How did Saudi Arabia become the host for the biggest fight in boxing?
‘I can’t put on a cape and be a superhero’: How Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearn were swayed by £83m Saudi Arabia bid…despite human rights woes, DAZN anger and £10,000 tickets for fans
- Saudi Arabia was chosen as the host for Joshua-Ruiz II after bidding £83million
- Madison Square Garden and Millennium Stadium had been tipped to host fight
- Anthony Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn has been accused of ‘cashing out’
- Saudi Arabia has financed the building of a 15,000-seater stadium for the fight
- Sky Sports has raised the price of their pay-per-view from £19.99 to £24.95
Money talks in the world of boxing so it should have come as no surprise when the biggest heavyweight fight in recent memory was sold to the highest bidder.
But when it was announced that Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz II would be hosted in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, on December 7 at a hastily arranged press conference back in August, the news was met with derision.
Critics accused Joshua and his promoter, Eddie Hearn, of cashing out and squeezing every last drop out of his commercial value before a potentially career-threatening second defeat. Hearn, ever the salesman, hailed the move as a ‘game changer’ for the sport that would pave the way for more lucrative fights in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia was chosen as the host for Ruiz-Joshua II after an 11th hour bid of £83 million
Joshua was stopped in the first fight between the pair at Madison Square Garden back in June
Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium was the favourite to host the rematch before Saudi Arabia’s bid
JOSHUA VS RUIZ II
Date: December 7
Location: Diriyah, Saudi Arabia
Venue: The Diriyah Arena
Time: 9pm (GMT) 4pm (Eastern US)
TV: Sky Sports (UK) DAZN (USA)
PPV price: £24.95
‘We had approaches from Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar,’ he said. ‘We wanted to go somewhere that had a vision for the sport of boxing. We already knew Saudi Arabia was for real and investing in the sport. We have to realise that there is another world out there outside of Cardiff and Madison Square Garden.’
Saudi Arabia were equally enthralled at the prospect of hosting their biggest ever sporting event. Omar Khalil, who works for Skill Challenge Sport and Entertainment Agency, the company in charge of running the event, added: ‘We are a demography of 40million people and 70 per cent are below 24 years old. So the appetite for such events is huge. This event is a continuation of the plan Saudi is working on to enhance that populations’ quality of life and overall wellbeing.’
In the three months that had passed since Joshua’s shock seventh-round stoppage defeat to Ruiz Jr in June, New York’s Madison Square Garden, the venue for the first fight, and Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium had emerged as the most likely locations for the rematch.
The latter was the front-runner as Joshua’s team sought to give the heavyweight the biggest possible sporting advantage and pack out the stadium with 75,000 AJ fans.
That was until Hearn received a call from the Middle East and a bid reportedly in the region of £83million, well in excess of the sort of money that could be generated in Wales or America. The pound signs flashed in the promoter’s eyes and Joshua and his team were soon swayed by the money on offer. Clash on the Dunes was born, but in the background a web of political, sporting and logistical issues had been overcome prior to Saudi being given the green light to host its first ever mega-fight.
Campaign group, Amnesty International, released a strongly worded statement condemning Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record and claiming the fight would provide ‘yet another opportunity for the Saudi authorities to try to ‘sportswash’ their severely tarnished image. The company’s Head of Campaigns, Felix Jakens, said: ‘Civil society has been silenced in Saudi Arabia. Anyone critical of the regime has been exiled, arrested, or threatened. There isn’t any semblance of free speech or the right to protest.’
Joshua responded by insisting it was better to engage with Saudi Arabia, rather than ‘accusing, pointing fingers and shouting from Great Britain’ while stating that it was impossible for him to ‘put on a cape and save the world’. But Jakens fired back, claiming the heavyweight had missed an opportunity to use his global profile to raise awareness of serious issues in the country.
‘This was never about asking Anthony Joshua to be some kind of human rights superhero,’ he added.
‘It’s simply a request that he use his incredibly high profile to speak out about human rights in Saudi Arabia. People do listen to him. If, for example, Joshua were to say something about the outrageous jailing of the Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, this could provide an important reminder to the authorities that her plight is not going to be overlooked around the world.’
