By Manouk Akopyan
When the Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua rematch was announced it would take place in Saudi Arabia, it was met with a mixed bag of reactions that a fight of that magnitude would take place in a country with a history of human rights violations.
Officials reportedly paid a hefty $40 million site fee to bring the fight to Diriyah. Over the last year, Saudi Arabia has staged significant fights in the country.
Callum Smith defeated George Groves in the World Boxing Super Series last September at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, and in July, Amir Khan bested Billy Dib in the same venue.
Khan, a British-Pakistani boxer who is Muslim, is a beneficiary of the exhorbitant sums that are liberally being spent to bring big time prizefighting in the country. For his fight against Dib, Khan was paid a reported £7 million for his performance — £3m more than he earned against his fight Terrence Crawford in April.
Khan spoke with Boxing Scene from his Manchester home to express that the sport will continue to grow in the country.
“Saudi Arabia is an amazing country to fight in. It was an amazing experience for me. I had so much fun there,” said Khan. “Some people are happy that the Ruiz-Joshua fight is taking place there, and others are not. I wish them the best in whatever they want to do. At the end of the day, I’m focused on what I’m doing in Saudi Arabia.”
The former unified welterweight champion is leveraging Amir Khan Promotions and the Super Boxing League to develop local up-and-coming boxers, specifically with plans to scale and showcase talent in Saudi Arabia by the end of the year. His grassroots movement includes having deals in place with gyms to help locals train and teach them the sport and later promote them.
“I couldn’t believe how big my fan base was in that part of the Middle East,” said Khan. “I want to fight again, and I can’t wait to go back to Saudi Arabia and do it there. It was a full house, and they demand boxers who are recognizable with big personalities. Organizers want to be involved in sports.”
Amnesty International released a statement Friday calling the Ruiz-Joshua fight “sportswashing” for its “abysmal” track record of human rights issues that include oppression of women and LGBT communities, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has increased its presence in sports in recent years by sanctioning WWE and Formula One events.
The United States Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs declares tourists to “exercise increased caution in Saudi Arabia due to terrorism and the threat of missile and drone attacks on civilian targets.”
Ahead of his fight against Dib, Khan told the Press Association: "When I was there last, it had all changed. I started seeing women not wearing head scarves. Women were out driving ... They had a huge concert where everyone was dancing and enjoying themselves. I'd never seen that side of Saudi Arabia before. Maybe now they are changing to make it that new place where people can enjoy themselves and it's fair for women. I think they're trying to change now … They are throwing a lot of money on to the table and at the end of the day we are prizefighters. For me I would be stupid to not take this opportunity.”
The 33-year-old Khan (34-5, 21 knockouts) said he wants to fight once more in 2019, specifically in Saudi Arabia. The country is close to Pakistan and India, where he has a big following.
He said he’d like a rematch with Crawford because he was displeased with how the one-sided fight ended. He also mentioned he’d like to fight Manny Pacquiao, who was at one time a training partner of his. In July, Khan incorrectly claimed contracts had been signed for him to face Pacquiao in Saudi Arabia later this year.
After leaving trainer Virgil Hunter following the Crawford fight, Khan tapped the services of Clarence “Bones” Adams to prepare for Dib and further prolong the next stage of his career.
“My performance with Dib was very good,” he said of his fourth-round stoppage of the Australian. “I felt good and sharp again.”
For now, Khan has his sights set on unheralded Indian boxer Neeraj Goyat (11-3-2, 2 knockouts) with hopes of breaking barriers between India and Pakistan and uniting the countries. Khan was supposed to fight Goyat instead of Dib in July, but the fight had to be postponed because Goyat suffered severe injuries following a car accident in June.
“It’s more than a boxing match with Goyat. It’s country versus country. It’s not two fighters anymore,” said Khan. “I’ve never seen so much hype behind a fight as I’ve heard for this one. If that fight will happen, it’s huge, and I would love for it to happen in Saudi Arabia.”
Manouk Akopyan has been a member of the Boxing Writers Assn. of America since 2011 and has written for the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Guardian. He can reached on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan.