LONDON (Reuters) – Anthony Joshua’s promoter has defended a decision to stage the Briton’s heavyweight title rematch with Mexican-American world champion Andy Ruiz Jr. in Saudi Arabia and said it could change boxing forever.
Eddie Hearn told a news conference on Monday that Joshua and his opponent had signed up for the December 7 fight to be hosted in an open-air stadium in Ad Diriyha, near the Saudi capital Riyadh.
The choice of venue has been criticised in some quarters, with Saudi Arabia coming under heightened international criticism over its human rights record.
Previously unbeaten Joshua lost his IBF, WBA and WBO titles to Ruiz at New York’s Madison Square Garden on June 1, with a rematch in the contract.
Ruiz had not been given much chance of beating the champion given he had just five full weeks to prepare after Joshua’s scheduled opponent tested positive performance-enhancing drugs.
Ruiz was dropped to the canvas in the third but the heavy brawler came back to down the Brit in the same round. Joshua appeared to recover and worked his jab well over the next few rounds but Ruiz landed big body shots in the sixth.
Joshua went down again in a flurry of Ruiz punches with nearly two minutes left in the seventh and while the British fighter got off his knees just in time to beat the count his legs looked like jelly as he made his way to a neutral corner.
The referee asked him if he was okay to continue before waving his arms to end the fight, prompting wild celebrations by Ruiz.
“We had approaches from Saudi Arabia, from Dubai, from Qatar, from Abu Dhabi,” said Hearn of the rematch. “And there’s been numerous conversations in the past about staging events in that region.
“We have to realise that there is another world out there outside of Cardiff and Madison Square Garden, and we have an obligation to grow the sport of boxing to new areas and regions,” he added.
“This event could change boxing forever. If Saudi Arabia are going to invest in these kind of fights, with the population that they have and the potential to grow the sport, you could be seeing a big change in the dynamics of the sport.”
Amnesty International UK’s Felix Jakens said the fight was “likely to be yet another opportunity for the Saudi authorities to try to ‘sportswash’ their severely tarnished image”.
“As with other sporting stars going to Saudi Arabia, we’d call on Joshua to inform himself of the human rights situation and be prepared to speak out,” he added.
Hearn cited a list of international sporting events hosted by Saudi Arabia in recent years, including the all-electric Formula E motor racing series, European Tour golf, the Italian Super Cup, boxing and WWE wrestling.
The country recently announced it will host in 2020 the world’s richest horse race, with a purse of $20 million.
“This is such a huge occasion for boxing, an iconic moment,” said Hearn. “With the response that we’ve seen, mainly good and some negative, I guarantee you with curiosity the whole world will be watching this fight.”
The BBC said Saudi backers were paying a $40 million fee.
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