By Ron Lewis
There cannot have been many big fight announcements made with neither fighter present. It is not that Anthony Joshua was not around to meet the press in London on Monday afternoon, he just wasn’t required. Eddie Hearn did nearly all the talking as he confirmed that Joshua’s attempt to regain most versions of the world heavyweight title was headed for Saudi Arabia. If there was going to be any flak flying around over the choice of venue, Hearn wanted to be Joshua’s human shield.
Ruiz v Joshua 2 will take place at on December 7 at Dirayah, about 15 miles from the centre of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. It is a path trodden by Callum Smith, George Groves and Amir Khan, who all boxed in Jeddah in the past year. The lure is obvious, with huge sums of money being offered to boxing, as it was before to WWE wrestling and golf, as Saudi Arabia attempts to show the image of a modern country to the outside world.
But Saudi Arabia hasn’t shaken off its image of a repressed society with a poor human-rights record, where it is illegal to be gay, where women’s rights are repressed and political protest is heavily clamped down on. Last October, Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, was murdered by a Saudi hit squad at the country’s embassy in Istanbul.
“We had to be very comfortable [with the decision to go to Saudi Arabia] because we knew there would be criticism,” Hearn said. “We look at the bigger picture and the chance not just for boxing but for AJ.
“If AJ wins this fight in Saudi Arabia it opens up a whole new world for him and for boxing. That’s the plan for boxing. I don't want to be a company that resides in the UK and does a few shows in America. I want to be a company that helps this game explode internationally. I can do that by going to countries and regions willing to invest in the sport of boxing.”
He said that Joshua did not fear his reputation would be harmed by boxing in Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t think AJ thinks so,” Hearn said. “I’m a sports promoter. My first mindset is where can I potentially stage an event logistically? Logistically, Saudi Arabia’s set up is on another level to any region I have ever promoted an event in before. They are building a stadium for this fight.”
That 12,000-seater stadium (Hearn says the capacity could be extended to 15,000) is to be built on the edge of Dirayah’s World Heritage site, where a Formula E motor race is due to be held in November. “It will be right in the middle of the track,” Omar Khalil, the managing partner of Skill Challenge Entertainment, the Saudi investors. “It’s a breathtaking venue. The whole world will be watching.”
There is also due to be a music festival to accompany the fight card, bringing echoes of the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali and Foreman’s classic fight that was staged in Zaire courtesy of a cash injection of that country’s tyrant leader Mobutu Sese Seku.
Hearn did not reveal how much money was offered as a site fee, but he claimed it was not the biggest offer that had been received, with other states in the Middle East apparently willing to offer more.
“There were other discussions for more money,” Hearn said. “I can't tell you that money had nothing to do with it but it was more about the infrastructure and the fact they have done it before.
“A lot of territories contacted us to do one-off events. We said ‘what's your plans?’ They wanted to do a massive event, but we said ‘what’s your strategy for boxing’. This is different.
“They have the gyms, the participation, they have staged other world championships. They have a commission. We have to embrace that and as a promoter I want to be in there before everybody. “Every promoter in the world has tried to land a megafight in these territories - Haymon, Bob Arum, Golden Boy - but we’re the first ones to actually do it. I want to make sure we deliver for Saudi Arabia.
“My father had conversations with the European Tour [golf], the chairman. The World Boxing Super Series made me think there is a better chance for this region in boxing. I remember they were going mad for Callum Smith and George Groves. They had no idea who they were but they were world champions and they were there.
“Anthony Joshua is a whole other kettle of fish. This guy will be loved. So will Andy Ruiz. We are so naive if we think boxing is just Great Britain and America because I think this can change boxing forever. If Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region start investing in sport the whole game will change. If people aren't on board with that and don’t realise the potential for sport in those regions we are all idiots - 70 per cent of public is under 24.”
Hearn made it clear that Ruiz was signed for the fight and that the American’s team were on board with the venue.
“They have 100 per cent signed the contract for this fight,” Hearn said. “This is boxing. Of course, when Andy Ruiz signed the contract for the first and second fights, it was a dream come true for him.
“The deal was very fair, the deal was negotiated and everyone who signed that deal, whether it was Tom Brown, his promoter, whether it’s Ruiz himself, Al Haymon, his management company, they all know their obligations.
“There is, as always in boxing, a little bit of manoeuvring in terms of can we get a little bit more money? Can he get himself some extra tickets? Can he get himself a chartered plane? He’s big time now from what I see on Instagram. He’s got a new villa and all this jewellery. He needs a plane for his jewellery!
“They made it clear they didn’t want to come to the UK. We were within our rights to stage it in the UK, but to be honest with you, we didn’t want any excuses. There would have been ten times more problems with Andy Ruiz to come to the UK than a neutral venue.”