Fifty million dollars. That’s the site fee that Matchroom Boxing procured to take the heavyweight championship showdown between Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua to Saudi Arabia, a country with a history of human rights violations, including the 2018 killing of a United States-based journalist, Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Boxing has a huge global footprint. Every country produces a fighter. Ruiz is from Imperial Valley but his parents were born in Mexico, where he has a following; Joshua is a British-born Nigerian.
The heavyweight champion has often been the face of the sport, and they need to travel outside the United States and the UK to prove they’re the best.
Muhammad Ali fought in Manila; Mike Tyson in Tokyo; Joe Frazier in Jamaica; George Foreman in Venezuela; Lennox Lewis in South Africa. And now, Ruiz and Joshua in the Middle East.
Joshua, an Adonis-like figure, held four versions of the heavyweight crown when he made his stateside debut at Madison Square Garden in New York against the portly Ruiz, a replacement opponent and massive underdog.
Ruiz stunned just about everyone, scoring a seventh-round knockout, much like what Buster Douglas magically pulled off against Tyson in Tokyo nearly 30 years ago.
Contract clauses forced for a rematch, and Eddie Hearn, head of Matchroom, Joshua’s promoter, couldn’t pass up such an astronomical site fee — even if he faced a tide of backlash.
“Saudi Arabia is trying to showcase these events to showcase change. Whether you believe that or not, that’s what we’re being told. That’s what we see,” Hearn said. “[Boxing] is changing, and there is going to be a huge amount of investment from that region. What are you going to do? Ignore it? Or take the money?”
Billed as the “Clash on the Dunes,” the Ruiz (33-1, 22 KOs) versus Joshua (22-1, 21 KOs) rematch will take place in Diriyah, a small city outside of Riyadh, the capital, in a gladiator-style, three-sided temporary venue that seats 15,000 and was built solely for the fight. An encore will stream on DAZN, with the main event estimated to begin 12:45 p.m. PT.
“We have to be different and groundbreaking. I’m not trying to be the crazy promoter,” Hearn said. “… If you look at Saudi Arabia, we wanted to have a neutral venue. There was a lot of money being offered, and it gave us a chance to penetrate the Middle East market, which is going to be powerful in boxing moving forward.”
Hearn said he’s been able to tolerate criticism because of the deal he scored for Joshua was more than four times more than what the fighter could have earned in the UK. Hearn’s plan was to take the fight to the UK, but Ruiz flexed his championship muscles and forced a pivot.
The State Department has issued a Level Two travel advisory to Saudi Arabia, stating to “exercise increased caution” because of “terrorism and the threat of missile and drone attacks on civilian targets.”
Joe Markowski, executive vice president of DAZN, said his company paid proportionately less for rights fees because of the location, but he has received assurances about safety.
“We would’ve preferred the fight to be in the U.S., but they got an offer from the Saudi government they couldn’t turn down,” Markowski said. “… We’re seeing what the world is seeing … the Saudi government is clearly investing in westernizing and opening themselves up to the international sporting community.”
Others describe the effort differently.
“This boxing match is the latest in a string of examples and tactics of deliberate sports-washing taking place by the government in Saudi Arabia to help change [its] image in the West,” said Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International USA’s director for the Middle East and North Africa. “They’re under enormous pressure and sustained criticism by their self-inflicted public relations crisis following the Khashoggi murder and the war crimes committed in the kingdom.”
Nassif said large-scale sporting events in Saudi Arabia are distracting people from what’s really happening in the country.
“To see something like this event being used to help polish Saudi Arabia’s image is disturbing,” he added. “Slowly but surely, if they keep doing this, it will chip away at the notion that the government is cracking down on the people, jailing activists and curtailing basic freedoms and human rights.”
Nassif advised companies and athletes not to jump at big paydays without thoroughly examining the situation.
Ruiz said he was at first skeptical. “At first, I was kind of like, ‘Why are we going all the way over there?’ he said. “But after seeing how it is, the people, the culture, it’s beautiful out there and it’s an honor to fight there. They are putting me there for a reason, to prove the doubters wrong.”
Added Joshua: “This [is] the Mecca of boxing I’m hearing — the real Mecca of boxing. I’m going to turn this into something special, a real event … I went to the venue. It’s perfect, perfectly designed. Said my prayers. I took time to really embrace what’s going to happen Saturday.”
“It’s a beautiful country with great people, but it’s not enough to feel safe,” Robles said. “I can’t take the risk of bringing my family there. I’m flying solo on this one with my team, and hope and pray for the best that we come back in one piece.”
In conjunction with the sale of tickets, which range from $138 to $13,300 apiece, the kingdom offered special 90-day tourism visas to celebrate Riyadh, giving fans from a list of 49 allowed countries a chance to attend the fight. That could result in a pro-Joshua crowd, because the UK is on the list and its boxing fans are known to travel. The U.S. is also on the list, but Mexico is not.
Veteran boxing promoter Richard Schaeffer, who presided over some big boxing events when he was CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, was part of the World Boxing Super Series team that staged Saudi Arabia’s biggest fight to date, last year in Jeddah.
“There are a lot of human rights issues in plenty of countries,” said Schaeffer, founder of Ringstar Sports. “Look at the U.S. with its immigration policies and the way children were treated at the border. There are issues everywhere, and we need to look at [the Ruiz-Joshua fight] from a sporting point of view and not a political one.”
Schaeffer said his previous experience in Saudi Arabia was “excellent,” but added, “By no means can we play down the political climate and the human rights violations there.”
WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, who may be in line to face the winner of Saturday’s fight, has been an interested observer.
“I’m not close-minded when dealing with certain locations or places just because of history,” he said. “Everybody has negative history connected to them. Things can change for the better, and maybe this is Saudi Arabia’s opportunity to show change.”
Schaeffer acknowledged that promoting the Joshua-Ruiz fight would be an uphill battle.
“There isn’t much buzz about it here in the U.S. because the media is not covering it. It’s a mega event, but it’s suffering a bit from a lack of publicity,” he said. “[News organizations] are conscious of sending reporters out there given the Khashoggi murder. ... [The lack of media] is a missed opportunity for the boxing business and the growth of their sport.” (The Times is not covering the fight, whereas it likely would have had it been staged in the U.S.)
Whether combat sports will gain a footing in Saudi Arabia remains to be seen. Endeavor, UFC’s parent company, severed ties in Saudi Arabia for a $400-million deal after the Khashoggi murder.
Other big players, such as boxer-turned-businessman Oscar De La Hoya, founder of Golden Boy, still want to get a piece of the action. De La Hoya, who promotes Canelo Alvarez, said he would welcome an offer from the Saudis.
“If the [Saudi Arabia] opportunity presented itself with Canelo, or any world champion that we have, than why not? … Absolutely. We have no problem,” said De La Hoya, who never fought outside of the U.S. during his Hall of Fame career.
Alvarez will be in attendance Saturday night, watching from the front row and getting a feel for the country first hand.
“It’s an unknown and an untapped market,” De La Hoya said. “Fine, if you have a guarantee, maybe a promoter doesn’t care about ticket sales. … You have to look at the commissions and the safety of the fighters. It’s most important. Are they prepared for any kind of situations?”
Ultimately, Hearn believes he has no right to tell a fighter where they can and cannot fight to make the most amount of money.
“I can’t put it any simpler than that,” Hearn said. “Saudi Arabian officials told me they want every mega fight to be staged here. My job is to let the fighters know of the opportunities that are out there on the table. At the end of the day, it’s a prize fight. Every fight can be a boxer’s last in this sport. They are putting their health and lives on the line. Who am I to say … don’t take it.”