmly fixed upon the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, for Day of Reckoning.
The super card featured eight bouts, with six from the heavyweight division, one from the cruiserweight division and one from the light heavyweight division.
We saw the most stacked card of the year unite prominent boxing promoters, estimated to be 12 promoters in total. But the most interesting to boxing fans in the UK at least would be the union of hall of fame promoter Frank Warren of Queensberry and Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn.
As Day of Reckoning fight week began, my initial thoughts were extremely positive as I was welcomed by locals, shown hospitality and respect from the offset.
What Is Riyadh Like?
Riyadh is a massive metropolitan city with everything on offer as you would expect in any major city in any country around the world.
I was fortunate enough to visit Las Vegas in July this year for the Undisputed Welterweight Championship bout between Unified IBF/WBC and WBA World Welterweight Champion Errol Spence and WBO World Welterweight Champion Terence Crawford and the spectacle of Vegas was something to behold.
Vegas is where all the big fights have traditionally gone in recent years, but this may be about to change.
Turki Alalshikh, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, has laid down the gauntlet in 2023.
He’s shown that the Kingdom will do whatever it takes to put on the most star-studded and significant matchups possible in the sport in the coming months, into 2024 and onward.
Though this can be said for a number of different sports – boxing was, is and always will be a sport in which the highest bidder wins, and this is no different with Turki Alalshikh and the Kingdom’s intentions of opening up their country to the rest of the world for tourism leading into 2030.
Fight Week In Saudi Arabia
On to the fight week festivities.
Day of Reckoning Tuesday kicked off with the Grand Arrivals at Riyadh’s ‘Boulevard World’ part entertainment complex, part theme park, part food court, etc.
An extravagant array of colourful signage and technological wizardry welcomes all comers.
The grand arrivals were hosted in a section of Boulevard World that had a very elegant set-up with a red carpet laid out in what I can only describe as a miniature Egypt.
The pyramids and other ancient Egyptian symbolism added a bit of style and class to the whole affair.
The 16 fighters proceeded to make their entrances one by one, stopping off for press photographers and television broadcaster interviews before turning their attention to the other media members for quickfire/media scrum questions on the red carpet.
All Day of Reckoning fighters seemed to be in good spirits and enjoying the magnitude of the first event of fight week except for the star of the show – Anthony Joshua.
A.J. seemed locked in and in fight mode, no smiles or jokes came from AJ and almost all press members were met with straight forward and short responses.
As with all things that come with being Anthony Joshua, the analysis of his behaviour went into overdrive – if he doesn’t talk, something is wrong.
If he talks too much, something is wrong.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown it seems – something that AJ is all too familiar with over his decade long career as a professional boxer.
Wednesday saw our first visit to the Kingdom Arena, state-of-the-art facility with a capacity of 26,000.
This would be the venue for Wednesdays ‘media workouts’ as well as Thursdays’ fight week press conference, Fridays’ weigh-ins and finally Saturday – FIGHT NIGHT.
The production value of all Day of Reckoning fight week events was on par with anything I had seen in Las Vegas for Spence v Crawford as well as anything on any shows I have attended this year in the UK from both Queensberry and Matchroom.
There was no evidence of the organisers cutting any corners, they were going all out to provide a quality event with a big-fight feel and they were pulling out all the stops.
The media workouts ended up being 10 minutes of fighters either shadow boxing or getting some light pad work in – going through the motions.
That was until former WBC World Heavyweight Champion Deontay Wilder and trainer Malik Scott entered the ring.
They put on an entertaining show for the media with plenty of pad work and different combination drills with a big focus on movement and feinting, with a view to spinning out and resetting for the next combination.
Once again, we got to Anthony Joshua and surprisingly he did not complete any type of workout for the media but instead gave the platform to some local Riyadh-based amateur boxers to show off their skills in the ring.
Whatever the purpose or motivation behind this was, it further fuelled talk of AJ’s mindset during fight week.
Final Presser For Day of Reckoning
Thursday saw us attend the final press conference, which ended up being a lot of fun, with everyone getting their own entrance music a la WWE as they took to the stage.
With all of the personalities on stage eventually some back and forth ensued between Eddie Hearn and heavyweight contender Jarrell Miller ahead of his bout with Daniel Dubois.
Dev Sahni added the odd wise guy remark, in an attempt to stir up some reactions and controversy but for the most part cooler heads prevailed.
