Boxing’s Cinderella story will get a sequel, but the blockbuster won’t take place in Hollywood. It will unfold in the Middle East.
Andy Ruiz Jr., the heavyweight champion of the world who improbably beat heavy favorite Anthony Joshua in June to take his titles, will make his first title defense with a Dec. 7 rematch in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia.
Months-long negotiations finally came to an end Friday when promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing announced the fight, which is being billed as the “Clash on the Dunes.” A temporary outdoor stadium will be built to host the bout.
When Joshua exercised his right to an immediate rematch following the summer stunner, one of the biggest hurdles in negotiations was agreeing on the location.
Joshua, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist who represented Britain and has conquered the likes of Wladimir Klitschko, wanted to stage a rematch in London in front of 100,000 fans. As a fallback option, he considered New York’s Madison Square Garden, the site of his stateside debut and first fight against Ruiz.
Ruiz pressed for a neutral location. Hearn ended up scoring a hefty site fee — a reported $40 million — from Skill Challenge Entertainment, the group bringing the fight to Saudi Arabia. That kind of sum could not be secured elsewhere, so the fight will take place in a country with a history of human rights violations.
Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns, criticized the sanctioning of the rematch by citing the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen.
“It’s likely to be yet another opportunity for the Saudi authorities to try to ‘sportswash’ their severely tarnished image,” he said.
In recent years, WWE, Formula One and major European golf events have taken place in Saudi Arabia, along with a handful of boxing matches. Now it gets the biggest world championship prize fight the country has hosted.
In their first fight, Ruiz (33-1, 22 knockouts), a portly replacement opponent from Imperial, Calif., bounced back from a knockdown to overpower Joshua (22-1, 21 KOs) with four knockdowns of his own en route to a seventh-round finish. He arguably scored the biggest boxing upset since Buster Douglas defeated Mike Tyson in 1990. Ruiz, the first fighter of Mexican descent to become heavyweight champion, received a hero’s welcome with a parade in his hometown, then hit the late-night TV circuit and bought himself a mansion.
Now Ruiz will enter uncharted waters, like the golden era’s heavyweight champions did — Muhammad Ali in Manila, George Foreman in Venezuela and Tyson in Tokyo — to prove his first performance wasn’t a fluke.