MONTE CARLO — Under a painted ceiling, opulent chandeliers, and within a historic building 156 years old, 16 international boxers will fight in extraordinary circumstances, competing in front of an exclusive audience of high-rollers, European royalty, and the British boxing promoter Eddie Hearn.
It all takes place at the Casino de Monte Carlo in Monaco on Saturday, November 30, and is the fourth year Hearn takes one of his events to the principality.
The first year Hearn took his show to Monaco, he did so in a venue with a capacity approaching 2,000. But from 2017 he moved the event to the casino, in a room which fits approximately 400 people. Everyone there adheres to a strict, black-tie dress code and pays up to €5,000 ($5,500) for a seat.
Renowned boxing fan Albert II, the Prince of Monaco, will be one of those in attendance this weekend.
The venue, the guest list, and the surroundings are a far cry from what boxing can often look like in small halls with fans slipping on beer-soaked floors while singing “Sweet Caroline” at the top of their lungs.
But the Monaco event, which happens every year in late November, is a key part of the Matchroom Boxing and Monte Carlo calendars.
“It's great for our brand,” the Matchroom Boxing boss Hearn told Business Insider while we sat in the Cafe de Paris courtyard, eyeballing expensive cars parked at the casino.
“Four years ago, when we came, it was an opportunity to start promoting in a new territory at the time with a big budget.
“There's the association with SBM, which is Society Monte Carlo, and the prince. Also, it's a bloody nice place, completely different. It brings credibility to boxing, rather than just a smoky hall with underworld mentality, this is an event for the prince in Monte Carlo.”
Hearn said from the casino's point-of-view the event is essentially a way of creating a unique event for its customers — their gamblers — while also providing global exposure for the region in general.
The three most interesting fights in Monaco this weekend are:
- Cecilia Braekhus vs. Victoria Noelia Bustos (women's welterweight)
- Alexander Besputin vs. Radzhab Butaev (welterweight)
- Zhilei Zhang vs. Andriy Rudenko (heavyweight)
The first involves one of the most dominant women in boxing history (Braekhus). The second features an all-Russian world title fight, and the third includes a 6-foot-6 Chinese southpaw in Zhang who could open up massive events at the 80,000 capacity Beijing National Stadium or the gambling hotbed of Macau, in China, Hearn told us.
Braekhus called Business Insider two weeks ago from the Big Bear mountains in California. She has since swapped what she said was her “winter wonderland” for the mild Mediterranean sun instead.
Braekhus, one of the most decorated women's fighters in history, has shaken off the snow and is currently warming up for a world title defense of her WBC, WBA, WBO, IBF, and IBO belts against Bustos.
She hopes to use the platform — boxing at a Matchroom show — to further her case for a super-fight against Matchroom golden girl Katie Taylor, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist who has since become a two-weight world champion.
Of her opponent Bustos, Braekhus said: “She fought Taylor, [Erica Anabella] Farias, and has been in very good fights, championship fights, and is a former champion herself. This is an experienced woman, and I won't be taking it easy at all.
“I have more power than Katie Taylor … so this will be an explosive fight. I'm just there to make a statement to get a big fight next year.”
That big fight that Braekhus is chasing is against Taylor. She wants to fight with so much style and power on Saturday night, that supporters demand that fight to be next. “I want people to demand to see Braekhus vs. Taylor next year, and that's why I'm fighting in Monte Carlo.”
Hearn, Taylor's promoter, welcomes the challenge should the 38-year-old win on Saturday.
“She calls herself the first lady,” Hearn said. “What that means is, she was a pioneer in women's boxing. In the last few years, the sport has gotten bigger. She's 35-0 and in the final phase of her career and wants to capitalize on those fights. That sort of fight is Katie Taylor.
“The issue is that Katie Taylor is a lightweight, 135-pound. Braekhus is 147. We'd need to make a catchweight fight between them, so it's what weight you can agree on.
“But it would be the undisputed lightweight champion against the undisputed welterweight champion. In terms of major events for women's boxing, it doesn't get any bigger.”
The Monte Carlo main event is 'a f—— dream fight'
Topping the bill is the welterweight showdown between Besputin and Bustaev, which Hearn called “a f—— dream fight for hardcore fans.”
It features Besputin, who had 315 amateur bouts, and Butaev, who had 450, Hearn said, adding other athletes widely avoid the Russians on account of being unbeaten in the professional circuit while possessing solid fighting abilities.
They are also managed by rival representatives Andrey Robinsky and Egis Klimas, adding a further needle to the main event. “They don't like each other, and I can't wait,” Hearn said of the managers. “It's going to be moody. Some proper people.”
On the fighters themselves, Hearn said: “Besputin is a really good boxer, but Butaev is a f—— beast. Basically, the winner's going to be a force. Profile perspective they've really got a chance [of becoming stars]. The problem with Eastern European fighters, they're very good but hard to gain the traction with.”
Hearn hinted that the winner could see their popularity soar should they be sufficiently promoted in America, following in the footsteps of Kazakhstan middleweight Gennady Golovkin.
“If you're an American, or you're in America, you've got to think an English-speaking American would gain more traction than a non-English speaking Russian.
“But Gennady Golovkin broke down the barriers of that, showing people a foreign fighter living in America can become a star. He laid the foundations for these guys.”
A 6-foot-6 southpaw could pave the way for mega fights in China
Hearn also hyped the unbeaten 6-foot-6 southpaw Zhilei Zhang, a Chinese heavyweight with a 20-0 record.
As an amateur super heavyweight, Zhang won medals at the 2007 World Championships and 2008 Olympics. He turned pro in 2014 and has won 20 times to date, knocking out 16 of his opponents.
The toughest test of his career comes Saturday, and Hearn is interested to see what he can do against Andriy Rudenko and whether Zhang can go on a winning run that will, one day, lead to massive paydays in China.
“He's been out for a year, injured, but he's 20-0 and can fight,” Hearn said. “He's got a tough fight against Rudenko if he wins, it's interesting.”
The potential long-term value in Zhang is massive, Hearn said.
“If a Chinese heavyweight breaks through on the scene, f— me, you're all of a sudden looking at doing 80,000 or 90,000 [people] at the Birds Nest. Macau would love it, too.”
Saturday's event, the Monte Carlo Showdown, will provide a few familiar faces for Hearn. Though there will only be an exclusive number of attendees, 400, they will all know each other despite having travelled long distances — from Russia, China, and elsewhere — to mingle with the prince, watch boxing, and gamble.
“Everything's geared toward how we drive excitement to Monte-Carlo in a month where there isn't a whole lot going on, and that is through world championship boxing. Now we have a really solid fanbase of travelling fans.
“If you're a punter, and you have a good time, and you know it's happening the next year, you go again, and that's what's happened. We've got the same people coming every year, and while they're here, they'll go to the casino.”
It's an arrangement that benefits Hearn and Monte Carlo. “It's good for international expansion. It's unique to come here and host a smaller, intimate event with royalty.
“The fact is, everyone wanted to get this gig, but we got it,” Hearn said. “It's a win for us.”