It’s not a great look when an organization that exposes human rights abuses and injustices across the world makes a statement on a boxing event.
But that happened last week when Peter Frankel, the UK’s economic affairs director of Amnesty International asked world heavyweight contender Anthony Joshua to speak out against the Saudi Arabian regime ahead of his rematch with Oleksandr Usyk in Jeddah on August 20.
Usyk won the titles from Joshua at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last September but the rematch between the Ukrainian champion and the British challenger has found its way to the Red Sea, following a host of other sports that have made Saudi their destination of choice.
Of course, it’s not Joshua’s first time boxing in the region and these conversations emerged when he fought his rematch with Andy Ruiz in Diriyah in 2019 but the same undertones remain.
“We would urge Anthony Joshua to use his platform to show solidarity with those who’ve been persecuted under Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping crackdowns,” said Frankel.
Joshua was all business in answering any questions about Saudi Arabia’s human rights issues and said last week that he didn’t even know what sportswashing was. “I’m here to have a good time,” he added, focusing on the business at hand and not the cultural ramifications of another huge sporting event heading to Jeddah. “I like Saudi… I think Saudi's good. I'm having a good time here. I’m treated really well.”
But, of course, the red carpet will be rolled out to all and sundry for the promotion and it will look a million dollars on TV, or maybe $80m. Regardless, the location of the fight is one of the central narratives.
So too are the changes Joshua has made behind closed doors following the departure of Robert McCracken. The team now includes Angel Fernandez, who was already in the squad, and Oxnard’s Robert Garcia.
Their role will be to devise a fight plan that Joshua can implement using his physical attributes. But, of course, a central narrative to the fight is the location.
It’s provoked heavily divided opinion with fight fans on social media. Some don’t mind where the fight is as long as the contest starts at a reasonable time. Some want the fighters to make the most they can in a short career so don’t care about the venue and plenty do not mind at all, they just want to see the best fights take place regardless of where the bouts happen.
Then there are those who try to make their point with historical perspectives. They hold Muhammad Ali as a man of principle for his stance on the Vietnam, but plenty can’t forget that the Rumble in the Jungle was held in Zaire in 1974 and used by President Mobutu to change perceptions of his bloody regime.
Then there are those who are happy to say that’s just boxing doing what boxing does. It’s always divided opinion, courted controversy and, more often than not, gone to the highest bidder. That, as they say, is boxing. We are so complicit with the sport’s past that no lines in the sand can be drawn any longer because all of the precedents you’d care to imagine (even though you might rather not!) have been set. That’s not a badge of honour or something to be proud of, either, but it matters when people can revert to the same old arguments with, “But what about when…”
Others have said that Usyk, the champion, should have taken a moral high ground, particularly with what is going on at home in Ukraine but regardless of what anyone says, the fight is on, August 20, and no opinions, strong, indifferent or otherwise will change that.
The involvement of Saudi Arabian money certainly hasn’t stopped the splintering of golf’s hierarchy being hit hard by the LIV Golf tour which is rivalling the PGA tour and has caused a player split, with many of the sport’s big names and earners now joining the Saudi-backed adversaries.
Several players have been criticised and asked to explain their motives but LIV, financed to the tune of around $2billion, has more money at its disposal than the PGA. A winner of one of their recent events bagged £3.2m, £700,000 more than the victor of last year’s US Open – an iconic PGA staple tournament.
The rest of the world simply doesn’t seem able to compete with the riches on offer in Saudi Arabia. Promoter Eddie Hearn always said the fight would go to the venue that paid the most money and that made the most financial sense. Vegas is no longer the sure thing, 90,000 at a soccer stadium in the UK can’t compete, it’s become the rage to head to the Red Sea but don’t expect boxing to shake its red light district of sports tag any time soon.