Ngannou vs. Fury: ‘Coach’ Mike Tyson’s lucrative deal part of Saudi Arabia’s expensive marketing plan

Amy Kaplan / Icon Sportswire, IMAGO

During a scheduled press conference in London, England last month, Tyson Fury appeared at ease as he squared off against Francis Ngannou for the first time. 

“You’re one good-looking son of a b—h,” the WBC heavyweight champion told Ngannou, the chiseled former UFC heavyweight champ whom Fury is scheduled to face on Oct. 28 in Saudi Arabia. 

The blockbuster crossover clash is expected to kick off Riyadh Season, the kingdom’s heavily-publicized entertainment extravaganza that takes place each winter. The festival aims to attract tourists from around the world to the Saudi capital to witness unique concerts, sports, and cultural experiences.  

Speaking at the press conference held in London, the Chairman of the General Entertainment Authority (GEA) Turki al-Sheikh said: “We chose to launch Riyadh Season this year with a historic event between a boxing champion and a UFC world champion. A lot of preparation has gone into this match [to market the fight] that has never been done before and it will be different.”

The showdown will mark Ngannou’s first fight in nearly two years, after departing the UFC following a lengthy contractual dispute. 

Fury, meanwhile, has not fought since Dec. 2022, when he defeated Derek Chisora to retain his WBC heavyweight title. Ngannou had previously expressed interest in pivoting to boxing and an eventual agreement was reached with Queensberry, Top Rank and Ngannou’s promotional banner, GIMIK Fight Promotions, to partner with Riyadh Season to host the event.

Though a segment of fight fans have disparaged the contest as an imbalanced spectacle, casting Tyson Fury as the undeniable favorite, the bout has garnered substantial global interest, evident from its social media presence and prominent status in Google trends. 

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has fervently promoted the event, driven by the anticipation of reaping numerous economic and political advantages from its triumph—triumphs that include increased tourism, global prestige, and an opportunity to emerge as the epicenter for combat sports. 

How Francis Ngannou and Tyson Fury became part of Saudi Arabia’s sports strategy

While the upcoming ‘Rumble in Riyadh’ is the latest example of a crossover super fight, it is also the latest example of Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented sports drive. Understanding how Fury and Ngannou became a key component of this strategy begins by understanding their respective journeys, as well as the kingdom’s insatiable desire to control the sporting ecosystem. 

On Jan. 22, 2022, Ngannou took part in what would be his final UFC fight when he defeated interim heavyweight champ Ciryl Gane by unanimous decision at UFC 270. 

Gane was ahead on the scorecards after the first two rounds but Ngannou switched strategies and outwrestled his opponent for the remainder of the fight. Having injured his knee ligaments weeks ahead of the bout, it was the first time that Ngannou had not won a contest by knockout or submission. 

Nearly one year later—following a lengthy contractual dispute—Ngannou was stripped of his heavyweight title by the UFC. The Cameroonian fighter’s contract had expired the previous month, and after the two parties couldn’t reach an agreement, the UFC waived its one-year matching rights clause, allowing Ngannou to secure unrestricted free agent status. 

Despite facing criticism for his decision to part ways with the organization, Ngannou signed a lucrative deal with the Professional Fighters League (PFL), where he would also serve as chairman and equity owner of the organization’s Africa division. 

Ngannou’s contract with the PFL allowed him the chance to explore various boxing prospects. This, coupled with the PFL’s decision to sell a minority stake in the company worth a reported $100 million to a Saudi subsidiary owned by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, helped pave the way for his association with Saudi Arabia. 

Venturing to Riyadh, the former UFC champion met with al-Sheikh , who chairs the General Authority for Entertainment and holds a influential position in Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle. An agreement was eventually reached to co-host the Fury vs. Ngannou showdown in collaboration with Riyadh Season.

According to a source with knowledge of the negotiations, the fight allegedly guarantees that both fighters will receive paydays in the eight-figure range. And while exact figures remain unclear, Ngannou’s representative, Marquel Martin, noted that it was “multiples” of what Ngannou made throughout his UFC career. 

“Let’s just say this: The bag is so big, he may actually just drop it on the way to the bank,” Martin said last month.

