IF there were any lingering doubts that boxing is a business first and a sport second, the announcement that Saudi Arabia will host the Andy Ruiz Jnr-Anthony Joshua rematch on December 7 should dispel them.
Though the news triggered pandemonium of the social media variety last week, it really should be no surprise that this has happened – we’ve been told for several years that it was only a matter of time before a fight of this magnitude would be bankrolled by the bottomless pockets of the moneymen in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s shameful humanitarian record is the root of most of the outrage and, without question, it’s a huge concern. All involved should tread very carefully. Boxing’s reputation does not need another pummelling.
It’s been a dismal summer for the sport, at least from a PR standpoint, with fighters winning fights after failing drug tests, as well as deaths and serious injuries. Naysayers are already suggesting that boxing’s own questionable moral background makes Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the perfect setting for a world heavyweight title fight in 2019. In fact, it’s hard to remember confirmation of such a highly anticipated showdown being so poorly received.
The term ‘neutral’ ground is high on the marketing agenda after Andy Ruiz Jnr, upon hearing of the fiasco surrounding Dillian Whyte’s recent adverse drug test, declared he would not come to the UK to fight Joshua. There were surely other neutral grounds that would not have generated such negativity. But few, if any, that could have generated as much money. It’s that, of course, which is the crux for many critics; that this whole extravaganza smacks of a money grab.
Beneath all the negativity are reasons to be cheerful. While business indeed comes first – and the boxers should not be blamed for reaping the rewards as a consequence – it seems to have been forgotten in all the media hoopla that the fight we all wanted to see, one of the best the sport can currently make, is actually happening. And that, as anyone who reads this publication will know, is never a given.
Furthermore, if this was merely Joshua ‘cashing out’, as has been suggested, he could have picked a far easier opponent than the man who thrashed him so severely a little over two months ago. No question whatsoever that it’s Joshua who will be the attraction in Saudi Arabia. A far less threatening opponent could have been marketed as his big comeback, and the crowds and interest would still have flocked.
The former champion is focused solely on revenge. At this point, in his mind, the battleground is inconsequential. His initial preference was to return to New York, and the scene of his Madison Square Garden loss to Ruiz on June 1, before being instructed by his team that the home comforts of the UK would be a far more sensible decision. In the end, he was keen to pursue that ‘neutral’ option when Ruiz continued to voice his displeasure at being both the champion and the ‘away’ fighter. The risk to Joshua’s career is great, irrespective of where the fight takes place.
Let’s also remember that Callum Smith, George Groves and Amir Khan have all emerged from recent fights in Saudi Arabia with their reputations, at least as decent human beings, intact. After all, they were not the first athletes to pursue their trade in countries with questionable reputations and histories. Nor the first boxers. Predictably, the Rumble in the Jungle, held in what was then known as Zaire in 1974, was mentioned this week as an example of boxing going into rotten territory and coming out smelling of roses.
But Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman went down in history despite the location, not because of it. The backdrop merely added layers to the story. Already, the story of Ruiz-Joshua II is producing twists and turns aplenty. The hope is that it all ends triumphantly, like it did for Ali 45 years ago. And the sport of boxing, after a long spell on the ropes, emerges as the clear winner.