Welcome To Fight Night In Saudi Arabia

By Mark Lomas
28 March 2019
Boxing, Saudi Arabia
Hayat Osama
Slowly but surely, boxing is making an impact in the Kingdom. But with a professional sport at risk of stalling in its infancy, what will the next round bring?

Breathing heavily and drenched in a layer of sweat that glistens under the harsh arena spotlights, Abdulfatah Julaidan’s hand is raised aloft in victory. The partisan crowd cheer a name they have just discovered, celebrating an unfamiliar Saudi Arabian sporting victory.

As he clambers, exhausted, out of the ring, children line up asking for photos, while media chase him for interviews. A Saudi flag is draped around his shoulders as he slowly makes his way back to the dressing room.

This is all very new. Just 10 days earlier, Julaidan had been an ageing amateur. But his career has just taken a major upward turn. In his hometown of Jeddah, a second professional boxing win in as many weeks has made history in the kingdom.

It’s five months since the World Boxing Super Series rolled into Jeddah with a promise to ignite an interest in boxing in Saudi Arabia. With the support of the Saudi General Sports Authority (GSA) and veteran promoters Sauerland, an eight-fight card was headlined by a world title bout between British boxers George Groves and Callum Smith.

Although the first professional event in the kingdom was well-received – with several thousand spectators in attendance – the sparks that flew at King Abdullah Sports City quickly faded.

Not much has changed for Julaidan since then. He still prays five time a day, still eats the same food and still trains in the same gym. But that night in Jeddah is impossible for him to forget. An outwardly quiet and serious man, his face softens into a smile as he remembers the affection he was shown last September.


Credit: Hayat Osama

“To fight in my home, to make history on that night, it was an amazing feeling that I cannot describe,” he explains. “I was so nervous. I really felt under pressure – my family was there, my friends, and of course the Saudi people. I thank God that I won and hope I can experience this again.”

The 39-year-old’s entry into professional boxing was a long time in the making. In a country obsessed with football, other sports have always been consigned to role of background noise. It is no surprise then that when Julaidan first decided to box, aged 26, a DIY approach was needed. With no boxing gyms, or even gloves, available to buy in Saudi Arabia, he turned to Amazon. 

“It was the only way so that’s how I started in my home. I watched videos on YouTube – people like Muhammad Ali, Manny Pacquiao, Juan Manuel Marquez – and step-by-step I started picking it up. I trained for a while and improved. Then I met Nettles.”

Nettles Nasser is equal parts boxing coach and unbridled force of nature. The Palestinian-American’s LinkedIn page characterises him matter-of-factly as a ‘Boxing Teacher Trainer Extraordinaire’.

Hailing from Paterson, New Jersey, a hometown he describes as “one of the roughest and toughest places in the world”, Nasser grew up as part of one of just two Arab families living on the East Side of the city. Remarkably, professional boxer Omar Sheika – the Super Middleweight who fought for world titles – belonged to the other one.

Nasser’s own boxing career was curtailed by a freak waterpark accident in 1992 that left him with severe spinal cord injuries. At one stage, he thought he may never walk again but he recovered enough to become a trainer at the recommendation of his psychiatrist. Boxing was in his mind; boxing was in his blood.

After initially moving to Jeddah three years ago to coach a wealthy client in the kingdom, Nasser befriended Julaidan, who was then being trained by former American soldier Tony Duncan in a basement gym in Jeddah. The Saudi fighter still fights out of there, but Duncan recommended Nasser take over training duties in 2018. A charismatic personality and a deep understanding of the sport have ultimately made him the perfect foil for his veteran fighter.

“Trainers are always looking for the strongest guy, the fastest guy, the guy with ability. Unfortunately, Abdulfatah is none of those,” Nasser laughs. “But the biggest thing he had, and has, is a big heart and big cojones. Those qualities are so important in the sport of boxing.

“Honestly, Abdulfatah shocks me every day. It would be hard for a 20-year-old to do the things that he’s doing but man, he is a tough dude. I also love that he is nothing like what you expect to see in a fighter – he’s very courteous, very calm. People think nice guys don’t belong in boxing but he’s proof it can happen.”

The pair recently celebrated Julaidan’s third-successive pro victory together in Helsinki – his record is now 3-0 with two knockouts – but back on Saudi soil, the explosion in boxing’s popularity they had hoped for after the World Boxing Super Series has not been forthcoming.

