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Why Is The Joshua v Fury Fight Taking Place In Saudi Arabia?

boxing glove holding saudi arbia flagIt is arguably the most anticipated fight in British boxing history, pitching one of the sport’s great hopes against a man that has been at the top of his game for some time. Yet it has now emerged that the fight will not be held in London, the natural home of a bout featuring two British boxers, nor in the United States of America, where boxing has a long history of taking place, but instead in Saudi Arabia.

The information was let out by Eddie Hearn who said that it was ‘a very bad secret’ that that’s where the fight will be held. It has led some to question why, exactly, Saudi Arabia has suddenly become a destination of choice for boxers, following in the footsteps of Anthony Joshua’s rematch with Andy Ruiz Junior that was held there. Is it simply a case of sports-washing for the country, or is there more to it than that?

Has The Fight Been Agreed?

boxing legend poster with union jack flagThough no specific date or venue has been confirmed for the fight that will see Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury at last come up against each other, it seems as though it’s destined to take place in Saudi Arabia on either the seventh or the 14th of August. It is more likely to be the 14th, given the Summer Olympics in Tokyo are scheduled to finish on the eighth, but given the lack of certain around that even taking place the seventh is a possibility.

A two-fight deal between AJ and the Gypsy King was agreed in March of this year, coming on the back of months of negotiations between the two boxers’ camps. It will see the four belts of the heavyweight division fought over for the first time, with the WBO belt having been added to the list of belts needed for a boxer to be the undisputed heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis was the last one to hold the title between 1999 and 2000.

Joshua lost the WBA, WBO and IBF belts to Ruiz in June of 2019 in a shock defeat, with the rematch against the Mexican taking place in Diriyah, which is on the outskirts of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. The same people that helped with that fight will be helping with this one and Hearn said, “We’re very comfortable. Anthony’s comfortable, he knows those people. They delivered on every one of their promises last time. We’re ready to go.”

Why Saudi Arabia?

saudi arabia on a mapLas Vegas is a natural venue for the world’s biggest fights, given that it hosted some of the most iconic moments in boxing history over the years. Wembley has also become a popular place to host fights in more recent times, with many of Anthony Joshua’s bouts taking place there. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is not a natural place for boxing matches to be held and some people are naturally asking questions of the choice.

The reality is that the Saudi government offers eye-watering amounts of money to persuade organisers to host fights there, with rumours of as much as £106 million being offered to persuade the biggest fighters to head to the Gulf state. That figure is before any pay-per-view money is included, meaning that Joshua and Fury will walk away from the fight with around £100 million each, regardless of who wins.

Not For The Benefit Of Fans

boxer celebrating in front of union jackNormally when a big fight rolls around we can expect to see fans walking along Wembley Way or turning up in the casinos of Las Vegas, soaking up the atmosphere. Organisers of events have been able to point to travel restrictions and the inability of large numbers of people to congregate in the same place as a reason to not take supporters into account when organising things, but that situation is changing as the world gets back to normal.

In May of this year, 73,000 people attended shows in Arlington, Texas, meaning that there could easily be a decent crowd at the fight if it were held in an appropriate venue. Instead of opting for that, however, it appears as though Joshua and Fury are simply following the money and finding it impossible to turn down the large amounts of cash on offer, even if travel restrictions mean that fans probably won’t be able to attend the fight.

Are There Climate Change Implications?

Fight Venue Distance From Leicester Square
Joshua vs. Klitschko Wembley Stadium, London, England 8.6 Miles
Klitschko vs. Fury Esprit Arena, Düsseldorf, Germany 333 Miles
Joshua vs. Parker Principality Stadium, Cardiff, Wales 150 Miles
Wilder vs. Fury Staples Center, Los Angeles, U.S.A. 5,432.18 Miles
Joshua vs. Povetkin Wembley Stadium, London, England 8.6 Miles
Wilder vs. Fury II MGM Grand Garden Area, Las Vegas, U.S.A. 5,213.24 Miles
Joshua vs. Ruiz Madison Square Garden, New York City, U.S.A. 3,449.30 Miles

Even away from the sports-washing side of events like this being held in a country like Saudi Arabia, are there questions around the damage that will be done to the environment by so many people flying halfway around the world for a boxing match? Though there’s no doubt that many fans will be stopped from attending the event because of the finances involved in getting there, it’s also likely that many others will still travel.

The table above shows a list of some of the venues that Joshua and Fury have fought in in the past, as well as the amount of miles from London that the venues are located.

map showing distance london to saudi arabiaThe distance from Leicester Square to Riyadh is about 3,074.22 miles, so shorter than the trip to America for the fights that Fury and Joshua held in Las Vegas and New York respectively. It is difficult, therefore, to argue that the fight being held in Saudi Arabia will be causing more environmental damage than if it were to be hosted by Madison Square Garden or the MGM Grand.

