Anthony Joshua is “very comfortable” with staging his heavyweight title rematch against Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia, despite growing criticism from human rights organisations, and does not believe it will damage his reputation, his manager Eddie Hearn has said.
Amnesty International is among those to have warned that the Saudi authorities are attempting to “sportswash” their abysmal human rights record by bringing the fight, billed as the “Clash of the Dunes”, to Diriyah on 7 December, and have urged Joshua to change his mind.
However, Hearn said that he and Joshua had understood that holding the rematch for the WBA, IBF and WBO belts in Saudi Arabia would have its “pluses and minuses” – but had been persuaded by the “vision” the country had to promote boxing.
“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,” said Hearn. “We had to be very comfortable because we knew there would be criticism. And we also looked at the bigger picture. If he wins this fight it opens up a whole new world for him and for boxing. It could change the sport forever.
“He’s always had the mindset of boxing all round the world. I expect him to box not just in Saudi Arabia but in Nigeria and in China. That’s an iconic global fighter, not just someone who boxes in Cardiff and Madison Square Garden.”
Amnesty’s UK head of campaigns, Felix Jakens, has urged Joshua to “inform himself of the human rights situation” and cited the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen as further reasons to be wary of the Saudi regime.
However when Hearn was asked whether the fight would damage Joshua’s reputation, he was clear. “I don’t think AJ thinks so,” he replied, before suggesting the negative publicity could actually make the fight successful.
When asked directly about Amnesty’s criticisms, Hearn was blunt. “I knew that when we made the decision not every response would be positive, and that there would be criticism and controversy,” he said. “I’m a boxing promoter and sometimes the criticism and the curiosity will lead to an event of an extraordinary magnitude.”
Hearn stressed that he hoped the fight would go down as another Rumble in the Jungle or Thrilla in Manila – and also be the start of a massive fresh revenue stream for him and Joshua.
“If Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region start investing in sport the whole game will change,” he added. “If people aren’t on board with that, and don’t realise the potential for sport in those regions, we are all idiots. 70% of public there is under 24.
“Every promoter in the world has tried to land a mega fight in these territories – Al Haymon, Bob Arum, Golden Boy – but we’re the first ones to actually do it,” he added. “I want to make sure we deliver for Saudi Arabia. If they are willing to make the financial investment in the sport that’s great for me.”
Hearn also suggested some of the attacks he had received were due to him becoming the first promoter to stage a mega fight in the country.
“The reason I’m getting the criticism is that no other promoter has been able to deliver it,” he said. “Because every promoter has tried. They will tell you all the proposals they get for fights. Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao, Deontay Wilder v Joshua. Every promoter is trying to land a major fight in this region, and we’ve done it. The proof will be in the pudding and that’s the objective now, to provide an event on 7 December where everybody turns round and says “Wow!”.
Hearn also dismissed suggestions Ruiz had not signed for the fight, saying the rumours had come from a fake Facebook page. “There is, as always in boxing, a little bit of manoeuvring in terms of can he get a little bit more money or can he get himself a chartered plane?” said Hearn. “He’s big time now from what I see on Instagram. He’s got a new villa and all this jewellery. But they have 100% signed the contract for this fight.”