Ngannou came from humble beginnings in a small Cameroonian village. He began working in a rock quarry at age nine and continued to work various jobs for the next decade until he left in search of a better life. With the help of smugglers, he traveled through Niger and Algeria until he arrived in Morocco, where he began the treacherous journey of crossing the sea to Europe. He eventually made it to Spain a year after leaving Cameroon. He then migrated to France, where he was homeless until a mixed martial arts gym in Paris took a chance on him

Within a matter of years, Ngannou managed to become a UFC champion, set a new standard for the MMA free agent market, and become a must-see attraction for an emerging kingdom and its ambitious crown prince. 

In contrast, Tyson Fury’s association with Saudi Arabia significantly precedes that of Ngannou.

In October 2019, the heavyweight boxer took part in his first World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) match in Saudi Arabia. The 6ft 9in Fury wore a traditional Saudi thobe and ghotra as he walked out to the ring while fireworks and flames flanked him along the runway. 

Fury went on to defeat WWE wrestler Braun Stowman in a bout that reportedly earned him approximately $15 million. 

While Fury’s decision to take part in the Saudi event was criticized by some given the country’s human rights record, the heavyweight boxer has since continued to visit the kingdom for various purposes. Earlier this year, footage showed Fury and fellow heavyweight boxing great Mike Tyson wielding ceremonial swords and taking part in traditional Saudi folk dances. 

Fury is also among the list of notable athletes and celebrities who are actively marketing Saudi Arabia as the future for global sports. 

“It is a very special event for me, and it is a special time for sports where a powerhouse like Saudi Arabia is coming and in taking over the game, football, boxing, whatever you want,” Fury said during the press conference with Ngannou in London. “I think within five or ten years, they will be the powerhouse of all sports. 

“All the biggest sports events will be held in Saudi Arabia.”

The key figure in driving Saudi Arabia’s sports ambitions

Apart from the two formidable contenders set to participate in the forthcoming heavyweight battle, a third noteworthy individual to scrutinize is al-Sheikh, the key figure steering Saudi Arabia’s entertainment extravaganza.

In 2018, Said King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued a number of royal decrees, including orders to reshuffle the council of ministers. One such appointment was of former president of Sports Authority, Turki al-Sheikh, a close confidant of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who was appointed as Chairman of the General Entertainment Authority.

At the time al-Sheikh’s tenure at the helm of the sports authority had resulted in several well-publicized scandals, most notably in 2017 when he attempted to influenceEgypt’s most popular soccer club, Al Ahly. 

Less than five months after taking up the post of honorary president of the Egyptian club, al-Sheikh fell out with Al Ahly’s leadership after attempting to transfer several of the club’s players to the Saudi domestic league. He eventually parted ways with the club and was further embarrassed when the club’s fans gathered in Cairo Stadium and chanted derogatory insults aimed at the politician’s mother. 

Following his failed stint at Al Ahly, al-Sheikh decided to purchase his own club in Egypt, which he aptly named Pyramids FC. The club quickly rose to become one of the top football teams in Egypt’s domestic league due to the unprecedented injection of funds and resources that al-Sheikh provided the club. However, his club faced numerous accusations of corruption and bias, though none were ever proven. 

Al-Sheikh eventually sold the club in 2019 after realizing that his time in Egypt had not gone as planned. He returned to Saudi Arabia and focused the vast majority of his energy on managing the country’s entertainment sector, while the kingdom formed an official ministry of sports to handle its ambitious sports strategy. 

As the kingdom’s entertainment czar, al-Sheikh continued to organize events such as WWE’s ongoing partnership with the kingdom, which includes two annual premium live events. He also launched Riyadh Season, the entertainment festival that operates in tandem with the country’s tourism authority. 

Over the past four years, al-Sheikh has continued to grow Riyadh Season, hosting concerts, a winter wonderland theme park, and car shows. He also established Boulevard City, an entire zone for internationally themed food and shopping. 

Most recently, al-Sheikh also announced the establishment of the Legend Museum, the first and largest museum for soccer legends that is expected to feature another exclusive institute designed around Cristiano Ronaldo. The institute is expected to house Ronaldo’s trophies and personal memorabilia. 

However, al-Sheikh’s crowning achievement has arguably been his ability to secure some of the biggest heavyweight boxing spectacles in recent memory, further cementing the kingdom as a global hub for combat sports to rival Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi.

