Benn v Eubank Jr 'the main focus' but Pacquiao comeback still a possibility in Abu Dhabi

Matchroom Boxing CEO Frank Smith tells 'The National' plans are under way for June 3 clash at Etihad Arena

Chris Eubank Jr, left, and Conor Benn could face off in Abu Dhabi in June. PA
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A headline fight between Conor Benn and Chris Eubank Jr represents the frontrunner for Matchroom Boxing’s return to Abu Dhabi this summer – although Manny Pacquiao remains in the frame for a comeback bout in the capital.

Promoters Matchroom, who last year signed a long-term agreement with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT), are putting together plans for a June 3 show at Etihad Arena, as a follow-up to their successful debut in the emirate in November.

That event, the first in the "Champion Series", was headlined by WBA light-heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol’s victory against Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez.

An encounter featuring Benn and Eubank Jr is in the offing for Matchroom’s second Abu Dhabi event, as is a bout between Benn and Pacquiao. The latter, boxing’s only eight-division champion, retired from the sport in August 2021, but has been in negotiations regarding a return against Benn.

Speaking to The National, Matchroom Boxing CEO Frank Smith said at present Benn-Eubank Jr was in pole position for June 3. The pair were slated to fight at O2 Arena in England in October, only for the bout to be cancelled 24 hours beforehand after Benn tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in August.

“We’ve got a date now from the DCT and Etihad Arena that works - June 3 - and we’re just going through the process,” Smith said. “We’ve got multiple options, whether we look at Dmitry Bivol again.

“But the main focus for us right now is Conor Benn. There’s a lot of talk about the Manny Pacquiao fight, but a big fight we’re looking at as well is the Chris Eubank Jr fight, which sold out the O2 in a matter of minutes. So that’s the focus for us to try and get over the line.”

Asked which fight was more likely at this stage, Smith added: “I think [Benn-Eubank Jr] is the frontrunner we’re working on. There’s a lot of talk about the Pacquiao fight as well in the background across social media, but [Benn-Eubank Jr] is something we’re focusing quite heavily on at the minute, trying to see if can make that one happen. A lot of work going into that currently.”

Smith said he hoped to announce Benn’s next bout within the next week. The unbeaten welterweight, the son of former two-weight world champion Nigel Benn, was last month cleared by the WBC of intentionally doping and subsequently restored to their rankings.

However, Benn is currently prohibited by the British Boxing Board of Control from competing in the UK. In recent weeks, Benn has repeatedly protested his innocence.

“The one thing about Conor Benn right now is he will fight anyone,” Smith said. “That’s why we‘re talking about all the names that have been mentioned. Whether it’s Manny Pacquiao, [retired former welterweight champion] Kell Brook, Chris Eubank Jr. He will literally go in with anyone; he wants the biggest fight possible.

“He’s obviously had some time out of the ring now that he’s focused on getting a massive fight. And they’re very excited by the prospect of coming to Abu Dhabi.”

Smith said Benn, 21-0 as a professional, was understandably keen to put the past five months of turmoil behind him.

“One hundred per cent,” Smith said. “The focus always was to clear his name. He could’ve boxed a week after the situation happened if he wanted to, in another territory.

“But it was always his focus to put the work in to clear his name with his team. That’s been a four- or five-month process, probably one of the hardest processes he’ll ever go through in his life.

“So, as I said, the focus is completely set now on moving forward, continuing the journey he was on. And taking the biggest fight possible, because he believes in his ability.

“He’s 26 years old and has a huge future ahead of him. He’s stayed in the gym throughout, has been training very hard, and we’re looking forward to seeing him back in the ring.”

Smith said Matchroom are convinced Benn-Eubank Jr in Abu Dhabi would generate “massive” interest given it would appeal to both the local and expat market, as well as attract visitors from outside the UAE – particularly the UK.

Eubank Jr, 32-3 as a pro, is the son of the former two-division world champion, and long-time rival to Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank.

“The key obviously for the travelling fans is to make sure we can get the fight up and running and out there as soon as possible, so people can start making their plans,” Smith said.

Filipino Pacquiao, meanwhile, retired from boxing following his unanimous decision loss to Yordenis Ugas 19 months ago - the bout followed a two-year hiatus. He then ran, unsuccessfully, for the presidency of the Philippines.

On Wednesday, MP Promotions president Sean Gibbons told ESPN that Pacquiao, 44, “wants to fight again and feels he can do it at the highest level. And this [Benn] fight was presented to him by [Matchroom Sport chairman] Eddie Hearn, and he agreed. Ball is in Eddie Hearn’s court. Pacquiao ready to go”.

On Friday, Smith told The National: “Let’s be honest, Manny Pacquiao is probably one of the biggest names in the past 20 or 30 years in professional boxing. And still very relevant as well.

“And in great shape also. People talk about his age, but Manny Pacquiao has never stopped training. You see him in the gym, he looks as good as ever.

“And sometimes, with some of these fighters, a bit like when Vladimir Klitschko fought Anthony Joshua [in 2017], he was 41 years old and that gave us one of the best nights we ever saw in the boxing ring. And although he’s retired, Conor hasn’t been in with fighters anywhere near the level of Manny Pacquiao, so we have to be realistic.

“So I think he can still cause him problems. People at certain points in Conor’s career wrote him off that he didn’t have the ability. This is the kind of fight we get to see if Conor can go to the top. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Manny Pacquiao of 10-15 years ago, but it’s still a hugely talented fighter who’s still got a lot left to give the sport.”

As for the talks between Matchroom and Pacquiao’s team, Smith said: “Look, they really want the fight. His management team are talking to us every single hour of the day. It’s something we’ve been discussing for a while now, and I think it’s something that we can make very quickly.

“As I say, there’s a number of options to look at and all have got their strengths. And Pacquiao is definitely up there as well.”

Smith said Matchroom are targeting two events in Abu Dhabi this year having proven what they could offer with their inaugural "Champion Series" show last November.

“Now the focus for us is to keep building and deliver this event in June,” Smith said. “Hopefully then deliver another event later in the year.

“We’ve had good conversations with the [Abu Dhabi] Sports Council as well as with the DCT around the broader growth of boxing in the market. We’re working on a longer-term, broader plan of how we grow boxing and how we bring new eyeballs into the sport. And that’s very exciting. That’s how we’re going to build momentum for the sport.”

Updated: March 18, 2023, 7:47 AM