On Friday afternoon, news broke that the highly-anticipated rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr would land on Dec. 7, in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. Following one of the biggest upsets in recent heavyweight history, the fallen Briton will be looking to wrestle back his WBA (Super), WBO and IBF — if Ruiz isn’t forced to vacate — heavyweight titles following a seventh-round TKO loss to the unfancied ‘Destroyer’ in June this year.
Airing on Sky Box Office in the U.K. and DAZN in the US, a projected start time of 21:00 GMT will be unpopular with Stateside viewers, whereas Sky Sports will be targetting record numbers of pay-per-view buys amongst British fight fans.
Being pushed as a “neutral grounds” for both fighters, the Middle East venue trumped the likes of Madison Square Garden, Cardiff’s Principality Stadium and a potential trip to Nigeria or Mexico — this neutral venue is also expected to prove extremely lucrative with Saudi Arabian sports organisations having stumped up close to nine figures to host this rematch. The challenger, Anthony Joshua, is expected to make around $60 million from this fight, with the defending champion making a minimum of $9 million.
In a fight that Anthony Joshua simply has to win, it’s a big risk taking a venture into another unknown. The self-titled “Clash on the Dunes” will be the third major boxing event to be held in Saudi Arabia following the super middleweight World Boxing Super Series final between Callum Smith and George Groves, and last month’s Amir Khan vs Billy Dib fight in which the Briton scooped a reported £7 million for four rounds against the former featherweight world champion.
Despite its recent growth, Saudi Arabia is still under huge scrutiny for its questionable human rights record. Amnesty International has described this record as “abysmal,” adding that the nation is in the “grip of a sweeping crackdown against critics of the government.”
Talking to The Guardian, Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns, Felix Jakens, called for the 29-year-old to “inform himself of the human rights situation and be prepared to speak out about Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record.”
“If Anthony Joshua fights Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia, it’s likely to be yet another opportunity for the Saudi authorities to try to ‘sportswash’ their severely tarnished image. Despite some long-overdue reforms on women’s rights, Saudi Arabia is currently in the grip of a sweeping human rights crackdown, with women’s rights activists, lawyers and members of the Shia minority community all being targeted.”
It’s a questionable move by Joshua and Matchroom Boxing, however, a move that may have been forced — to some degree — by Andy Ruiz Jr’s reluctance to travel to the U.K. The unified heavyweight champion has spoken and Tweeted candidly on his preference to fight in neutral territory, using Dillian Whyte’s recent failed drugs test as leverage in avoiding a trip to away soil in the United Kingdom. Tijuana was touted as a late possibility following Joshua’s claims he would “whoop” the champion in Mexico; this proved nothing more than peacocking from ‘AJ’ who needs to find as many marginal gains in the return fight as possible.
Eddie Hearn would repeatedly refer to the rematch clause whenever questioned on the location of the rematch, citing their stranglehold over a majority of criterion. Under the illusion that they could drag Ruiz to the U.K. without a struggle, the surfacing of this money-spinner in Saudi begs two questions: did Matchroom Boxing really have full control over the rematch location, and, is this an attempt to ‘cash-out’ on brand ‘AJ’ in case it’s repeat instead of revenge in the desert of Diriyah?
Marketing this fight as the “Clash on the Dunes” is an obvious attempt to associate the grand scale of this event to the titled heavyweight contests in past years. Piggy-backing on the likes of the “Rumble in the Jungle” or the “Thrilla in Manilla” will resonate amongst the casual boxing audience in the U.K. especially — don’t expect the Ali comparisons to end there as Hearn and the AJ media machine cranks into gear on Monday at the scheduled press conference.
There is no question that Joshua is once again rolling the dice in an attempt to balance his boxing career with business growth. Constantly referring to his British fanbase as a huge boost on fight night, the former world champion is gambling on a venue which will provide an alien atmosphere to what both fighters are used to. Brits won’t travel in their droves to Diriyah despite its unique flavour, with a money grab the only real reason to venture into the Middle East at this stage in the state’s questionable “growth.”
Despite the ethics and the motivations surrounding the location of this rematch, it is unlikely to distract from the spectacle it is guaranteed to produce come December 7. Regardless of your stance on the heavyweight standings, Ruiz vs Joshua II will be the biggest event of 2019’s boxing calendar. With Canelo Alvarez sidestepping a September return and Deontay Wilder’s rematch with Tyson Fury being marinated into 2020, Joshua has a chance to gobble up a hungry boxing audience in the back end of this year.
An attempt to drag Ruiz into the unknown also signals new territory for Joshua. As a professional, he is 0-1 fighting outside of the U.K., with questions being asked regarding his fragility on the road. ‘AJ’ is fully aware of the changes he needs to implement come December but to underestimate the improvements ‘The Destroyer’ will make in a full camp beforehand could be to his detriment.
A few questions regarding this rematch have been answered in the past week, but the most interesting await unanswered on Dec. 7.