Julaidan has come to realise that their most important fight is now outside of the ring; it is a battle against those who view the sport through a prism of barbarism.

“I hope that we have maybe motivated some young Saudis to engage in the sport, but one event will not make a dramatic change. There needs to be support at every level. We need to educate people. Help from the government and the media can make this happen.” 

***

Just over 8000km away, Zuhayr Al-Qahtani is plotting his own ascent to boxing’s summit.

Born in the Red Sea city, he moved to the UK with his parents at the age of eight. In those formative years, Al-Qahtani hero-worshipped older brother Fahad – 11 years his senior – and so it was no surprise when he followed his sibling into the boxing ring.

“I remember people trying to bully me at school but I always wanted to defend myself,” Al-Qahtani recalls. “I started getting in trouble for fighting and so Fahad took me to a boxing gym. His exact words were ‘In this place you can do what you want to do’. He inspired me to take it seriously; that’s where it started.”

Borrowing cast-off gloves and kit from his brother, Al-Qahtani began training and embraced the sport. From the dusty streets of Saudi Arabia, he eventually found his way to a musty boxing gym in Lambeth, South London.

Fitzroy Lodge is a living, breathing slice of British boxing heritage. For more than a hundred years the unassuming gym, housed under a railway arch and inside an old air-raid shelter, has been churning out successful amateurs. Former World Heavyweight champion David Haye is perhaps its most acclaimed alumnus.

“What I remember most is the smell,” Al-Qahtani says. “It takes a little getting used to but that smell of boxing just grabs you and doesn’t let go. The stale sweat and blood in the air, the dim lighting. It sounds disgusting but it becomes part of your DNA. I stood there and watched a couple of heavyweights bleeding out as they were sparring – and knew this was what I wanted to do.”

Now a professional boxer with a 5-0 record, Al-Qahtani trains a little way down the road at Miguel’s Gym in Brixton. While the romantic idea of returning to Saudi Arabia has often crossed his mind, the 29-year-old’s home is London. He has already fought twice and won twice at the city’s York Hall – the gritty epicentre of British boxing – and feels that staying in the capital is key for his development.

“I think of Saudi Arabia as my mother and London as my father,” Al-Qahtani explains. “These are two important parts of me and of course my heart will always be attached to my mother, no matter where I go. But to become a world class boxer, you need to be living in the UK or America – it’s as simple as that. Could I move back to Saudi? Maybe one day.”

Al-Qahtani’s most recent return to Saudi Arabia was a happy homecoming last September. The fifth fight of his professional career was the second Saudi victory on a historic night of boxing at King Abdullah Sports City. He walked to the ring in Jeddah wearing a traditional thawb, much to the delight of the spectators, who celebrated enthusiastically as he claimed a unanimous points’ victory over Brit Mohamed Mahmoud. 

The ‘Arabian Warrior’ is an unashamed extrovert in and out of the ring, with his ability to craft a one-liner reminiscent of the legendarily loquacious British-Yemeni fighter ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed. Al-Qahtani has previously promised to help Jeddah become the “new Las Vegas” and also claimed he could “do for Saudi Arabia what Manny Pacquiao did for the Philippines”. Local and international media were understandably fawning over him… Al-Qahtani loved every second.


Credit: Maxim Northover

“I always had this dream to be the first Saudi world champion and in Jeddah, though I wasn’t fighting for a belt, I felt like a champion,” he beams. “I just wanted to demonstrate in front of the whole world what the Middle East has. It was nerve-wracking of course, but my coach always says if you don’t feel nervous before a fight, don’t box.”

Al-Qahtani showed no signs of nerves when thrust in front of TV cameras, dusting off his somewhat rusty Arabic to plead for boxing to get more attention in the Kingdom. That request was supported by his childhood hero, Naseem Hamed, who was in attendance in Jeddah and offered some sage advice.
“He whispered in my ear, ‘I see something in your eyes that I once saw in my eyes’. Later on he took me to one side and told me to stay humble, to be humble and kind. He said that when the fans believe in you, that’s when you are a champion.”

Al-Qahtani’s has the kind of ambition that knows no bounds. It is not always clear whether he is being sincere or just offering a soundbite, but he certainly appears to genuinely believe he can reach the pinnacle of the sport.

“I have the discipline and ability to be world champion one day and if I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be competing. I know my skills, I know I’m worthy. I have a huge potential fan base in the Middle East, too.”

