So boxing’s biggest fight of 2019 is heading to the morally corrupt desert that moonlights as paradise. No, not Nevada, but Saudi Arabia, the Middle Eastern kingdom with an appalling human rights record, will host Andy Ruiz’s first world heavyweight title defense against the man he walloped inside a stunned Madison Square Garden in June, Anthony Joshua. The rematch location has already created something of a backlash, but boxing won’t care; it never has.
Within a sport boasting networks that have made convicted rapists and woman-beaters the faces of their fistic coverage, a fight in Saudi Arabia won’t raise a fragment of disdain when there’s a cosmic amount of money to be made. Eddie Hearn, armed with cash from multiple backers, is lugging a Mexican American and a southern Englander to Diriyah, a suburb of Riyadh, Saudi’s capital and financial hub, but he’s not the first to dip his toes in the Persian Gulf’s warm waters. He’s not even the first this year, and one person who knows all about combat during Arabian nights is Hughie Fury, a potential rival for whoever wins on December 7.
Back in July, Fury, the cousin of division-ruler Tyson, sampled the Saudi environment when he bulked up an undercard on a show topped by Amir Khan’s ridiculously one-sided encounter with Billy Dib. Followers of professional wrestling have seen WWE dig up past champions still armed with name value to ensure their Saudi tours satisfied all consumers and, similarly, a belt holder from boxing’s rearview mirror was plucked from obscurity as Samuel Peter, a world titlist in 2008, was drafted in to test Fury briefly. Fury largely dominated before Peter, a fighter approaching forty, injured his shoulder when wildly throwing his once-famed left hook.
“Joshua can expect a good reception out there,” said Fury, reflecting on his recent trip, albeit with most of his focus centered on his intriguing heavyweight clash with Alexander Povetkin at the end of this month. “They have big plans for boxing over there, and Joshua is someone who can help move it forward a lot quicker than other fighters. The people over there will be aware of who he is and what he’s done in boxing; and if they’re serious about bringing the best fights to Saudi Arabia, then getting Joshua there won’t do them any harm at all.
“The people are boxing mad, and you can see how much it meant to them having a big show over there, and it’ll be the exact same for Joshua. You can see how much they’re putting into the sport because there’s gyms getting built, the locals are getting into the sports, and they’re massively serious about putting on the big shows. I was there for a few days before my fight, and the facilities and reception were first-class. The crowd enjoyed the fights and got behind the fighters, and stuff you hear about no atmosphere is wrong. It’s not like Germany, where the crowd show an appreciation, the crowd in Saudi Arabia loved every single moment of it. Joshua and Ruiz will be a huge event over there, and it’ll get the response it deserves.”
Fury added, “Joshua will be popular there, and I think the people there will make a big fuss over him, so it’s up to him how he deals with that. He might want a low-key reception when he’s over there, but I think he’s going to get made a fuss of and if he’s planning a quiet arrival then he might not get much say over there. Ruiz is a fighter who’s been left alone, and that’ll probably be the same here as he’s nowhere near as popular as Joshua, but he’s coming somewhere that’s completely new to him. If Joshua can put up with the attention, then he should be okay.”
Fury’s Saudi excursion, the latest stamp on his congested passport, was a routine journey when compared to his recent exploits at the business end of the division. Last year, the charming twenty-four-year-old ventured to Bulgaria, the home of Kubrat Pulev. After falling painfully short against Joseph Parker for the New Zealander’s WBO belt in 2017, Fury, now with more experience, was expected to fare better against Pulev. Unfortunately, he was cut in the early stages and struggled to make an impact in the fight. On August 31, Fury aims to derail Alexander Povetkin’s latest comeback, and he insists that he’s a wiser fighter despite his recent mixed form.
“Those fights didn’t go the way I wanted, but I’ve taken so much from them,” declared Fury. “Against Parker, I honestly believe I won that fight, but I was boxing for the first time in nearly two years. I had a plan to box him and win rounds, and I was happy with myself at the end. Looking back, I believed I probably could’ve done more to make sure of the win, but I wasn’t helped by my time out the ring. Getting the twelve rounds in was a priority, but I should’ve been busier.
“Against Pulev, the cut didn’t help me so early in the fight, but I didn’t get going after that. I’m a young fighter who’s had to have learnt the hard way. My only two defeats have been against a world champion and a quality fighter who’s close to another world title fight. That’s what I want. The chance to prove that people haven’t seen the best of me and that there’s still more to come. I’m a young fighter who’s never ducked a fight, but I’m convinced it’s made me a better fighter.”
If Fury’s artillery has been enhanced in defeat, then the opportunity to display his improvements will come against Povetkin at London’s 02 Arena, a venue very much at the center of British heavyweight boxing’s renaissance. As well as Povetkin’s advancing age, his recent form is patchy as evidenced in wayward battles with David Price and Anthony Joshua, where the best and worst of the 2004 Olympic gold medalist were showcased. With apparent weaknesses emerging with each Povetkin outing, Fury is prepared for the best version of the former world champion.
“He’s a quality fighter, and when he’s at his best, then he’s providing a test for every heavyweight out there. I have to be at my very best. I’m not interested in the Povetkin who was beaten by Joshua or dropped by Pricey; on his day he’s a dangerous fighter who can punch and his achievements deserve the biggest respect. If I’m to go on in this sport and achieve what I set out to then, I have to be beating people like Povetkin. A win over him is a big result, and it takes me a step closer to another world title fight.”