By Manouk Akopyan
The rematch between Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua is slated to take place in Saudi Arabia.
The site of the fight has sparked global conversation in boxing circles as well as international fans and media alike that a fight of that magnitude should not take place in a country with a history of human rights violations.
Skill Challenge Entertainment, the group bringing the fight to Saudi Arabia, has paid a site fee ranging anywhere between a reported $40-to-$50 million to Matchroom Boxing so that the country would host the fight. It continues a recent trend of big time prizefighting being sanctioned in the country.
In the last year alone, a World Boxing Super Series fight between Callum Smith and George Groves as well as a match between Amir Khan and Billy Dib both took place in the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Tom Loeffler, head of 360 promotions, has put on global events throughout his boxing career for the likes of Wladimir Klitschko across Europe and the United States and for Gennady Golovkin in New York, Los Angeles and Monte Carlo.
Loeffler told BoxingScene.com that he’s been presented with palatable offers in the past for fights to take place in the Middle East, and if the right one came along in the future for Golovkin, he would consider taking it.
“Gennady is an international star. He is the definition of a world champion,” said Loeffler. “I’m sure he would consider [fighting] over there [in Saudi Arabia]. With the right opponent, offer and promotion, I can easily imagine him going over there in that region. I’ve had a lot of big offers from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries for big fights. But it’s never come to fruition on our side. It seems that Eddie [Hearn] is pursuing that on his side.
“Whenever you get those kinds of numbers [on site fees], they’re enticiting. When you start talking about guarantees and up front money, and things of that nature, a lot of times they didn’t come to fruition. That’s definitely another challenge.”
When asked if promoting fights in countries with concerning human rights records present any problems, Loeffler said that promoters have to take everything into consideration, and not only the financials.
“There are cultural and societal aspects as well of going into a particular region or country,” Loeffler said. “You definitely have to take that into account. I’ve heard some criticism of the [Ruiz-Joshua] promotion going there because of the human rights track record that Saudi Arabia has had, but that’s something that needs to be laid out for every promotion. I’m not sure of all of the factors that went into Eddie making the decision to go there, but for me, as a promoter, you definitely have to take everything into consideration.”
On Friday, shortly after the Ruiz-Joshua rematch was announced, Amnesty International released a statement and called the fight “sportswashing” by Saudi Arabia for its “abysmal” track record of human rights issues that include oppression of women and LGBT communities, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen. In recent years, WWE and Formula One events have been sanctioned in the country.
A high ranking DAZN executive told the sports business site John Wall Street on Monday that the digital streaming service had no say on the site of the Ruiz-Joshua fight, and that “you can make the argument that the controversy surrounding Saudi Arabia will bring more attention [to the Ruiz-Joshua fight] than had it been held in London.”
The same DAZN executive said “the most important thing to [DAZN’s] U.S. business is [Canelo Alvarez’s] next fight. Canelo is the LeBron of boxing in this country. [Joshua] is the Durant. Durant is amazing, but he’s not LeBron. There is only one superstar and it is Canelo Alvarez.”
Khan, a British-Pakistani Muslim star boxer, made a reported £7m fighting Dib, £3m more than he did against Terrence Crawford in April. He told Boxing Scene on Sunday that Saudi Arabia is a great country to fight in.
“It was an amazing experience for me. I had so much fun there,” said Khan. “Some people are happy that the Ruiz-Joshua fight is taking place there, and others are not. I wish them the best in whatever they want to do. At the end of the day, I’m focused on what I’m doing in Saudi Arabia … I want to fight again, and I can’t wait to go back to Saudi Arabia and do it there. It was a full house, and they demand boxers who are recognizable with big personalities. Organizers want to be involved in sports.”
Before his fight with Dib, Khan was quick to say that Saudi Arabians are throwing a lot of money on the table and that it would “be stupid to not take this opportunity.”
The boxer also commented on the overall betterment of human rights in the country while noting he wants to better build boxing in the country through Amir Khan Promotions and the Super Boxing League.
Meanwhile, Loeffler said a high-stakes fight like Ruiz-Joshua being held in a temporary outdoor stadium in Saudi Arabia could present logistical challenges, like best identifying who the local commissions would be and drug testing all the way down to lighting, broadcast equipment being used and even local hotels.
“When you go into a country for the first time, there are different kind of challenges you have to work on,” said Loeffler. “This is a huge fight fans and media are anticipating. Hopefully we get to see it come off without any hitches over there.”
Manouk Akopyan has been a member of the Boxing Writers Assn. of America since 2011 and has written for the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Guardian and Philadelphia Inquirer. He can reached on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan or via email at [email protected].