Former heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua said he would “definitely be bothered” if his world title rematch against Andy Ruiz Jr was being used to “sportswash” Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record.
The previously undefeated British fighter is hoping to reclaim three of the Heavyweight world titles tomorrow, which he lost to Ruiz in their first encounter in New York in June of this year, widely seen as one of the biggest upsets in the division’s history since Lennox Lewis lost to Hasim Rahman in 2001 or Buster Douglas’ shocking 10th-round knockout of “Iron” Mike Tyson in 1990.
The rematch dubbed “Clash on the Dunes” will be the first Heavyweight World Title fight to take place in the Middle East and is set to take place in the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Diriya, as part of the month-long “Diriyah Season” which kicked off with Formula E, Diriyah Tennis Cup and the Diriyah Equestrian Festival. These are part of a wider strategy of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s so-called Vision 2030, seeking to improve the kingdom’s global image and reduce the economic dependence on oil revenue.
جولة في الرياض للملاكم انثوني جوشوا 🇬🇧 تنتهي بجلسة عشاء في هوالان 😍
— DiriyahSeason | موسم الدرعية (@DiriyahSeason) December 2, 2019
Yet human rights campaigners, including Amnesty have criticised the decision to host such sporting events amid Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its on-going war in Yemen, which has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis according to the UN.
There has been increasing pressure on Joshua in the build up to the bout to “inform himself of the human rights situation and be prepared to speak out about Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record”, said Felix Jakens of Amnesty International’s UK head of campaigns.
“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,” he added.
However, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal, the chairman of Saudi’s General Sports Authority, claims his primary aim is to raise sports participation from a weekly figure of just 13 per cent.
Nevertheless, Saudi promises of a site fee in excess of $39 million to steer the contest away from the UK and even major boxing venue Las Vegas has ensured Joshua will earn a reported $86.7 million win or lose, easily the biggest purse in British boxing history. Making it almost impossible to turn down. Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, has openly admitted that the financial offerings have left little option but to stage the fight in the kingdom. Speaking to the BBC, Hearn said: “There are so many hypocrites. You’re here covering the event, why? Because you want as many eyeballs on the BBC website or news piece as possible.”
The BBC also reported that Joshua’s response to the concerns of campaigners was “In the future maybe I can bear a different kind of flag,” adding, “But at the minute it’s a world championship flag. I just want to do a job.”
It is worth noting, that this would not be first time that Heavyweight World Title fights were held under brutal regimes, the greatest comeback in the sports history was undoubtedly Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) under President Mobutu in addition to Ali’s epic victory over fierce rival Joe Frazier in the “Thriller in Manila” under the regime of the Philippines’ despot ruler Ferdinand Marcos.