SAN DIEGO, Calif., December 4, 2019 – Dating back to an event in Azerbaijan in 2015, the Macmillan Dictionary’s crowdsourced open edition definition of the term “sportswashing” is “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation.”
Used in a sentence: “This weekend’s world heavyweight fight is a classic example of sportswashing by the Saudi Arabian government.”
The rematch of June’s upset victory by the first Mexican-American heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz Jr. of Imperial, California over Anthony Joshua of Great Britain should be generating a media feeding frenzy and nonstop chatter by casual and hardcore boxing fans alike.
Instead, there are tepid reports from a handful of international journalists along with promoter releases and video to help the stateside folks out. American boxing fans are left scratching their heads trying to figure out exactly how early they need to be sitting down to see the fight on Saturday (it’s 12 noon on the West Coast, 3 p.m. on the East Coast). British boxing fans still feel betrayed when 90,000 chances to see their hero bring the titles back home slipped through their fingers.
You can hardly blame any journalists present for not asking hard questions in a country known for not being hospitable to news media. But you can blame them for going along with it.
Three strikes and I’m out
As a boxing writer who lives barely 100 miles from Ruiz Jr.’s dusty hometown, having zero opportunity along with many of my American colleagues to cover the fight is a disappointment. It doesn’t take much examination of the Saudi government’s abysmal record of human rights abuses to squash that idea. American? Strike. Journalist? Strike. Woman? That’s the third strike, and I’m out. No matter how promoter Matchroom Boxing Eddie Hearn might assure my safety, the risk is not worth my wellbeing.
It is another blow to boxing’s biggest fight, to regain any ground among American sports. Andy Ruiz Jr. became a cultural sensation in the U.S., but his opportunity to shine in an attempt to defend his multiple titles against British superstar Joshua is defeated by a distant time zone, and by a financial windfall promoter Hearn couldn’t turn down no matter how immoral.
Instead, Ruiz Jr. has to console himself with a career-high payday reported to be upwards of $9 million and the hope of bringing the belts back home. Joshua is feeling far less pain soothed with $60 million-plus. Hearn received a reported $108 million including a $40 million site fee for his decision to stage the bout in venue newly arisen from the desert just for the occasion, the brand new 15,000 seat Diriyah Stadium set north of Riyadh.
On the positive side, only a fight the magnitude of this rematch could lure many American boxing writers and fans to blow off all the negative issues to give the actual bout its due. To do it, we put aside our distaste and bypass the realities.
Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records on Earth. Its royal family is held responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for which no one has been held to account. It imposes severe restrictions on women who have few human rights. It punishes objectors with imprisonment and execution. Ditto for its LGBTQ citizens.
But by throwing lavish parties by luring Formula 1 auto racing, professional tennis, golf tournaments, and now boxing with petrodollars, everyone can rock the Casbah without a care.
At the final news conference on Wednesday, Hearn did his best to put a happy face on the event’s location. “I had finally made the decision to keep the fight in the UK, but then I got the call from Saudi … the passion they had to bring this fight to Saudi Arabia was unmatched and within four or five days, we have an agreement to stage this fight here. Sometimes there was shock and criticism, but this was an absolutely wonderful decision. The hospitality from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been incredible. The fighters have had an amazing experience here with first-class facilities being specifically built for them to prepare. This is a new dawn for the sport of boxing.”
Let’s hope not.
Ruiz Jr. and Joshua need to focus on their business
It’s hard to blame the fighters themselves for their role in the sportswashing, Ruiz Jr. in particular. He was contractually bound to a rematch, set up in the contract for the original fight in the “unlikely” event he won. On paper, he’s still the B-side to Joshua. He preferred to return to Madison Square Garden, instead of staging the fight on Joshua’s turf in Cardiff, Wales. But with Saudi Arabia in play, the chubby kid from the desert took the check and agreed. A desert setting away from the British fans had some advantages for Ruiz Jr.
“I don’t want these beautiful belts to go away,” said Ruiz Jr. “Remember, I’ve been doing this since I was six, it’s finally paying off, and no way I’m going let these belts go. I’m going to die trying, and do anything that’s possible to get that victory. It’s been a long journey, long roller coaster in my life, and no way I’m going to let these go Dec. 7. Let the best man win.”
From Joshua’s perspective, a massive paycheck will go a long way as an insurance policy should he lose again to Ruiz Jr. He can wave goodbye to boxing and find a lot of good ways to stay visible and make money, should he be concerned about it.
“This is the Mecca of boxing, I’m hearing. The real Mecca of boxing,” said Joshua. “I’m going to turn this into something special, a real event … I went to the venue, it’s perfect, perfectly designed. Said my prayers, I took time to really embrace what’s going to happen Saturday. I’m just going in with confidence, and I want everyone to have that same confidence and have a great time.”
Defenders point to the long history of mob involvement with boxing in the United States. There is no argument with this reality, but the past need not become the present. No one would argue in favor of maintaining racism, homophobia, or sexism in boxing today merely because they all played regrettable roles in boxing’s past.
Boxing and sportswashing blood money
If Hearn and his fellow travelers can be bought off, nothing written here will give them any pause. This bit of opinion is aimed at those who can choose not to participate. I’m thoroughly disappointed with women in particular who are getting paid to work the fight, whatever their role.
At least we don’t have to worry about the ring card women. They won’t be permitted during this event in deference to the local “customs.” Side note: favoring the use of ring card girls isn’t hypocritical. When you’re ringside, it’s far too easy to forget what round it is, and we count on seeing those handheld cards being walked around the ring. We also get it, the predominantly male boxing audience digs the eye candy. As long as the women are volunteering, making some dough and being respected, no objection.
With the fight now three days away, it is difficult to generate a lot of enthusiasm for the bout. It will start at 3 p.m. on the East Coast, and high noon in Southern California for Ruiz Jr.’s many fans at home. It will compete with college football, among the most popular sports in the U.S. None of this should be happening.
Instead, we will try to focus on those 45 minutes (or less) of action in the ring and shut out the political realities of sportwashing by the kingdom, which is exactly what the Saudi government hopes we will do. It doesn’t mean I won’t hate myself for it.
“By order of the prophet
We ban that boogie sound
Degenerate the faithful
With that crazy Casbah sound
But the Bedouin they brought out the electric camel drum
The local guitar picker got his guitar-pickin’ thumb
As soon as the Shareef had cleared the square
They began to wail
The Shareef don’t like it
Rock the Casbah, rock the Casbah
The Shareef don’t like it
Rock the Casbah, rock the Casbah…”
“Rock The Casbah,” The Clash, lyrics by Joe Strummer
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is a veteran boxing observer covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Ringside Seat in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on social media at @PRProSanDiego.
Please credit “Gayle Falkenthal for Communities Digital News” when quoting from or linking to this story.
Copyright © 2019 by Falcon Valley Group