Thursday 5 December 2019

Historic Anthony Joshua re-match puts the spotlight on Saudi Arabia

Anthony Joshua at the Centria Mall in Riyadh ahead of the heavyweight rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr at the Diriyah Arena on Saturday. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Anthony Joshua at the Centria Mall in Riyadh ahead of the heavyweight rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr at the Diriyah Arena on Saturday. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Mark Staniforth in Riyadh

Six miles from the luxury Riyadh hotels which house Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr, fringed by an ancient textile souk and a Dunkin' Donuts franchise, squats the city's notorious Deira Square.

Colloquially known as 'Chop Chop Square' for the hundreds of public beheadings that have been held there, it serves as a palpable reminder of the controversy stirred by the decision to stage the first world heavyweight title fight in the Saudi Arabian capital.

Amnesty International issued a stinging rebuke earlier this week, accusing the Saudi government of attempting to "sportswash" the country's tarnished image, and calling on Joshua to speak out about the country's human rights abuses.

For all its global projection and expectations of a 15,000 sell-out on Saturday night at the purpose-built arena at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Diriyah, promotion for the fight within the city has remained minimal and carefully stage-managed.

Responding to the expanding sports portfolio of their neighbour and political rival Qatar, the Saudis pumped the kind of sums into acquiring this high-profile rematch that, from a purely promotional perspective, made it impossible to ignore.

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Andy Ruiz Jr at the Centria Mall in Riyadh. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday December 2, 2019. The heavyweight rematch Andy Ruiz Jr. vs. Anthony Joshua II takes place at the Diriyah Arena on Saturday. See PA story BOXING Saudi Arabia. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Saudi officials promised a site fee in excess of £30million to steer the contest out of the financial reach of the UK and even the major Nevada casinos, and ensured Joshua will earn well in excess of £40m, comfortably the biggest purse in British boxing history.

Speaking to British media on Monday at a plush shopping mall on Olaya Street filled with ubiquitous, high-end western brands, promoter Eddie Hearn questioned what he implied is the inconsistency of holding up a single sporting event for criticism.

"I was driving around today and you see House of Fraser, you go into the mall and see Gucci, Chanel, even Starbucks, major corporations who are willing to trade here," said Hearn.

"I can't sit here and say it has nothing to do with me, but the bottom line is, I am not a politician.

"As ruthless as it is, I've got a job to do for my fighter. It doesn't matter what I think, but I am happy and excited at how everything has gone."

The so-called 'Clash on the Dunes' is part of an extended 'Diriyah Season' of cultural events at the UNESCO World Heritage site, intended as the first step in the rebranding of the country as a tourism destination.

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Anthony Joshua and promoter Eddie Hearn at the Centria Mall in Riyadh. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday December 2, 2019. The heavyweight rematch Andy Ruiz Jr. vs. Anthony Joshua II takes place at the Diriyah Arena on Saturday. See PA story BOXING Saudi Arabia. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Tourist e-visas to the Kingdom were issued for the first time last year, and the attractions keep coming: the Diriyah Tennis Cup, featuring eight of the world's top players, will take place at the same arena next week prior to its dismantling, while a concert including Chris Brown and Akon will be staged on the eve of the rematch.

The warm welcome afforded to visiting media seems a little incongruous given the uproar generated in October last year by the assassination of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yet the Saudis have made their intentions plain. On the programme's website, the chairman of the country's General Sports Authority, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, writes: "Thousands will be entertained in the cradle of modern Saudi civilisation.

"Where else in the world can you find this epic blend of the past, the present and future? Our arms are open and our welcome has never been warmer."

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