ON Wednesday Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz went head-to-head in Saudi Arabia to confirm that their December 7 rematch is indeed going ahead in Diriyah. The first Joshua vs Ruiz fight for the WBO, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles in June resulted in a shocking upset victory for the Mexican-American.
Publicly Britain’s Joshua appears satisfied to have given up home advantage, which he could have enforced, for this rematch. “Thank you all for your hospitality, to the people and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I never thought that I would be fighting outside of London or America so it is a blessing and I am humbled to be here,” he said at the kick-off press conference.
“With the fight, I feel that I was up against a good challenger at the time and I was only champion until June 1, as Andy is champion now, that will last until December 7 when he has to put his titles in the air and two warriors will go to war and the best man will walk out victorious. I am really looking forward to the challenge and I am glad the people here are supporting boxing. Some may support me, others may support Andy, but at the end of the day we are going to have a really good night of boxing and that is what we are all here for.”
Holding the fight in Saudi Arabia has drawn criticism, most notably from Amnesty International who cited it as a case of ‘sportswashing’, criticising the choice of the country for the bout due to the state’s human rights violations, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen.
“If Anthony Joshua fights Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia, it’s likely to be yet another opportunity for the Saudi authorities to try to ‘sportswash’ their severely tarnished image,” Amnesty UK’s head of campaigns Felix Jakens stated. “Despite some long-overdue reforms on women’s rights, Saudi Arabia is currently in the grip of a sweeping human rights crackdown – with women’s rights activists, lawyers and members of the Shia minority community all being targeted.
“There’s been no justice over the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen is carrying out indiscriminate attacks on homes, hospitals and market-places with horrific consequences for Yemeni civilians.
“As with other sporting stars going to Saudi Arabia, we’d call on Joshua to inform himself of the human rights situation and be prepared to speak out about Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record.”
But promoter Eddie Hearn is adamant that he won’t be dissuaded. “I am a boxing promoter who has a chance to stage a colossal event in a territory that are going to spend a fortune over the next five, 10 years for boxing. If I don’t do it, someone’s going to do it. Everybody’s been trying to do it for 10 years. Every boxing promoter has had meetings with Saudi Arabia to try and stage major events there. Unfortunately for me I got it, so I get the early stick. Everybody’s phoning now. The Saudis said since we’ve done this deal, every promoters been on to us,” Hearn maintained. “Are you just going to turn your back on it or are you going to let other fighters benefit that aren’t yours that are prepared to go? I’m not going to go to a fighter and say there’s more money than you can ever dream of making but you might get a little bit of criticism for going… What fighter is going to go, ‘No I’m going to turn that down.’”
He insists that Joshua has not been fazed by the criticism. “He’s a fighter. His mentality is let me know where I’m fighting, what’s the deal, that’s the right deal, neutral ground. AJ’s actually excited about boxing in that territory. He visits the Middle East, he wants to fight in all kinds of different places. I’m not saying that when he was growing up he was dreaming of being in Saudi Arabia but the option of him boxing in different kinds of places does appeal to him. So he’s never once said to me, ‘Do you think I’ll get some stick?’ I think he’ll palm it off to me anyway,” Hearn said. “Since he started cracking it, we’ve had approaches from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Nigeria, Congo, Ivory Coast, China and they’ve all been of interest to us. He’s a global star.
“You can’t ignore the Middle East. If these people are going to pay five, six, 10 times more than Britain can generate or America can generate, what are you going to do? You realise how many big fights are about to head to the Middle East over the next few years.”
Boxing News did speak to another promoter, though Top Rank’s Bob Arum would not be drawn on the issue of Saudi Arabia as a host for major boxing events. “That’s a moral judgement that I don’t want to get into. Everybody makes their own decision. Certainly not illegal. Whether it’s something that you should do, based upon what happened, again everybody has to make their own decision,” he said.
However he did downplay Hearn’s expansion into America with Matchroom USA. He likened Hearn and his tweets to Donald Trump. “As a promoter he’s the Trumpian promoter,” Arum told Boxing News. “Also braggadocios and saying things that are tremendously laughable, you know, when a guy like Leonard Ellerbe says that everybody is laughing at Eddie Hearn here in the United States, he’s accurate. That’s true. I mean take DAZN, which has invested a lot of money in boxing. One fighter, which is Canelo Alvarez, which had nothing to do with Eddie, was signed by John Skipper, accounts for about four times the number of subscribers to DAZN that all of Eddie’s shows, that he’s put on for millions and millions of dollars, has produced. Now that seems to indicate to me that he really doesn’t know what he’s doing. At least in the United States, here [in the UK] I think he’s done a pretty good job, he seems to. But in the United States, it’s really a laughingstock.”