Alan Hubbard

He stands 6ft 9in and has five children, so Tyson Fury could rightfully claim to be boxing's Big Daddy, had that nom de guerre not already been nabbed by the esteemed late British wrestler Shirley Crabtree.

And yes, that was his real name, as all grip and grapple fans will be aware.

It so happens that Tyson Fury itself is not a bad moniker to carry into the territory once occupied by Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, along with The Rock and The Undertaker, when the undefeated lineal heavyweight champion of the world makes his debut on the wrestling mat in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on October 31, against one Braun Strowman. 

It takes place nine days before two YouTube celebrities engage in public fisticuffs and three weeks before 55-year-old Nigel Benn returns to the ring.

There has been much head-shaking at Fury's move. He will box and Strowman will wrestle - or attempt to. 

Such hybrid action has occurred before, of course. Back in May 1976 when the boxing business was a bit quiet for Muhammad Ali, he took himself to Tokyo to engage in mixed combat with the Japanese wrestling star Antonio Inoki. They fought an unedifying draw, splitting $6 million, after which Ali spent three days in hospital with a thrombosis where Inoki, who had squatted on the canvas thoughout the 15 rounds, simply hacked away with his feet at Ali's shins and calves.

Therein lies the danger for Fury. The eye injury he sustained in his last fight against the Swede Otto Wallin was among the most gruesome seen in boxing since the days when Carmen Basilio regularly bled all over the floor; further or fresh damage could seriously jeopardise his return with WBC champion Deontay Wilder, scheduled for January.

But even more is at stake. This mix 'n' match bout is not only profitable for Fury, as well as broadening his profile, but is of vital importance to Saudi Arabia in terms of PR and politics.

Muhammad Ali "fought" wrestler Antonio Inoki - it didn't end well ©Getty Images
Muhammad Ali "fought" wrestler Antonio Inoki - it didn't end well ©Getty Images

Last month, the foreign registration documentation for Saudi Arabia's 2018 lobbying campaign in the United States was made available online. The documents shed light on the kingdom's aggressive "sportswashing" strategy, that included meetings and business calls with the commissioners for Major League Soccer (MLS), Major League Baseball (MLB), as well as officials from the National Basketball Association (NBA), World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the Los Angeles Olympic Committee.

Saudi Arabia's strategic interest in sports and entertainment events dates back to November 2016, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the kingdom's General Sports Authority to set up a Sports Development Fund to bolster sports activity in the country. The objectives of the fund were to privatise football clubs to increase participation and promote new sports events as part of a development proposal that laid out a modern, technocratic future for Saudi Arabia in which the country would be free of its heavy dependence on oil.

Given that Saudi Arabia historically opposed Western-influenced sports and entertainment events, these recent developments seemed to represent a significant change in the ultra-conservative Islamic nation's policies and a pivot away from the kingdom's longstanding societal limitations.

Since Bin Salman's policy shift was imposed in 2016, the kingdom has hosted the Race of Champions (ROC) motorsport event, secured a long-term deal with the WWE that includes multiple shows a year, hosted boxing events headlined by stars like Amir Khan, a PGA European Tour golf event, as well as a major tennis tournament, and even secured the rights to the rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr, arguably the biggest boxing pay-per-view of the year on December 7, a week after rival Fury does his fling.

Significantly, however, the common denominator is that not a single female will compete in any of these events, though some are now allowed to watch in segregated pens.

Amir Khan was perfectly happy to fight Billy Dib in Jeddah ©Getty Images
Amir Khan was perfectly happy to fight Billy Dib in Jeddah ©Getty Images

While Saudi Arabia's pivot towards a more liberal society is a welcome change for the conservative kingdom, it also raises important questions about the Government's relatively sudden interest in sports and whether it could be construed as a soft power tactic to help distract from ongoing human rights abuses and the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen - a war that killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and has left 14 million at risk of starvation.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia's sports-centric lobbying offensive has been the result of an urgent need for the kingdom to rebrand itself following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was reportedly killed and dismembered with a bone-saw.

So will Fury's Dust-Up in the Desert prove a PR masterstroke? You can bet (although gambling, like booze, is strictly forbidden) that every punch will be choreographed, as they were in the Rocky movies.

Fury has garnered a profile for speaking out and helping those who suffered the kind of crippling depression he faced during a 31-month break from the sport, where he said he came close to suicide. Whether he opts to use his voice as a tool for the repressed in Saudi is another matter.

One even wonders whether the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will be keeping a watchful eye to see if there is anything that can be adapted for the Olympic programme. It may be a fanciful thought, but knowing how showbiz-oriented the IOC has become, almost anything goes if it will liven up the Games and add to viewing figures.

The problem would be finding a genuine winner. Yet there are still those who continue to insist that what happens in pro wrestling is for real. But I have to disillusion them - it isn't. 

It is all fixed, and always has been.

Mick McManus, now there was a wrestler ©Getty Images
Mick McManus, now there was a wrestler ©Getty Images

I know this from spending a week on the road with one of wrestling's greatest characters.

Long before the advent of Mike Tyson as "the baddest man on the planet", Mick McManus revelled in the role. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the wrestler with the close-cropped coiffeur that looked as if it was a rug coated in Cherry Blossom's shiniest black shoe polish, was one of the most familiar, if reviled, figures on Britain's TV screens.

McManus was the ultimate anti-hero, the cunning, snivelling cheat whose dastardly disregard for the rules, such as they were, was compulsive viewing for some 20 years.

As he left the ring, inevitably triumphant, to a chorus of hisses and boos, outraged grannies battered him with handbags and even stuck hatpins into his black-trunked backside. They refused to believe the wrestling wasn't genuine, though McManus himself resolutely insisted, publicly at least, that it was. But of course it wasn't...

As Donald Trump would say, it was fake news. Showbiz with fake blood.

Meantime, it seems the Saudis are deliberately draping a sporting sackcloth over their wretched human rights record, but there's a way to go yet before the medieval image of public beheadings, stoning to death and floggings is removed from our consciousness.