That fan base has yet to be fully realised but, unsurprisingly, Al-Qahtani is aiming big. “They say when Pacquiao boxes, the crime rate drops in the Philippines. I want to be the same thing across the whole Middle East. I want people to watch me and say, ‘Yes, he looks like us, he shares our faith – he represents us.’” 

***

Back in Jeddah, Halah Al-Hamrani is readying her boxing pads for another busy afternoon. The past couple of years have been a whirlwind of publicity and media coverage for her and FLAG (Fight Like A Girl) Boxing, the gym she owns there.

It was in April 2016 that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman first announced Saudi Vision 2030 – a wide-reaching plan to diversify the country’s economy. He placed progressive social policies at the heart of his proposals and the world collectively sat up and took notice of a country that had for a long time been viewed as ultra-conservative and closed.

The lifting of the world’s only ban on female drivers made global headlines and news organisations made a beeline for the kingdom in an attempt to discover what life was really like for women. Al-Hamrani has emerged as the embodiment of social change in Saudi, with a light shined upon her by global media.

She first started training female fighters in her parents’ home almost two decades ago after returning from university in San Diego and finding that martial arts was something “totally unavailable” to women in Saudi Arabia.

Her journey since then has been fraught with challenges and even now, she regularly stares down criticism, particularly on the faceless soapbox that is social media. But with a packed schedule of clients, it seems it is Al-Hamrani’s voice, rather than her detractors, that is being heard.


Credit: James Law

“People who oppose women training do so because it is unfamiliar to them,” Al-Hamrani explains. “I’d say it is happening less, but it does still happen. Honestly I have never dwelled on it because I know what I am doing is necessary and I know that it is right.

“It’s not against my religion, it’s not against Saudi Arabia – so I ignore the negative comments.

“It is about mental encouragement and mental empowerment. That is the first change that happens. That feeling of complete empowerment is an addiction that you can’t shake. It is a necessary change for a woman in Saudi Arabia – to feel that she’s strong and she’s capable.”

While the abolition of the driving ban captured most international attention, the opening up of sports stadiums and events has also had a profound impact. For someone whose life is dedicated to physical pursuits, it has been a source of motivation, of passion, of joy. 

Al-Hamrani attended the World Boxing Super Series with friends and was back at King Abdullah Sports City in December for a Brave MMA show, also the first of its kind in the kingdom. 

“We couldn’t go to any sporting events, now we can go to all of them,” Al-Hamrani smiles. “This is a huge, incredible change that has been wonderful to watch happen. A few weeks ago, I went to watch a Mariah Carey concert – it would have been crazy to think this was possible just a couple of years ago.”
After actively encouraging changes in attitude from the bottom-up for so many years, Al-Hamrani is now also part of the top-down approach. Sitting as the only woman on the board of the Saudi Arabian Mixed Martial Arts Federation, she has been behind some significant developments.  

“In the next couple of months we will have the first female local fights under our umbrella in the country. This will be such an important moment as part of the social change that we are now seeing.”

***

For Julaidan, Al-Qahtani and Al-Hamrani, boxing remains an integral part of everyday life. It is a life they want to share with other Saudis – a lofty goal to build a bigger boxing community that comes together to improve physical and mental wellbeing, and to nurture future world champions.

Having ploughed a lone furrow at the grassroots level for so many years, Al-Hamrani can now help shape policy and action, while at the professional level Julaidan and Al-Qahtani can inspire support from Saudis with their performances. Meanwhile, flying the flag for the younger generation are the likes of welterweight Ahmed Monshi, a 19-year-old Saudi national champion who is also being trained by the inimitable Nettles Nasser.

Bigger names are taking note too. In the wake of the World Boxing Super Series, Naseem Hamed vowed to open his own line of boxing academies in the kingdom, with Amir Khan making similar noises. Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather is also reportedly considering partnering with the GSA for another major event this autumn.

The noble art may be a slow-burner in this nation of football fanatics, but the potential is there… it always has been and, as it has proved globally, boxing has the power to be a genuinely unifying force in the kingdom from here on in. For now, there remain a few more rounds to slug through. A campaign for hearts and minds in the country via heart and mind in the ring. The bell has rung; it’s time for Saudi to come out fighting. 

PHOTOGRAPHY:
Hayat Osama,
Maxim Northove4,
James law and
Helmy Alsaggaf