SAUDI ARABIA, here we go again. It’s been two-and-a-half years since Anthony Joshua headed over there, brushed off a series of awkward questions about the morality of fighting in such a contentious setting, and notched one of the most important victories of his career when he defeated Andy Ruiz Jnr, then his sole conqueror, in a one-sided rematch.
The parallels are clear as he prepares to face Oleksandr Usyk in a sequel to a bout won in London, almost at a canter, by the Ukrainian last year. The obvious reason for Joshua’s latest rematch being staged in the Middle East is money, and a desert-load of it. Do we, or should we, begrudge boxers for pocketing as much cash as they can lay their hands on? It’s certainly hard to.
There’s more to consider, too. Though the seriously fat wedge on offer is the biggest factor in the setting of this eagerly awaited return, it’s undoubtable that Joshua – who has to be selfish at this crucial juncture of his career – will like the idea of returning to a place where he managed to restore order to his boxing career before.
Out in Saudi in 2019, as November rolled into December, Joshua was largely shielded from the indescribable pressures of fighting at home. What followed was a punch-perfect display against Ruiz who barely landed a glove on the man he’d knocked senseless only six months before. For Joshua, Saudi Arabia generates only happy memories.
That of course is not the case for everyone. The country’s human rights record is both notorious and atrocious. The issue of sports-washing should be impossible to ignore but, as we know only too well by now, when there are huge sums of money involved even the worst of crimes can be overlooked. Joshua claims to know nothing about sports-washing, even though he was posed the same questions back in 2019. Some might say that a fighter with a profile as big as his would make it his business to find out. Others will suggest it is not in his remit as an athlete to get bogged down in such matters.
What can’t be ignored is that the Middle East revolution is upon us. The sporting landscape, where fans were once an important part of every production, may never be the same again. If key figures in sports like tennis, golf, motor racing and football are happy to take the Saudi money you can be sure that boxing will hold out its grubby hands, too.
When paid to write about boxing it’s very hard to hold the moral high ground, however. Will BN be there to report on the event? Of course, if permitted. That is our duty, after all. But there is something exceptionally bothersome about the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a force in boxing. If Joshua wins, one should expect a fight against Tyson Fury to then follow in the same country. Not in the UK, where fans would turn up in their droves and the contest would be as big an event as last year’s football European Championships final, but Saudi Arabia where the wonga is plentiful and the moral compass barely existent. If we’re not careful we will soon be in a position where every superfight is staged in the Middle East because nowhere else can compete, at least financially.
The finances aside, that is far from ideal. Back at Joshua-Ruiz II, Fight Week was a curious affair, the weigh-in was barely noticed and the event itself lacked that infectious buzz that every truly big fight needs to feel like a truly big fight. It felt like nobody, bar those involved, knew a major heavyweight fight was actually taking place.
The freak storm that threatened the hastily-built outdoor stadium in Diriyah didn’t help. Several fight fans I talked to who had made the trip out to Saudi were largely unimpressed. The rain was nobody’s fault but Saudi Arabia is not nearly as inviting as Las Vegas, New York or London for a fight fan to visit. All in all, though very much a case of a job well done by Joshua, the experience was peculiar at best. But pleasing the fans in attendance was never the point; sporting events in Saudi are not about making cash on the door, they are look-at-me exhibitions to showcase to the rest of the world.
It might be different this time. It will be in Jeddah, a city far more accustomed than Diriyah to staging big events. Furthermore, the setting did not seem to deter fans at home from purchasing pay-per-views back in 2019. The GMT+3 time zone means that British punters can take to their sofas at around 8pm and watch what remains a very appealing contest. Easier to ignore the Saudi subplot if you’re not there, too.
While covering Joshua-Ruiz II, I also spoke to a coach driver who was taking the media from venue to venue. He was British and earning five times what he could in the UK. By spending a couple of months out in Saudi he could provide for his family in a way that would have been impossible at home. Do we judge the driver for that? It’s no doubt easier for you and I to relate to the struggling coach driver than the multi-millionaire boxers but, nonetheless, it is all relative.
Joshua is gambling with his entire career and reputation by fighting Usyk again. Usyk, meanwhile, has just left a warzone in Ukraine where he once lived a happy life with his family.
Only the fighters can decide if the money on offer is really worth it.