Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr - How a warm welcome in Saudi Arabia sends a shiver down the spine

Anthony Joshua meets Andy Ruiz Jr in a world heavyweight title rematch on Saturday at a venue that has sparked controversy. Mark Staniforth reports from Saudi Arabia.
Anthony Joshua at the Centria Mall in Riyadh. (Picture:: Nick Potts/PA Wire)Anthony Joshua at the Centria Mall in Riyadh. (Picture:: Nick Potts/PA Wire)
Anthony Joshua at the Centria Mall in Riyadh. (Picture:: Nick Potts/PA Wire)

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.

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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.

Andy Ruiz Jr at the Centria Mall in Riyadh. (Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire)Andy Ruiz Jr at the Centria Mall in Riyadh. (Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire)
Andy Ruiz Jr at the Centria Mall in Riyadh. (Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire)

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. Saudi officials promised a site fee in excess of £30m 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.

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“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.

Tourist e-visas to the Kingdom were issued for the first time last year, and the attractions keep coming.

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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.”