Saudi bout will 'grow boxing'

Promoter defends controversial decision to stage Ruiz v Joshua fight in Saudi Arabia

Promoter Eddie Hearn (left) dismissed concerns about the fight being held in Saudi Arabia, saying he is a trailblazer for doing so and that other sports events had also been staged in the kingdom.
Promoter Eddie Hearn (left) dismissed concerns about the fight being held in Saudi Arabia, saying he is a trailblazer for doing so and that other sports events had also been staged in the kingdom. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Putting profits ahead of politics, the promoter of heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua dismissed concerns over the decision to contest a championship fight in Saudi Arabia.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International contends that Joshua will be part of "sportswashing" - the Saudi government being given a chance to cleanse its image - with the heavyweight title rematch against Andy Ruiz Jr in December on the outskirts of the capital, Riyadh.

"I don't understand that term," promoter Eddie Hearn told The Associated Press on Monday.

"What I do know is all the events that they have been running have been hugely accepted by the public, enjoyed by the public and you will see when Joshua fights Ruiz in Saudi Arabia the public will love this event. They will grow the sport of boxing in that region."

The BBC reported that Saudi backers were paying a US$40 million (S$55.5 million) site fee.

Hearn saw no reason why he should not cash in as long as other sports events and concerts are being held in Saudi Arabia.

"Every promoter under the sun has been trying to land a mega fight in the Middle East for many, many years," Hearn said. "I'm the one that's done it, and with that comes a little bit of a stick because we're the trailblazers behind that."

He cited a list of global sporting events hosted by Saudi Arabia in recent years, including the all-electric Formula E motor racing series, European Tour golf, the Italian Super Cup, boxing and WWE wrestling.

Last week, Saudi Arabia announced that it will host the world's richest horse race, with a purse of US$20 million next year.

"Financially, obviously, it was a good deal for A.J.," Hearn said.

There is no disassociating the Ruiz-Joshua title fight from the Saudi government - which has faced intense diplomatic fallout over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in neighbouring Yemen - with the General Sports Authority's name appearing under "Clash on the Dunes" on the news conference set in London on Monday.

A purpose-built 12,000-seat open-air stadium will be the setting in Diriyah on Dec 7 for Joshua's attempt to win back the International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association and World Boxing Organisation belts he lost to Ruiz in June. Buying a ticket will secure a tourist visa for visiting fans.

"We had approaches from Saudi Arabia, from Dubai, from Qatar, from Abu Dhabi," said Hearn of the rematch. "We have to realise that there is another world out there outside of Cardiff and Madison Square Garden, and we have an obligation to grow the sport of boxing to new areas and regions.

"This event could change boxing forever. If Saudi Arabia are going to invest in these kind of fights, with the population that they have and the potential to grow the sport, you could be seeing a big change in the dynamics of the sport."

Hearn was asked about any of Joshua's Israeli fans, who would be unable to enter Saudi Arabia.

"That's well beyond my head as a sports promoter..." he said.

"With the response that we've seen, mainly good and some negative, I guarantee you the whole world will be watching this fight with curiosity."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2019, with the headline Saudi bout will 'grow boxing'. Subscribe