How rival boxing promoters got to work together after years of animosity

For 15 years, Frank Warren and Eddie Hearn have towered over the U.K. boxing landscape, during which time the sport has cemented itself as one of the region's most prominent.

And for 15 years, Warren and Hearn didn't speak to each other face to face. That meant many of the best possible U.K. matchups fell by the wayside, just like their stateside counterparts where the promoters rarely conduct business with one another.

The conflict between Warren, 72, and Hearn, 44, finally ended last November.

That's when Turki Alalshikh, the chairman of Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority, brought the pair together for a meeting in London at the Day of Reckoning news conference, an event that featured fighters aligned with both promoters.

Hearn said Alalshikh was "quite taken back" by the response to his union with Warren. And it's good business, too. "We're a professional sport," Warren told ESPN on Tuesday alongside Hearn. "And so we find our guys wanna earn the best money possible and we wanna make money."

Now, with Warren and Hearn no longer at loggerheads, the rivals will face off Saturday in Riyadh as part of a unique, team-based concept created by Alalshikh that will pit five of Warren's boxers from Queensberry Promotions against five selected by Hearn's Matchroom Boxing in an event called "5 vs. 5."

"Quite bizarre really," Hearn told ESPN regarding the duo's longtime radio silence. "And in all honesty, without His Excellency [Alalshikh] getting involved and without this changing landscape, we would never have spoken. Because if you ain't gonna do it after 15 years, you just aren't gonna do it.

"We're both pretty stubborn," Hearn added. "It just got to a point where it's like, it is what it is, we don't work together. We've got our own platforms, our own fighters. Good luck. And I think I speak on both our behalf: It's the best thing we've ever done. I mean, it's definitely the most excited and reinvigorated I've felt in my career for a long time."

For boxing fans, it's probably surreal -- yet encouraging -- to hear those words. Saturday's slate of fights is compelling even without the stakes attached to the team concept.

One point will be awarded for each victory by decision, two points for a KO/TKO win, and double points for the team's captains: Deontay Wilder, who signed with Matchroom ahead of his heavyweight main event against Zhilei Zhang, and Hamzah Sheeraz, who will represent Queensberry in a middleweight fight vs. Austin "Ammo" Williams. The winning promoter will take home $3 million.

"Boxing has always been an individual sport and now we're doing five vs. five. It's like a team concept first introduced to the sport of boxing," Zhang, 41, told ESPN in remarks translated from Chinese. "And I like the idea, I like what they're doing. I believe that everybody on our team is training very hard respectfully. And I believe that getting points for the team is definitely a good thing."

Six other fighters will be looking to rack up points for their promoter. Queensberry's Daniel Dubois meets Filip Hrgovic with the winner expected to fight Anthony Joshua on Sept. 20 at London's Wembley Stadium in a Riyadh Season event. All five heavyweights on the card reside in ESPN's top 10 rankings. Raymond Ford (an American promoted by Hearn) defends his WBA featherweight title vs. Nick Ball in a fight that could easily stand alone as its own main event.

The biggest underdog in the top three fights is Dubois at +210, per ESPN BET, illustrating the competitive nature of the slate.

The opening bout: Willy Hutchinson-Craig Richards at light heavyweight.

The series of fights was headlined by Artur Beterbiev-Dmitry Bivol for the undisputed light championship before Beterbiev's knee injury. Bivol will still fight on the card, defending his WBA light heavyweight title against late replacement Malik Zinad.

While there's plenty at stake between the former bitter enemies -- bragging rights along with the prize money -- there's arguably more on the line for the fighters, especially Zhang and Wilder. Both heavyweights are reeling from upset losses to Joseph Parker in Riyadh.

"Deontay didn't look good at all last time out, so he's gotta try and redeem himself and 'Big Bang' [Zhang] will want to get himself back in the mix again," Warren said. "He had Parker on the floor twice, he was doing quite well in the fight till the latter stages. For me, the loser of this fight I don't think has too many places to go so they know what's on the line. That's why it's gonna be such a competitive matchup."

And perhaps that, more than anything else, is what Alalshikh's interest in the sport -- with Saturday's card the latest example -- represents. The way other boxing power brokers usually operate, Wilder likely would have languished for more than one year after the loss to Parker, before returning in a tune-up bout against a low-level fighter.

It's the path Wilder traveled after his November loss to Tyson Fury that was named ESPN's 2021 Fight of the Year (along with KO of the Year). Wilder's comeback bout came 11 months later in a first-round KO of journeyman Robert Helenius.

The American, now 38, didn't fight for another 13 months, and when he did, he was a shell of his former self in a lackluster loss to Parker last December. Wilder entered the ring a -700 favorite, per ESPN BET. Zhang, too, was favored to defeat Parker when they fought on March 8; it didn't matter. Now, both big men have a chance to quickly erase the stench of defeat and put themselves in position for another marquee fight.

"This gives Wilder a foot right back in," Hearn said. "If he knocks out Zhang, everybody's gonna be calling for him to be in big fights again. ... These guys know this on the card: you lose, you're probably gonna be a forgotten man to His Excellency, being brutal. You win and you win in style, he's gonna go, 'I want him back.' So that's what they're fighting for as well."

Alalshikh is planning an Aug. 3 fight between Wilder and rising contender Jared Anderson on the loaded Terence Crawford-Israil Madrimov Riyadh Season undercard in Los Angeles, but the former heavyweight champion must perform well vs. Zhang, even in defeat. The long-awaited fight against Joshua is also on the table. Wilder was set to meet Joshua on March 8 but the loss to Parker ruined their plans.

"I said to Wilder, I am ready to deliver [the Joshua fight] but it depends on his performance against Zhang," Alalshikh told ESPN in April. "If he doesn't care about himself, I'm not responsible. I give him two chances but I cannot give him a third."

This could just be the start of team-based boxing. It's been done on the lower level before: There was the semi-pro World Series of Boxing where top amateurs like heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk once competed. There's also Team Combat League, which is currently in operation but doesn't feature many top-level fighters.

"The two promoters involved are integral to the boxing industry and will play a crucial role in the new boxing project," Alalshikh told ESPN on Thursday. "Promoters are embracing this vision based on their experience with us so far, and will continue working with us to bring boxing back. Our next phase involves a competition involving our partners, U.S.-based promoters vs. U.K.-based promoters, an event we believe fans will eagerly embrace."

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has already disrupted golf with its team-based LIV Golf tour -- with a hefty infusion of funds into the sport -- and more of the same could be here to stay in boxing. Not boxers fighting together, of course, but in a Ryder Cup-like format where boxers represent their country or promotion.

"It gets all the juices going," Warren said. "We are full of it and we both wanna win this badly. And it's captured everybody's imagination. It's been fantastic through the auspices of His Excellency basically getting us together, banging our heads together and saying, 'don't screw this up.'

"The finances available for the Riyad Season have made a different landscape altogether," he added. "But that's rippled all around the world now. ... It's a really brilliant time for boxing, brilliant time for us, and we've gotta embrace it and we'd be complete schmucks to mess it up."