It is no easy task for boxing to set off a firestorm during the dog days of summer, but Eddie Hearn, head of Matchroom, managed this improbable feat when he held a curious press conference a few days ago announcing that Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua would face off for their rematch on December 7, in a locale that left the fight racket by turns amused, nonplussed, dismayed, and outraged.
For Hearn to bypass eighty to ninety thousand punters in Wembley or Cardiff—as well as depriving Joshua of certain partisan advantages—he must have received an astronomical site fee from Skill Challenge Entertainment, which, in a way, is ironic because there is no site. Although Saudi Arabia has a thriving if disreputable construction industry (one dependent, in part, on exploited migrants), Hearn seems more than just optimistic that his hosts can deliver a gleaming new arena in Diriyah by fight night. In fact, he might very well be naive.
Overexposed by virtue of his presence on both sides of the Atlantic, Hearn has become the latest cartoon villain in boxing, but the fact remains that he is doing what promoters are supposed to do: maximize revenue and raise the profile of his productions. “I knew that when we made the decision not every response would be positive, and that there would be criticism and controversy,” Hearn said during his odd announcement. “I’m a boxing promoter, and sometimes the criticism and the curiosity will lead to an event of an extraordinary magnitude.”
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Ruiz‒Joshua II in Saudi Arabia will earn coverage far beyond what a marquee boxing match would command. Of course, most of it will be negative commentary focusing on questions of morality. Already this fight has been condemned by Amnesty International and by nearly every corner of the internet. But for Hearn, perhaps, P. T. Barnum is the guiding light: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”
Just as there are precedents for Saudi Arabia hosting a mega-fight, there are also precedents for selective outrage in boxing.
Manny Pacquiao fought in Macau (part of China) and Malaysia—two countries with expansive entries on the Human Rights Watch website—and Roy Jones fought in Russia several times without incurring the righteous cyber-wrath so common today. More recently, George Groves and Callum Smith met in Jeddah, and just last month Amir Khan stiffened Billy Dib in a fiasco only a country with zero knowledge of prizefighting could love (yes, Saudi Arabia).
And Muhammad Ali, of course, was the patron saint of sportswashing—long before the phrase was coined. (One of the hush-hush aspects of Ali, a man who has sparked a small cottage industry of hagiographies, was his chumminess with insane despots, including the reportedly cannibalistic Idi Amin.) Central to the sporting mythology of “The Greatest” (as opposed to his status as a civil rights/liberal icon) are his triumphs in Kinshasa (KO 8 Foreman) and Manila (TKO 14 Frazier). And while Zaire and the Philippines may have been, in some respects, garden-variety kleptocracies in the mid-1970s, Indonesia, where Ali fought in 1973, certainly was not. President Suharto oversaw the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of his own people during the mid-1960s, a mass slaughter bordering on genocide.
(In the early 1980s, Bob Arum might have committed the most infamous political gaffe(s) in boxing, when he promoted a series of fights in South Africa, which was still a decade away from abolishing apartheid.)
What makes Ruiz‒Joshua II intriguing is not its controversial setting but the pervasive uncertainty for all involved because of it. As a promoter, Hearn is taking a serious risk by placing his meal ticket outside of regulatory oversight. Potential logistics nightmares—different time zones, climate issues, commission oversight, the appointment of (somewhat) competent officials, political blowback, et cetera—add to the difficulties Hearn must navigate in exchange for a likely overwhelming payoff.
Then, there is DAZN. While its boxing program has been a mixed bag from the beginning—camera work seemingly influenced by MK-Ultra experiments, a free-for-all programming philosophy based on an indiscriminate content model that fails to distinguish trash fights from good ones, and a broadcasting crew ignorant of even something as basic as the ten-point scoring system—recent events augur worse to come. Its Saul Alvarez‒Gennady Golovkin nonstarter threatens to become a full-fledged boondoggle and, if the difficulties of the WBSS worsen, DAZN will have even less to show for all its outlandish expenditures.
When Ruiz blitzed Joshua last June, it was such a shocking result that DAZN could hardly begrudge seeing one of its keystones—the unified heavyweight champion of the world—devalued. No amount of advertising could equal the experiential thrill of seeing the improbable take place, and DAZN reaped incalculable publicity points from having Ruiz, a personable underdog, score the upset in the media capital of the world. Now, however, they have a potential public relations debacle on hand, as well as a far-flung location that will inevitably discourage press coverage when both camps set up in Saudi Arabia for acclimation.
