“I wonder if Janet Jackson is playing?”, I pondered when hearing of Anthony Joshua’s slated quest for vengeance, staged in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia on December 7th.
For all of the Mexican champion’s recent posturing and Instagram spam, we must currently presume the pair will reach an agreement.
Following a week of tricky questions and contradictions, Matchroom Boxing’s, Eddie Hearn has leapt to the defence of their neutral location, saying it boasts ‘probably the best hotel in the world’. Great news, plus, on the subject of accommodation, Frank Smith confirmed that hotels in Saudi could be available for a lesser rate than those in Cardiff – the bout’s other proposed host.
But why Saudi Arabia, really? Hearn has been banging this ‘global growth of boxing’ drum for some time now, branching out into Italy, some peculiar American States and now, the Middle East. He claimed earlier in the week that ‘nobody said anything [negative] about the WBSS final being staged in Jeddah… I never seen anything’. Quite frankly, he must have been looking with his eyes closed.
When the all-British final featuring Callum Smith and George Groves was announced, fans were left scratching their heads. Yes, of course they understood it COULD have ended up anywhere, globally. But it doesn’t make it the sensible option. I watched that fight in a large cinema with some friends and whilst I’m sure the Saudi Arabian hospitality was excellent – I’d wager the atmosphere in both venues was similar.
The fight between Andy Ruiz, now driving a Rolls Royce and living in a gated mansion, and Anthony Joshua, the global ambassador of brands such as Lucozade and Lynx, will be held in a purpose-built venue. Where else would it be? With shades of the Qatar football world cup, this means locals shall be working around the clock in temperatures upwards of thirty degrees in order to complete construction, between now and December.
Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, the fictional Diriyah location’s mooted competition, already built and proven at successfully hosting events of this magnitude, could have crammed in around eighty-thousand punters. Not far from London with vibrant nightlife of its own, you’d be forgiven for assuming Matchroom had missed a trick, but you haven’t heard the Janet Jackson theory, yet.
Questioned by Boxing Social’s very own, Andi Purewal, Eddie defended the Saudi city and its apparent lack of tourist attractions/places of interest during fight week. There is LOADS to do, guys. Loads. But, like what, Eddie? Well; Janet Jackson has just played there. David Guetta and 50 Cent, too. Plus, they are hosting some horse racing there, the biggest event in the history of horse racing, apparently. What else do you want to know?
When criticised on certain fights or asked questions about other issues involving his stable, Hearn often gives a politician’s answer, before lambasting anyone who disagrees, either insinuating they live at home, trapped in a sad, lonely life with their mothers, or that they just haven’t done any research because they lack intelligence. It’s as telling as a fighter shaking his head after shipping a clean shot.
Anyway, I had a little look, just to check it out for myself and some of the main places of interest include, but are not limited to;
– An ancient palace (Salwa Palace)
– Another ancient palace (Saad bin Saud Palace)
– An ancient bath house
– A football stadium, home of Mosim FC
– A local Mosque (possibly ancient)
– A district of houses designed around palm trees
The above is accurate, but of course, tongue-in-cheek, as I’m sure there are plenty of things to be getting on with. It’s just not an appealing proposition for fans of the sport. Travelling to Vegas, New York or even London/Cardiff allows supporters to build memories. They can look back upon their visit to Madison Square Garden, an historic venue, and think, ‘I have been there’. It’s legitimate. It means something. To boast of watching a mega fight in Diriyah doesn’t hold the same weight.
Let’s take a closer look at the economics, also. If Cardiff played host to eighty thousand people and this blueprint of a stadium in Diriyah holds, I don’t know, let’s say five thousand, what happens to the seventy-five thousand that are left knocking on the door from the outside? Sky Box Office or DAZN numbers shall soar, the companies would hope. Having the fight cemented in a country which shares similar times for ringwalks etc. drives buys and subscribers. But I’m sure it’s nothing to do with that.
Anthony Joshua has been adamant he wants a legacy to challenge those of former heavyweight kingpins. But Hearn, only earlier this week, said that not every fight is about legacy – some are centred around financial reward. I mean, yeah, we figured that. Delivering the fight to a nation whose wealthiest citizens literally drive gold-plated cars hasn’t masked the fact it’s a money-spinner. Where does it end, though?
The global growth of boxing is all well and good if we can buy into it, if it’s authentic. Staging this fight in a football stadium in Mexico or in a city in Nigeria would have been epic. It would have slotted nicely into the narrative and shown a commitment to building boxing in struggling locations. But, it was sold to the highest bidder, a nation ultimately parade sporting events as a badge of honour, like the rich kid in your school looking down their nose at your attempt to keep the pace.
Lastly, there have been concerns around Saudi Arabia’s human rights record of late and laws which are stringently enforced throughout the country. Eddie Hearn says that everyone is welcome and that’s great, but that’s not for him to say, is it? Female reporters had questioned whether they’d be allowed to show their arms or shake hands with male officials. The good news is, they can now drive, as of (only) last year.
But below are some staggering facts about Saudi Arabian laws/concerns;
For the last four years, at least one person every second day has been executed in Saudi. This stat began in 2015, when at least 151 people were murdered by the authorities.
Movies and cinemas did not exist, and are few and far between. So during fight week, you can’t catch a flick and enjoy some popcorn to unwind at your leisure unless there happens to one plucked from obscurity. Random, I know. Public music isn’t really a thing either, so don’t expect a boombox or a street performer.
Public executions exist. Moving on…
When Andy Ruiz sets foot in Saudi Arabia this winter, he will do so completely out of his comfort zone. The decision to host the fight there is a smart one, albeit very unusual. Let’s not pretend it takes the fans into consideration, at all. Expensive flights, a lack of social pleasures whilst in Diriyah such as alcohol or more specifically bars and a nation not entirely sure what to make of boxing.
Matchroom have done what’s best for them. Is it in the interest of their brand? Probably not. How about their fighter? Anthony Joshua is a frequent visitor to Dubai, so the climate and the travelling isn’t new to him. However, facing the trickiest test of his career and returning from a knockout loss, the gamble taken in hopes that his confidence will have returned is an enormous one. One he may have preferred on his front doorstep.
All things considered, the paying public can be assured that if it’s good enough for Janet Jackson, then it should be good enough for us.
Feature written by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209