The year’s biggest sporting shock came on 1st June. Anthony Joshua, the unbeaten heavyweight champion of the world and golden boy of British boxing, was knocked out by stand-in Mexican-American challenger Andy Ruiz Jr in New York. It was a huge 25 – 1 upset: Ruiz, mocked in the build-up for his size and junk food diet, had just claimed sport’s biggest prize in brutal, violent fashion. A rematch was inevitable.
Two months later, another seismic shock arrived. Seemingly out of nowhere, it was announced that the heavyweight championship of the world was going to Saudi Arabia. Boxing’s biggest bouts usually take place in the desert – but in the glittering oasis of Las Vegas. Sin City, however, had been gazumped by the surprise offer – for a reported $100m.
The venue for the 7th December rematch? Diriyah: a centuries-old desert town and Unesco World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. “There’s another world out there,” said promoter Eddie Hearn. “We have an obligation to grow the sport to new areas and regions. This event could change boxing forever. If Saudi is going to invest in these fights you could be seeing a big change in the dynamics of the sport, which truly excites me.”
The reaction, it’s fair to say, has been mixed and mired in controversy. There have been fears that women will be unwelcome, and that gay boxing fans will be forced to to stay at home. Others have been put off by the cost of travel. Hearn has estimated that thousands of Brits will be there on fight night, although the exact number is unclear.
Critics include human rights groups. According to some, the fight is “sportswashing” – a cynical attempt by the Saudi regime to rebrand its global reputation by staging sporting mega-events. “And it needs a lot of rebranding,” says Amnesty International’s Neil Durkin. “There’s the murder of Jamal Khashoggi [the brother of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has been accused of telling Washington Post columnist Khashoggi, a noted dissident, that it was safe to enter the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi never made it out alive. The Saudi government has consistently denied that those responsible for his murder acted on official orders], the war in Yemen, and the ongoing dispute of women’s freedoms. That’s the big picture and, somehow, Joshua and Ruiz fit into it.”
For Saudi Arabia, however, landing the fight that’s being billed as “The Clash On The Dunes” is a monumental coup. “Diriyah is known as the home of kings and heroes,” says Omar Khalil, managing partner of Skill Challenge Entertainment, the fight’s event partner. “It’s about as close to watching gladiators in the Colosseum of Rome as you can get today. Boxing fans will be stunned when they see it.”
It’s not the first time that a huge heavyweight fight has been staged in an exotic, controversial setting. 45 years ago, the most famous boxing match of all time took place on the banks of the Congo River. It was known as the Rumble In The Jungle, and was brought to Zaire as a political play by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Just a decade before Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman, in the very same stadium, Mobutu had publicly hanged alleged coup plotters.
So, the only new thing about “sportswashing” might be its name. Still, although “The Rumble in the Jungle” gained legendary status and put Zaire on the map (until it became DR Congo in 1997), “sportswashing” hasn’t always been successful. A few years later, the 1980 Olympics took place in Moscow. It was a propaganda tool that ultimately backfired: 65 nations boycotted the games, and the Games’s huge financial burden has been cited as a factor in the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse.
In more recent years, results have varied. “‘Sportswashing’ is effectively PR,” argues Durkin. “And, like all PR, it can go badly wrong.” A short ride over the Saudi border takes you into Qatar – hosts of the next World Cup. Ever since the country was awarded the tournament, it has come under intense scrutiny, including investigations into working conditions for migrant labour, and the exposure of Sopranos-level of corruption in FIFA. A trip across the Gulf takes you to the UAE and Abu Dhabi – the owners of Manchester City. They too, have come under the “sportswashing” microscope.
But it’s not just oil-rich Middle Eastern states which have faced accusations. Despite being remembered more on these shores for England finally winning a penalty shoot-out, the 2018 World Cup took place in Russia amid an ongoing doping scandal and continued human rights violations. Durkin cites the 2008 Beijing Olympics as another example. “Did it mean people stopped talking about China’s human rights problems? Not really. They were talking about people’s homes being bulldozed to build stadiums.”
Still, from David Guetta concerts, to monster truck rallies and Tyson Fury’s WWE debut, Saudi’s cultural calendar is filling up. In November, a packed stadium saw Lionel Messi score the winner for Argentina against Brazil. But the venue wasn’t Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires – it was Riyadh. “We’re a nation with 75 per cent under the age of 24 – we’re a nation of sport fans,” says Khalil. “We’ve recently seen a sellout crowd at Formula E, football matches double in attendance, and a 50,000-strong crowd for wrestling.”