Finally, the fighters themselves bring misgivings into their showdown. For Anthony Joshua, a rematch with the man who embarrassed him in Madison Square Garden focuses attention on his psyche. Will engaging in only his second fight on the road affect Joshua psychologically? After all, his first trip out of the friendly environs of the United Kingdom ended in a disaster. Before he was dismantled by Ruiz, Joshua was already showing signs of combat fatigue. After suffering a knockdown against Wladimir Klitschko in 2017, Joshua seemed to lose a certain amount of spark. His more-cautious approach subsequently revealed itself in measured performances against Carlos Takam and Alexander Povetkin. Between those fights, which at least ended in stoppages, Joshua seemed almost spellbound going through the motions against a wary Joseph Parker. Enter Ruiz, with his Snickers bar schtick, his thick belly (slapstick to some viewing on the telly), and a feather-fist punch now as hard as a Nori brick. What looked like a mismatch between a portly journeyman without a single noteworthy win on his ledger and an undefeated Olympic gold medalist with three-quarters of extant championships in his possession turned into a massacre when Ruiz recovered from a knockdown to batter Joshua into stunning defeat.
A world-class fighter rarely admits to trepidation. Not for Joshua, however, are the delusions of grandeur that have afflicted so many heavyweight champions over the years. From Muhammad Ali (“I cannot possibly be beat!”) to Mike Tyson (“I want to fight, fight, fight and destruct the world!”) to Lennox Lewis (“I am the last great heavyweight champion.”) the baddest man on the planet has traditionally been someone with a radioactive ego. Instead of boasting about his indestructibility, though, Joshua confessed his fears of losing. This is what Joshua told The Telegraph last year: “The fear of losing is always there.” To Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian, Joshua said: “I always think about that one punch. No one can beat me skill-for-skill, I don’t think. But it’s that one punch: I’d hate for that to be the reason why I lose. One punch. And that’s what they’re all looking at.”
Proteges of Cus D’Amato often spoke about controlling their fears (Jose Torres and Mike Tyson, for example), but Joshua seemed more than just introspective at times. He seemed closer to another D’Amato charge, Floyd Patterson, roiling with doubts, even predicting his own demise months before it occurred. If Joshua enters the ring against Ruiz on December 7 bogged down with what ex-light-heavyweight-champion Torres once called “morbid thoughts,” he could be facing another KO loss. And with that, a premature epitaph to his career.
Although contractually bound to a rematch, and the provisions contained therein, Ruiz has seemed, over the last few weeks, reluctant to acknowledge that fact. After days of silence, Ruiz (who does not have a promoter or a manager to speak publicly on his behalf) popped up on—where else?—social media to insist, in that haphazard way so familiar to Instagram—that his fight with Joshua would take place in the United States. Is it possible that Al Haymon, the PBC mastermind who has sabotaged more than one event, is looking to undermine Ruiz‒Joshua II? Haymon has long defied rhyme or reason, and it seems counterintuitive for him to torpedo a staggering paycheck (one not underwritten by whatever remains of the Waddell & Reed cash box) and a possible repeat win for Ruiz; but if boxing teaches us anything, it is to expect the unexpected more often than not. Whatever machinations are taking place behind the scenes, it will not be easy for Team Ruiz to sidestep Joshua.
In 2001, Hasim Rahman, like Ruiz, a longshot title challenger, lost millions of dollars trying to assert his windfall status after upsetting Lennox Lewis. Spurred on by Don King (whose generator was the obligatory suitcase full of cash), Rahman decided he could bypass the rematch clause with Lewis in favor of a title defense against David Izon in the exotic—and repressive—setting of Beijing. But Lewis lawyered up, and Rahman was forced into an immediate rematch, in which Lewis flattened him.
One interesting aspect of the whole Lewis‒Rahman saga was that Rahman had an interim-fight clause in his contract, making him, theoretically at least, free to face Izon, a provision oddly overlooked by Manhattan Federal District Court Judge Miriam Cederbaum in her ruling against Rahman. This is another reason why boxing people dread legal rulings: judges know almost nothing about the labyrinthine workings of boxing.
In a Houdiniesque move, Hector Camacho managed the rare feat of escaping a Don King contract in the early 1980s by vacating his title and moving up in weight. The terms of his deal with King were contingent on Camacho being a champion. When Camacho gave up his WBC trinket, he effectively voided his obligations to King. Did Eddie Hearn hint at a possible loophole when he spoke to Sky Sports about Ruiz possibly looking to cut loose? “Any messing around and Ruiz Jr. will lose belts, and he won’t want to do that,” Hearn said. “We expect the IBF, WBA, and WBO belts to be on the line. There are mandatories due but, in our opinion, Ruiz Jr. is within his rights to have a voluntary defense. That defense is against Anthony Joshua.”
Like so much in boxing, the facts, as they stand, are murky, and made more so by the very nature of the sport: subterranean, cruel, deceptive, hucksterish, and, as a free-booty pursuit, driven solely by avarice. None of this will change against the picturesque backdrop of a desert, where, after all, mirages flourish.
As for moral or geopolitical concerns, boxing often suggests a quote from Graham Greene, master of ethical ambiguity: “We have standards to which we do not always rise.” In some cases, alas, not even standards exist.