Senior Boxing Journalist @JamesDielhenn
Saudi Arabia's boxing pioneer Zuhayr Al Qahtani: 'We're here to prove something, and to win titles'
"My parents are traditional people. They said: 'You want to be like Muhammad Ali? But you're skinny and little?'"
Last Updated: 15/11/19 7:46pm
Saudi Arabia's first boxer realised he could be a trailblazer when he tried, and failed, to seek inspiration from predecessors that did not exist.
"I looked through history to find a Saudi champion because I only knew a few names - 'Prince' Naseem Hamed, Mike Tyson. It was shocking to me that there had never been a Saudi boxer. It was in my mind to be not just the first Saudi boxer, not just the first Saudi world champion, but the first Saudi multiple-weight world champion. The cherry on the cake will be when I'm in the pound-for-pound best list."
Zuhayr Al Qahtani's ambitions are wildly ambitious but why not? If the boxing revolution materialises to turn Saudi Arabia into the new Las Vegas, spearheaded by Anthony Joshua's rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr on December 7 live on Sky Sports Box Office, then Al Qahtani's fingerprints will be found as the nation's first homegrown professional fighter.
'The Arabian Warrior', as he has become nicknamed, fought on the undercard of the World Boxing Super Series final in Saudi Arabia when Callum Smith knocked out George Groves - he was the second Saudi boxer on the bill but the first to forge a pro career.
It is a unique piece of history distinguished in his home city of Jeddah but made possible by some teenage years of rough 'n' tumble in south London.
A blissful childhood in Saudi Arabia was interrupted when Al Qahtani's family sent him and his five brothers to live in London, to study and learn English.
"I'd never seen snow in my life - I put it in my bag and tried to take it to school! It melted. Obviously now I hate snow," he remembered.
He was eight or nine, had a speech disorder, and was bullied.
"They took my dinner money," he said. "In my culture it was an embarrassment to be getting beaten up. I kept it a secret for a long time. One day my mother noticed a black eye and a busted lip so she made my brother, who is eight years older, train me. He was already boxing.
"I started to have so many fights at school - I hated anybody getting oppressed, and I defended everybody. I had 100 fights at school in one year. I fought on the stairs, in the classroom, in the corridor, in the toilets…"
Al Qahtani's is not the first reputation to be solidified on the school playground but he upped the ante by immersing himself in boxing, still unaware of the sport's total absence of history in Saudi Arabia.
"The first thing I hit was a speed ball but it hit me back and nearly broke my nose! Embarrassing. In Arabic we say: 'I'd rather you punch me than slap me'. I love the concept of 'hit and don't get hit'. Boxing is an art, not a fight."
The difficult conversation with his parents that followed is similar to the tale told by Ramla Ali, who secretly boxed in London gyms without the knowledge of her Somalian family. Like Ali, Al Qahtani's parents did not understand at first.
"My parents are traditional people," he said. "They don't believe in sport. They said: 'be an engineer or a doctor!'
"They said: 'You want to be like Muhammad Ali? But you're skinny and little?'
"But my mother is a beautiful person. When I came home with a bloody nose she cleaned me up and told me to continue working hard. She supports me."
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Two-and-a-half years ago he debuted, won four in a row, then received a dream call to fight in Saudi Arabia who had secured a major coup by hosting the Smith vs Groves fight.
"After that fight I was walking on the beach and noticed a group of guys staring at me," Al Qahtani remembered. "I was ready for a confrontation but they said: 'Are you Zuhayr Al Qahtani? We love you!'
"And I was fortunate enough to meet the princes, and the Crown Prince's son. They hugged and kissed me, and gave me their backing.
"People have a negative image of Saudi but I'm here to show the positives. If you think about Saudi, think about me. I am Saudi. I'm a post-graduate engineer as well as a boxer and I plan to complete my PhD.
"Ricky Hatton had England, Manny Pacquiao has the Philippines and I will have Saudi behind me. Saudi have never won a World Cup so for me to have a world title would be great for them. It's about time. I will get the world title for them.
"I want to show that in Saudi we have talents. We're here to prove something, we're here to win titles."
Al Qahtani's talk is as big as the claims that Saudi Arabia will become a mainstream boxing hotbed.
"I want to conquer Vegas, take a title from there, and take it to Saudi," he added. "Vegas is the mecca of boxing but I want Saudi mentioned too. Saudi wants the biggest events and it will be very difficult for other countries to keep up."
Al Qahtani was pipped to being the first Saudi boxer to fight in the country by Abdulfatah Julaidan, who fought on the same night but earlier. Julaidan debuted professionally aged 39 and Al Quahtani likens him to Bernard Hopkins, who retired aged 52.
Together they made history 14 months ago but it was Al Qahtani who first raised the Saudi flag in a professional boxing ring. The eyes of the boxing world will fall upon the Kingdom when Joshua strides in but it is a 7-0 southpaw lightweight, half his size and on the undercard, who is the country's true boxing pioneer.