Apart from securing Fury vs. Ngannou as the opening act for latest edition of Riyadh Season, al-Sheikh was also instrumental in negotiating the undisputed heavyweight championship bout between Fury and Oleksandr Usyk, the Ukrainian boxer who holds the three other heavyweight belts belonging to the IBF, WBA and WBO sanctioning bodies. The blockbuster bout is expected to take place in December or January, also as part of Riyadh Season. 

Elsewhere, al-Sheikh also helped bring about Saudi Arabia’s first-ever UFC event, which will take place in March 2024 in conjunction with Riyadh Season. 

After a few missteps during his tenure as chairman of Saudi’s sports authority, al-Sheikh has since found his momentum as the kingdom’s entertainment czar, utilizing Saudi’s vast resources to establish one of the world’s largest festivals. He has also utilized that entertainment platform to amalgamate some of the most anticipated fights in recent memory, further advancing Saudi Arabia’s sports ambitions. 

LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 26: Francis Ngannou trains with coaches Mike Tyson and Dewey Cooper at the Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou open workout on September 26, 2023, at Ngannou™s private gym in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Amy Kaplan Icon Sportswire) BOXING: SEP 26 Francis Ngannou Workout EDITORIAL USE ONLY Icon2309262604
Amy Kaplan, Icon Sportswire, IMAGO

Trainer? Deal with Mike Tyson part of Saudi’s marketing plan

In the shadow of London’s iconic Tower Bridge lies a newly erected  installation: two giant statues depicting Fury and Ngannou in a vast ring, separated by an enormous golden crown emblazoned with the slogan for their upcoming fight—Battle of the Baddest. 

The installation is currently on display in Potters Field Park—a gaudy symbol of how the kingdom has spared no expense in marketing the heavyweight showdown. 

Earlier this month, al-Sheikh dropped a trailer for the super fight that has since gone viral on social media and captured the imagination of fight fans around the world. 

Accompanied by a reimagined rendition of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang,’ the trailer immerses viewers in the relentless training regimens of Ngannou and Fury, portraying their sessions as cataclysmic events that disrupt their adversaries’ lives with seismic upheavals and tremors. 

The marketing did not stop there. Al-Sheikh and Riyadh Season commissioned American DJ and music producer Skrillex and rapper Lil Baby to create the official music video for the fight. 

Al-Sheikh has additionally recruited Mike Tyson to serve as Ngannou’s trainer and cornerman for the impending match, a tactical choice considering the former UFC champion’s inexperience in the realm of professional boxing. Tyson also assumed a promotional role for the fight, actively endorsing Ngannou’s abilities in an effort to engage doubting fans and bolster interest in the seemingly unusual contest.

“It is no secret I back Ngannou 100 percent in this face-off of champions,” Tyson told Saudi media. “He has one hard punch, and when it lands, it’s game over.”

Tyson is also set to inaugurate the world’s first Mike Tyson Boxing Gym as part of Riyadh Season. 

Boxing reporter Kevin Iole also made a note about Mike Tyson’s deal after this post was originally published, adding how Saudi Arabia is also inviting several Hall of Famers to the event.

While much of this may appear excessive, it falls in line with Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented spending across sports. The kingdom has made strategic investments in sports ranging from soccer—where Saudi Arabia purchased a controlling share in English Premier League team Newcastle United and transformed its domestic league by luring superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar—to golf, Formula One and MMA. 

Critics have long claimed that Saudi Arabia’s investments in sports is part of the kingdom’s attempt to launder its reputation and distract from human rights abuses, a process known as sportswashing. While this assessment may carry merit, the Gulf state’s sports approach also seeks to position itself as a prominent player in the global sports arena, foster economic growth, and market Saudi culture on the international stage. This intention is evidently reflected in how the kingdom positioned the Fury vs. Ngannou clash as a pivotal component of Riyadh Season. 

“It is not just a fight; we are going to be opening up Riyadh Season,” Ngannou said during last month’s press conference in London. “So, it is a cultural event, and we are just making this fight bigger and bigger.”

The significance of the Fury vs. Ngannou clash within Riyadh Season underscores the broader vision to position the kingdom as a key player in the international sports landscape. 

Beyond the punches thrown in the ring, it becomes clear that the fight’s implications stretch far beyond the confines of the arena.

Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou poster for the Saudi Arabia event.

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About the author

Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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