Fri | Feb 21, 2020

Fears of ulterior motives dog Ruiz-Joshua fight in Saudi Arabia

Published:Saturday | December 7, 2019 | 12:24 AM
Heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua of Britain (right) and Andy Ruiz Jr of Mexico pose during a weigh-in at Faisaliah Center, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, yesterday.
Heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua of Britain (right) and Andy Ruiz Jr of Mexico pose during a weigh-in at Faisaliah Center, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, yesterday.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP):

In one part of Riyadh, two of the world’s most high-profile boxers squared off at a weigh-in outside a 5-star hotel ahead of the first heavyweight title fight to take place in the Middle East.

Across town, American rappers Akon and Chris Brown were about to headline a concert at a UNESCO heritage site.

Saudi Arabia is undergoing fairly radical social change in some ways under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but critics say the country is using big sports and entertainment events to divert attention from its human-rights record violations, including the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year.

The kingdom’s government-backed General Sports Authority has a different view, saying the push to portray a new image of modernisation and to boost tourism is “a journey of transformation.”

“sportswashing” scrutiny

Anthony Joshua, the British fighter seeking to reclaim three heavyweight titles from Mexican-American champion Andy Ruiz Jr in their rematch in Saudi Arabia this weekend, hasn’t just been fielding questions about the bout. He’s also faced scrutiny over whether he is being used by the Saudis in a bid to “sportswash” their reputation.

“All I’m here to do is box,” Joshua told The Associated Press this week when asked if he had any concerns about fighting in the kingdom. “So away we go. We are here now. I’m comfortable.”

Reportedly pocketing US$70 million for being here, Joshua was unlikely to say anything else.

“It’s a massive opportunity,” he told the AP. “Boxers need opportunities. Every sport and every business needs global opportunity. It ticks a box for business, but also tourists and sports.”

The “sportswashing” theory, as put forward by human rights organisation Amnesty International, among others, was also put to Joshua’s promoter this week.

“I was driving up and down the road last night, thinking of all the criticism I’ve been getting. And I passed Gucci, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Versace and Ralph Lauren,” Eddie Hearn said. “The Saudis want to show they are changing. And they want a more positive image worldwide by bringing in events. But isn’t that what they should be doing?

“They have got to change, and they are changing. But the great news is that boxing is going to be responsible for those changes –and that shows you the power of sport.”

The “sportswashing thing,” Hearn said, was “over my head.”

Amnesty said in an email to the AP that it wasn’t necessarily asking Joshua to boycott the fight, thereby forfeiting the biggest payday of his career, but rather that he “inform himself of the human-rights situation in Saudi Arabia and be ready to speak out.”

It’s something Joshua has chosen not to do.