But Saudi Arabia’s move into sport goes much deeper than satisfying its Gen Z population. The Gulf nation’s biggest commodity is oil. Its future currency, however, may well lie in sport. Joshua-Ruiz II is a key part of Vision 2030. Envisaged by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the aim is to diversify Saudi’s economy and boost tourism by importing marquee sporting and entertainment events.
There’s a clear appetite for sport in Saudi Arabia. And it’s not the first time that its staged a big boxing bill. In September 2018, the Red Sea city of Jeddah hosted an all-English clash between George Groves and Callum Smith in the World Boxing Super Series final. “That was a big stress – it wasn’t ideal,” Groves told 5 Live Boxing. “My wife couldn’t go. We had no information from the tournament. Can women go? ‘Yeah, they have a women’s section’. Can my wife sit ringside? ‘Of course’. But this is their law, will this happen? We never got answers back.”
Khalil stresses that women can watch the fight live in Diriyah, unsegregated. It’s a recent change to the law. There are other signs that sport is helping to modernise Saudi Arabia. Tourist visas – a first for Saudi – are being automatically granted to those who buy fight tickets; female visitors are no longer required to wear full-body abayas; and, most notably, following the end of a decades-long driving ban for women, female racing drivers competed at last year’s Formula E.
There had been talk of a women’s bout on the Joshua-Ruiz undercard which, ultimately, died down. It shows that the wheels of progress turn slowly in Saudi. Rhonda Carney is a British national who worked there in the Nineties. Many of the strict laws she had to abide by are still enforced today. “Women weren’t allowed to be seen with any males besides their husband or relatives,” she explains. “Restaurants were segregated – one side for men and another for families. Any physical contact – including holding hands – wasn’t allowed. And censorship was very strict: images of women wearing Western clothes were always blacked out.”
The fight venue goes to the heart of Saudi’s long-standing laws and customs. Founded in 1446, Diriyah was the original home of the Al Saud family – the royal dynasty that rules Saudi Arabia to this day. A few centuries later, the Saudi state was established, and an alliance was forged with the Wahhabi religious elite. It’s an ongoing pact that’s survived for more than 250 years.
It means Saudi Arabia is still very much a clerical society – it imposes sharia law and retains ultraconservative values. Freedom of speech is restricted. There’s a blanket ban on alcohol. The legal system runs on the presumption of guilt, with many denied a fair trial. Homosexuality is outlawed, and is punishable by death. And, though the women to drive movement worked, many of its leaders have been imprisoned and tortured.
At the Saudi press conference, dwarfed by Diriyah’s old ruins, Hearn personally thanked Prince Khalid bin Salman for making the fight happen. But, amid all the political, social and cultural controversies, where do the two prizefighters come in? Ruiz hasn’t said much although, in his defence, he’s asked more about pizza than politics. Joshua, however, has long been a media darling. What does he make of it all? “I do want to put on that cape and be like the spokesman, but I’ve got some big tasks ahead of me at the minute,” he told BBC Sport. “I feel like in this situation I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.” He added, “If you can’t come to the country, you can still watch it, you’re still open to support, and I appreciate your support from every community.”
Of course, promoting and competing in sport isn’t necessarily an endorsement of a strict, controversial regime. But Durkin still wants more to be done and said. “It’s usually that the sports star is on the defensive: ‘I’m just a boxer, I’m no expert.’” Does Joshua really have a responsibility to speak out? “Yes. We’re not asking athletes to become surrogate UN investigators. We just want to see them become acquainted with local human rights issues. A little goes a long way.”
Durkin predicts more sporting mega-events will head to the Middle East and China – it’s where the big money lies. But there might be positives: when the world’s eyes are watching, domestic issues end up on the global stage. “Some [people will be] taking an interest in Saudi Arabia for the first time because of this fight,” he says. “That awareness is a good thing.” Khalil too, is optimistic. “This year we’ve seen Saudi’s first female racing driver, the first mixed equestrian team and the first women’s wrestling match. Sport is at the vanguard of change.”
On 7th December, the world will stop and turn its attention onto a tiny Arabian town. And, once the final bell tolls, it’s hoped that the winds of change may start blowing across the desert sands for good.