By Matthew Williams
Anthony Joshua’s impending rematch with Andy Ruiz, where he will attempt to set right one of the biggest upsets in heavyweight title history, is a lot of things.
It is one of the most anticipated fights of 2019, that much is certain, with infinitely more buzz about it than before the initial showdown on June 1, when most people thought Ruiz would eat a lot of heavy punches to follow his locker room Snickers snack.
It is noteworthy for the speed with which the sequel has been put together, with the two men set to touch gloves on Dec. 7, a welcome antidote to rematches that either happened too late, or not at all.
It is an opportunity for Ruiz to cement himself among the true elite of the heavyweight division and a chance for Joshua to get himself back of track.
And, in terms of its location, it is really darned unfortunate.
Joshua and Ruiz will square off in Diriyah, on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. They will do so because money talks in boxing, and does so very, very loudly. Both fighters will get more cash than they could have hoped to receive elsewhere, which was enough to tilt the deal and take it to a temporary outdoor stadium on the edge of the desert.
Yet just as boxing in general and the big men in particular are riding a surge of interest, this move feels very much like a backwards step. You can see why Joshua might be loath to fight in the United States again so quickly, given how poorly he fared in his first foray onto American soil as a pro.
But it wasn’t the New York air that sent him crashing to the only loss of his career so far, it was the fact that he took Ruiz too lightly, lost his nerve when a real fight broke out, and was severely lacking in stamina.
What better statement could he make, as he tries to rebuild his aura and the idea that he is the best heavyweight of this generation, than by going back to the same place to set the record straight?
Another heavyweight bout of real meaning would have added to the momentum the division is building up in the U.S., coming the back of the drama of the first clash and the excellent Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder draw last December.
And if not the U.S., taking it the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff would have been a fine option, as British boxing is booming and interest in Joshua is actually greater than ever following his loss. Reports indicate that it was Ruiz’s camp that preferred either an American venue, or a neutral one.
Both American and British audiences care about the biggest fights being held in their countries. Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn should appreciate as much as anyone how the love of the U.K. public has driven his fighter’s career.
Instead, it will go to a country where there is little history or genuine public interest in the sport.
The Saudi government is making a big push to host top sports events and to generate some positive publicity. Both the final of the World Boxing Super Series and Amir Khan’s recent win over Billy Dib were staged in Jeddah, while tennis great Roger Federer turned down a $1 million offer to take part in an exhibition.
The nation’s government has been heavily criticized by Amnesty International, with the organization’s head of campaigns alleging Saudi Arabia in the middle of “a sweeping human rights crackdown,” according to the Guardian. Women’s activists have reportedly been targeted, while the horrific murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul created global headlines.
Guardian boxing writer Kevin Mitchell, in an excellent piece published this weekend, likened taking the Joshua-Ruiz fight to Saudi Arabia as a money grab similar to staging the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974.
“There is still time for (Joshua) and Ruiz to change their minds,” Mitchell wrote. “But not a lot of it.”
“Some say they should not be held accountable for the residual filth that surrounds their participation,” he added. “But at least they should hold their noses to the prevailing wind.”
For many who are politically minded, taking the bout to Saudi Arabia is a travesty. For Joshua and Ruiz, it will be a huge payday, whatever the moral dilemma.
And for boxing, it is a lost opportunity. Boxing does not have a limitless number of fights and fighters big enough to cross over and grab mainstream attention. This is one of them, and keeping it away from two of the sport’s biggest markets makes no sense – except dollars and cents.