Boxing's 'Clash on the Dunes' overshadowed by 'sportswashing' concerns

Posted at 8:40 AM, Dec 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-21 09:40:42-05

(CNN) -- In the 1970s, the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thrilla in Manila" -- two legendary boxing bouts involving Muhammad Ali -- helped define the sport's heavyweight division.

Fast forward to Saturday and the "Clash on the Dunes" -- the rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. in Saudi Arabia -- is boxing's latest attempt to take the sport to new territories in the way Ali did, when he boxed in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Philippines.

Saturday's much-anticipated bout is being staged in a bespoke 15,000-seater stadium in Diriyah, near the capital Riyadh, the first time a world heavyweight title fight has been staged in the desert kingdom.

The first fight between Joshua and Ruiz in New York delivered one of the biggest shocks in boxing history, as the unfancied Mexican-American floored the hot favorite four times on the way to a seventh-round technical knockout.

The New York defeat was the first of the Briton's career, meaning he surrendered all of the WBA (Super), IBF, WBO, and IBO heavyweight titles.

Previously Joshua was one of three undefeated world heavyweight champion contenders, alongside Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, but his boxing credentials were brought into question after his surprise defeat by Ruiz.

Former WBO cruiserweight champion Johnny Nelson, who hosted a face-off between the two boxers, says Joshua's defeat was a "reality check" for the British boxer.

"If you were going to lose, he was better off losing to Ruiz than losing Fury or Wilder," Nelson told CNN.

"With this Ruiz loss, he can come back from it and his attitude has changed. He's had to learn a harsh lesson on a public platform.

"Whereas if he'd have boxed Wilder or Fury, you've got the elite, the top of the food chain, and it'll be hard to come back from a loss from those two, especially if he didn't respect or prepare for them.

"So now he understands he can be hurt by anybody, no matter how you look. Now he knows what losing feels like and now it makes him hungry.

"Now he's boxing for a different reason, or should I say more reasons, rather than his legacy that he left. Now he's boxing for his own personal pride because of what happened."

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Controversial setting

Joshua is reportedly scheduled to pocket upwards of $65 million for fighting Ruiz again, but eyebrows were raised when the Britain agreed to the Saudi Arabian venue instead of on home soil, as was his contractual right.

The fight is part of what is being billed as the "Diriyah Season," a month-long festival bringing global sport to the UNESCO heritage sight of Diriyah, the birth place of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The region has already hosted two Formula E races and will host the Diriyah Tennis Cup shortly after Joshua and Ruiz meet.

However, critics have suggested the staging of the festival is just the latest example of "sportswashing" -- where governments use the hosting of major events to divert attention away from human rights issues.

"We've increasingly seen Gulf countries seek prestige and bolster their international reputations by hosting major sporting events," Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, told CNN.

"Unfortunately, many of these sporting events take place without these countries addressing the root causes of their reputational problems such as longstanding and systematic human rights abuses against political dissidents and activists, foreign migrant workers, and women.

"Enacting reforms to ensure basic human rights for both citizens and foreigners would be something everyone can cheer."

Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority did not immediately respond to CNN, but the GSA chairman Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, has previously said that "thousands will be entertained in the cradle of modern Saudi civilization."

He added: "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."

Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, who is Joshua's manager, gave the "sportwashing" accusations short shrift.

"I was driving up looking at House of Fraser," Hearn told the media earlier this week. "Go into the mall, Gucci, Chanel, Starbucks -- major corporations willing to trade here but we can't accept a deal to have a fight with another man in the most brutal sport because of someone's opinion on 'sportswashing?'

"Tyson Fury came here with WWE and no one raised an eyebrow. Formula 1, European Tour, they're all coming here too.

"[On sportswashing] I can't just sit here and say, 'It's nothing to do with me, I'm just providing for my fighter.' But I am not a politician, and as ruthless as it is, I've got a job to do for my fighter.

"It really doesn't matter what I think but I can tell you I'm happy and excited with the deal and with how it's gone and with what I see behind the scenes."

READ: 'This could change boxing forever': Promoter defends Joshua-Ruiz rematch in Saudi Arabia

Last minute call-up

Joshua was never meant to fight Ruiz earlier this year.

The Briton had originally been scheduled to meet Jarrel Miller, but just under two months before the fight, the American tested positive for a banned substance.

Ruiz was announced as Joshua's new opponent a month before their June 1 fight, but that late switch arguably hampered the Briton's preparations, according to Nelson.

"When you get an opponent that steps in at last minute notice, it's hard if you're the fighter to have that same intensity, same desire, that same drive because you're focused on one individual that you're fighting," he said.

"It's human nature. You're going to drop your guard, you're not going to give him as much respect, you're not going to give him that fear factor. And Joshua was so focused on fighting his original opponent and fired up to fight him that when Ruiz was brought in, looking at Ruiz he thought, 'What am I doing with this guy here?'"

Although Ruiz came into their first fight with a 32-1 record, he was a relative unknown to much of the boxing community.

But with four world titles now to his name, the 30-year-old Ruiz can expect a sterner test from Joshua, according to Nelson.

"That cheeky little smile, that chubby body, that's no longer going to be a disguise for him being a little atom bomb," Nelson explained. "Now everybody knows what to expect and Ruiz's problem now is everybody knows who he is, because he's beaten the most lucrative fighter in the world.

"He goes in with passion and desire to beat a guy that beat him. And beaten him to the point where he's open to so much criticism and ridicule for losing to a guy in that condition.

"The other champions, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, these guys have been hammering him. And he's given them every excuse to do so."

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From sycophants to critics

During his journey to the top of the heavyweight division, Joshua is likely to have met people wanting to ride on his coattails of success, according Nelson.

"Our sport, at its best, it's the greatest sport in the world," Nelson said. "At its worst, it's a dirty, prostituting game and he's seen the good and bad side.

"The bad side is now all these so-called friends and cheerleaders that supported him and thought he was unbeatable and brilliant, now they're telling him things that he doesn't want to hear, wrong or right.

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"Now they're having courage to say, 'You're doing that wrong or you're not very good at this or you're a novice at this, that or the other.'

"All of a sudden, he's thinking, 'What happened to this respect? What's happened to you people holding your tongue?' And of course, it bothers him. This is a side to Joshua we have not seen because now he's been hurt."

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