Boxing / 6 December 2019, 4:00pm / RIATH AL-SAMARRAI
If any more heads are willingly buried, the Arabian Desert might just need to place an order for extra sand.
It remains as depressing as it is unsurprising that boxing this week has maintained its reputation for ignoring matters that go beyond the heavyweight championship and the sacks of cash that come with it.
Quite evidently those include Anthony Joshua, whose acceptance of a £66million payday has brought him here to Saudi Arabia for tomorrow’s night of truth. While the nuances of that challenge against Andy Ruiz are legitimately fascinating, it is noticeable that he, like Muhammad Ali before him, has found less opposition in his conscience about the morality of its location.
To hear him this week, first saying that Diriyah is the ‘real Mecca of boxing’, and then in this latest claim that, having glanced around, ‘everyone seems pretty happy and chilled’, is to wonder where he has been looking.
‘I just came here for the boxing,’ he told the BBC. ‘I feel like taking boxing global is what I should be doing. I look around and everyone seems pretty chilled. Everyone seems to be having a good time. I haven’t known much about Amnesty because I’ve spent most of my time in Finchley training — there’s issues in Finchley, you know. But the country in itself is trying to do a good job politically.’ When it was put to Joshua that he might be used for ‘sportswashing’, he said: ‘If that was the case I’d definitely say I would be bothered. But my only focus is the boxing.’
That he says he is not overly acquainted with the laudable work of Amnesty International is fine, he is a gifted boxer concentrating on the biggest night of his career. But Joshua is a smart guy and should have known, or at least been told, some of the bare facts of this case, which include 149 executions in this state in 2018 and the suggestion from Amnesty that there has been ‘worsening oppression’ of local freedoms in recent days. Even if he didn’t want to bite the hand that is feeding him, Joshua didn’t need to kiss it.
It’s a complicated issue for any athlete, of course. What’s right for Phil Mickelson would seem to be wrong for Rory McIlroy, and really there is no stronger defence for a sportsman to mount than the one which looks to our own government. If they can strike deals worth billions with the Saudi regime, why wouldn’t a boxer get what they can? When you go into it, it’s a half decent point. But none of that makes it sit any more comfortably.
The Saudis, for their part, object to any notion that this is the sportswashing of human rights issues. Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud, the sports minister, was asked directly about it by Sportsmail yesterday, saying that events like this and Formula E, European Tour golf and Diriyah Tennis Cup are part of a concerted drive to tackle obesity in what he forwards is a more inclusive, progressive Saudi Arabia.
‘Criticism is going to happen whether you are doing the right thing or wrong thing,’ he said. ‘We have a strategy that we want to achieve and we are going towards that plan. We are fixing the social scene within the kingdom towards that. Only two years ago women were not allowed to get into these stadiums to watch a football match. Now they are allowed. You will see a lot of women attending this fight.
‘But it’s not just that. Now they are allowed to participate and be part of a national team. So criticism will happen. We accept it. We take it. We will look at it. And we will look at how we can make ourselves better. We are not perfect but we are striving towards a positive future for the kingdom.’
In isolation, that all sounds encouraging. But the work of Amnesty and others ensure that there is far, far more context.
As for boxing, it just ambles on as it always has. Joshua says fighting here won’t threaten his legacy and the history of his sport probably supports him there.
Let’s not forget the Rumble in the Jungle between Ali and George Foreman was staged 45 years ago at the Stade Tata Raphael in Kinshasa at the behest of the president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. This being the same chap who six years earlier had lured the rebel Pierre Mulele to the city and had his eyes gouged out and his body quartered before being dumped in the Congo River.