The head of the World Boxing Council declined to say if his organization will take part in a highly anticipated light heavyweight title unification showdown between Artur Beterbiev and Dmitry Bivol.

Beterbiev, the WBC, WBO, IBF champion, and Bivol, the WBA titlist, are expected to meet in the ring later this summer in Saudi Arabia, increasingly the capital of high-profile fights in boxing. As to whether that fight will be for the undisputed distinction, however, is uncertain.

In response to Russia's war on Ukraine, WBC’s Sulaiman ruled that the sanctioning body would refrain from ranking any Russian or Belarussian fighter, as well as refrain from sanctioning any fights in Russia or Belarus. Sulaiman went a step further by insisting that the WBC would not give their blessing to a Beterbiev vs. Bivol fight because of Bivol’s Russian citizenship. Curiously, Sulaiman exempted Beterbiev from his decree because of Beterbiev’s Canadian citizenship; Beterbiev has lived in Quebec for more than a decade.

The same rationale was used by Beterbiev’s promoter, Bob Arum, who has since apparently changed his tune. In the wake of Beterbiev’s brutal beatdown of Callum Smith earlier this month, Arum indicated that a deal for Beterbiev vs. Bivol was imminent, thanks to the involvement of Saudi Arabia’s Turki Alalshikh, the influential powerbroker who has greenlit a number of high-profile matchups in recent months for the oil-producing kingdom. Alalshikh has publicly expressed his enthusiasm for staging that matchup.

In an interview with Tris Dixon of Pro Box TV, Sulaiman notably did not invoke the hardline stance he maintained in the past. Instead, he declined to comment, saying that the WBC is going through a “process within the board of governors” that would presumably lead to a decision on the matter.   

In any case, even if Sulaiman still has misgivings about sanctioning a prize fight involving a Russian fighter, he apparently has no qualms about high-profile fights taking place in Saudi Arabia, amid criticism that the gulf country is sportswashing its abysmal human rights records and disrupting the local economies and fanbases of boxing.

Saudi Arabia will host the undisputed heavyweight championship next month between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk and, in March, it will stage a “crossover” fight between Anthony Joshua and former UFC champion Francis Ngannou.

“How can someone be against a system which is paying so much money to so many fighters which is putting boxing at a level of highest interest worldwide and which is announcing a lot of active events coming up and every promotion is a real, real promotion?” Sulaiman said. “And it should be like that.”

Sean Nam is the author of Murder on Federal Street: Tyrone Everett, the Black Mafia, and the Last Golden Age of Philadelphia Boxing