The only exception to that is the fact that both the MGM Grand and Madison Square Garden are already set up to be able to host big boxing matches, both in terms of being able to welcome and host visitors to the area and in the sense of the equipment that is needed. Though Saudi Arabia is likely to improve in that area the more sporting events it hosts, broadcasters and journalists will need to take equipment with them.

The overarching point, though, is this is a British boxing match and would be better held in Britain for the benefit of fans and the reputation of the sport as a whole.  The idea of holding a British boxing match in Saudi-Arabia seems to be very out of tune with the world we are living in.  It seems money, as always, holds the ultimate power.

Is It Just Sports-Washing?

rolls of money fight in boxing arenaThe phenomenon of so-called ‘sports-washing’ has become more and more noticeable in recent years. It essentially involves countries with problematic records on things such as human rights paying large amounts of money for the right to host or sponsor sporting events or teams, meaning that the association people begin to have with them become about the sports rather than the myriad of issues that the country presents with.

From the likes of the Royal Family of Abu Dhabi buying Manchester City through to Qatar being chosen as the hosts of the World Cup in 2022, there are plenty of examples of sports-washing on offer wherever you look. Where the money can be found, sports will follow, which is why we’ve seen ATP Tour golfing events, WWE wrestling bouts and even the Italian Super Cup being hosted in Saudi Arabia in recent years.

The Saudi authorities are keen to cover their poor reputation, which Amnesty International says is well-deserved. Head of Campaigns for the organisation, Felix Jakens, said, “They’ve got an appalling record on LGBT rights, women’s rights, extra-judicial killings, beheadings, the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi last year, and their involvement in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.”

Of course, sports organisations are not the only ones to have their heads turned by the riches on offer. The British government has long sold arms to the Saudis for billions of pounds, so why should sports stars be expected to refuse the money that is on offer? Hearn said as much ahead of Joshua’s fight with Ruiz there, stating, “Our job is to provide life-changing opportunities to our clients who take part in one of the most barbaric and dangerous sports.”

Should The Country Be Allowed To Change?

hand raised up onto saudi arabia flag human rights concepySpeaking to the BBC in advance of the Joshua – Ruiz fight in December 2019, the man in charge of Saudi Arabia’s investment in sports, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, spoke of it all being part of the country’s vision to diversify the country’s economy and ‘usher in social change’. That is the desire of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is concerned that in 2015 just 13% of Saudis took part in sports for half an hour or more.

The country wishes to increase that to the 40% mark by 2030, with Prince Abdulaziz saying,

“We have a plan to change the social scene within the kingdom towards what is right, and sport is one of the fields within the 2030 vision that is achieving that goal…We’re using sport to invite anyone who wants to see what it really is like here and to showcase the country.”

He also pointed towards the social change that is slowly taking place in Saudi Arabia as a reason why the plan is working. He said,

“Two years ago, women were not allowed into such stadia, but because of reforms they now can. Only a month ago seven women’s football teams took part in a new competition, and if we did not promote sport that change would not have happened. Last month we launched a new tourist visa that only happened because of sporting events.”

Should a country be allowed to try to change, however slowly such change might be occurring? Jakens doesn’t see it that way, saying,

“That goes against everything we have seen over the past 18 months. We’ve documented an unprecedented crackdown on human rights defenders across the country, the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of peaceful activists. Women have only just been given the right to drive but there remain a large number of activists who fought for that pretty basic human right who are now languishing in prison.”

Amnesty International is of the opinion that the ‘social changes’ talked about are little more than a facade that the arrival of big sporting events is doing nothing but help cover up. Jakens said,

“There is a facade of reform but we’re not seeing evidence of any real changes. All over the world, countries are using sport to promote a welcoming picture on the international stage, which often masks a very different reality for ordinary people living in those countries – and when the media circus rolls out of town, things go back to being as bad as they ever were.”

Not The First Example Of Fights Held In Unusual Places

Ask even the most casual sports fan to talk to you about Muhammad Ali and it won’t take long before the phrase ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’ comes up in conversation. That was the rematch between Ali and George Foreman that was held in Kinshasa, Zaire, the country that is nowadays known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The fight took place on the 30th of October 1974 at the 20th of May Stadium.

60,000 people turned up to watch the fight, which was eventually won by Ali in the eighth round. Not only were so many people in attendance, but a record 1 billion viewers watched it worldwide thanks to television broadcasts, making it the most-watched live television broadcast ever at the time. Arranged by Don King, the boxing promoter persuaded Ali and Foreman to sign separate contracts saying they’d fight if he could a $5 million purse.

King was not welcome to host such an event in the United States at the time, so looked for alternative venues and was asked to host the fight in Zaire by the country’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was involved in helping get the purse together, meaning the fight was a controversial one in terms of where it was being held. Money, then, was the great driving force even back in the 1970s when it came to getting boxers to fight far from home.

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