The Day of Reckoning weigh ins had very little happen that is worth going into, standard procedure with everyone who needed to make weight having made weight successfully.
Reminder – out of the 8 fights on the card 6 were Heavyweight contests and only 2 fights had a weight limit they needed to hit – Jai Opetaia versus Ellis Zorro for the Ring Magazine Cruiserweight Championship (200lb weight limit) and Dmitry Bivol vs Lyndon Arthur for the WBA Super Light Heavyweight World Championship (175lb weight limit).
The Fights Mainly Exceeded Expectations
Now on to fight night… the card most definitely delivered entertainment in Daniel Dubois vs Jarrell Miller, which ended up being an absolute 10 round slugfest. It was edge of the seat stuff with Deontay Wilder vs Joseph Parker as Parker faced the risk of being put out cold in the ring with Wilders’ legendary right hand.
The night provided some shocks and confirmed that some people were indeed right to consider certain fights on the card as mismatches.
In the two main events, we saw Parker box to a career best victory in a mature and poised performance in which he outboxed and out fought the inactive Deontay Wilder to a near shutout.
It was very hard to find more than 1 or 2 rounds to score for Wilder in the bout as he simply did not engage enough or throw enough meaningful shots to sway the fight in any way.
His coveted right hand remained cocked, but he simply did not have any success when attempting to land it.
Wilder took a loss that ultimately led to the fight we have been clamouring for since 2017-2018 times between him and Anthony Joshua looking even more unlikely to take place yet again.
The plan had been for the fight to take place next in March 2024 at the end of Riyadh Season 2023-2024. The fight may never take place by the looks of things, another fight that was left to marinade for way too long and ultimately the fans will be the ones who miss out.
The final fight on the card saw Anthony Joshua come out on the front foot with meaningful intent, he was measured and aggressive throwing hard hooks and right hands from the first round and definitely got Otto Wallin’s attention straight away.
He showed he was not going to allow Wallin to gain any sort of momentum or build up a rhythm and start to bank rounds with his sneaky southpaw style.
AJ successfully countered Wallins’ southpaw jab on a number of occasions with an extremely crisp and fast pull right hand counter (the same punch he dropped Charles Martin with twice back in April 2016 to win the IBF World Heavyweight Championship).
A.J. looked reinvigorated.
The new corner in Ben Davison, former trainer of Tyson Fury, Billy Joe Saunders, Josh Taylor and current trainer of Leigh Wood, who works in concert with strategist Lee Wylie, had definitely unlocked a more aggressive AJ, akin to the ‘old’ one who would throw meaningful and spiteful combinations and look to get his opponent out of there.
An impressive night for A.J. who showed he still has so much to offer the sport of boxing and his ambitions of becoming a three-time heavyweight world champion are around the corner as he now holds the number two ranking in the IBF rankings beneath Filip Hrgovic.
A fight for the IBF Heavyweight World Championship is expected to be ordered as early as March 2024 when the winner of Fury vs Usyk will be forced to vacate after they crown the first Undisputed Heavyweight World Champion in almost a quarter of a century.
Ultimately, fight week in Riyadh as well as the fight night experience was overwhelmingly positive.
From the organisers pulling out all the stops to the ease of access to fighters and managers for interviews and the media transportation to and from venues to ensure the smooth running of the whole operation.
It seems the General Entertainment Authority has everything running smoothly for these big boxing events and their experience will only grow as they look to create an alternative home for mega fights in boxing instead of Las Vegas and that is Riyadh. From one desert to another.
I look forward to getting back out to Riyadh for Fury vs Usyk in February 2024.
Full fight night results below –
Frank Sanchez TKO Junior Fa (RD 7) – Heavyweight bout
Filip Hrgovic TKO Mark De Mori (RD 1) – Heavyweight bout
Jai Opetaia KO Ellis Zorro (RD 1) – Cruiserweight bout
Agit Kabayel TKO Arslanbek Makhmudov (RD 4) – Heavyweight bout
Daniel Dubois TKO Jarrell Miller (RD 10) – Heavyweight bout
Dmitry Bivol UD Lyndon Arthur – Light Heavyweight bout
Joseph Parker UD Deontay Wilder – Heavyweight bout
Anthony Joshua TKO Otto Wallin (RD 5) – Heavyweight bout