Concerns were also raised by DAZN, the streaming platform that broadcasts Joshua’s fights in the US, who felt the time of the bout (9pm GMT/4pm Eastern US) could affect audience numbers and the number of potential new subscribers.
‘We weren’t particularly happy with it and we were very honest with Eddie,’ DAZN’s EVP for North America, Joe Markowski, told IFL TV. ‘Our preference was for the fight to be in the US at Madison Square Garden, it’s a much bigger fight for us if it’s in the US.’
Joshua was all smiles as he arrived in Saudi Arabia but the location has been widely criticised
Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, has been accused of ‘cashing out’ on his biggest asset
Another issue was a packed schedule of US sporting action on the same day. ‘There’s some American Football content being broadcast on DAZN on that afternoon, which is a challenge for us, but we’ve built that into our plan,’ added Markowski.
‘We’re still really excited about it and it continues Joshua’s story of building him all over the world. Regardless of the time of the fight we still expect to get big numbers.’
Sky Sports, Joshua’s UK broadcaster, also had their reservations, having set their hearts on Cardiff. ‘It wasn’t our choice to go there, we just broadcast the fight,’ Sky’s Head of Boxing, Adam Smith, told Boxing Social.
‘It’s AJ’s decision ultimately because we were going to go to Cardiff but at the last hour Saudi Arabia came in. ‘We’ve had the Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle and this event will be iconic in its own way.’
Saudi’s lack of sporting infrastructure provided another sizeable roadblock.
Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City stadium hosted the World Boxing Super Series final between Callum Smith and George Groves back in 2018, but the 10,000-seater arena which sits inside the 56,000-capacity venue simply wasn’t big enough to host Joshua-Ruiz II. Instead, the power-brokers behind the event promised to build a 15,000-seater stadium from scratch specifically for the fight. All in the space of four months.
A purpose-built 15,000-seater arena has been built in just four months to host the fight
The Diriyah Arena was built by 175 staff and incorporates 295 tonnes of steel
Cynics predicted that the venue wouldn’t be ready in time, but Skill Challenge Sport and Entertainment Agency, the company in charge of running the event, released images this week which showed that the stadium is already complete, with Joshua being given a guided tour of the facility on Monday.
The 15,000-seater Diriyah Arena was built by 175 staff and incorporates 295 tonnes of steel. It will take a month to deconstruct after the bout, with 95 per cent of the material being reused to stage other events.
With the venue in place and Joshua’s two broadcasters onboard, there was one more sizeable point of contention prior to Saudi Arabia being rubber stamped as the venue.
The Arab nation has been criticised for an appalling human rights record and restricting the freedom of women to work, socialise and even drive. Sky Sports, whose boxing team features numerous women, and is fronted by Anna Woolhouse, registered their concerns that members of their team wouldn’t be allowed to work on the night or would be forced to wear conservative clothing in line with the country’s traditions.
‘Saudi Arabia has had a lot of light shone on it over the years for some reasons which are hard to accept,’ added Smith. ‘But I learnt going out there that Mariah Carey was over there recently, there’s a tennis event there before the fight and other boxing shows are being lined up for next year. This isn’t a one off, this isn’t a first. I can understand the issues but I try and remember that it’s the fight that matters.’
Sky Sports have raised the price of their PPV from £19.99 to £25 for Joshua vs Ruiz II
When tickets went on sale in October, the cheapest seats available were priced at £105, with VIP packages, including a chauffeur service and private entry, along with ringside seats, costing a staggering £10,600 as the event’s organisers attempt to attract a wealthy audience and recoup a small portion of their huge investment.
But even fans watching from their sofas back in the UK haven’t been able to escape the financial magnitude of December’s bout. Sky announced last week that they will raise their pay-per-view price for the fight to £24.95 – effectively a £5 increase on the usual £19.99 fee.
So, is Clash on the Dunes really part of a long term plan to launch boxing in the Middle East or is Saudi Arabia merely a cold-hearted cash out by Joshua, Hearn and the 23-man entourage behind the heavyweight?
‘Obviously there’s a lot of money on the table,’ says Smith. ‘He was offered a huge amount to fight in America and Wales. It’s a business, it’s up to him to get the best possible deal. But is it a cash grab? Ask him that.’
In the world of boxing, money talks.
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