Brutal complicity: Why Joshua-Ruiz rematch must not be held in Saudi Arabia

Brutal complicity: Why Joshua-Ruiz rematch must not be held in Saudi Arabia
6 min read
21 Aug, 2019
Comment: Holding the Joshua-Ruiz rematch, itself a problematic event, in Saudi Arabia will be an act of complicity in the kingdom's brutal human rights record, argues Wilson Dizard
Saudi Arabia could be host to a major boxing rematch in December [Getty]
Saudi Arabia could be host to a major boxing rematch in December between two heavy weight fighters whose last encounter ended in a shocking upset for the favourite (Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. traded punches earlier this year, with Ruiz emerging as the victor, despite his comparatively unathletic-looking frame).

It has not been reported what kind of money might be involved in organising the fight in the kingdom, but we can safely assume the amount will be obscene.

Ruiz reportedly has not agreed to the fight’s location yetjust outside the Saudi capital Riyadh According to reports, there is a bitter dispute over the location with some industry leaders suggesting the Mexican boxer may not feel safe in the kingdom.

Meanwhile, it's not clear how many people will be able to attend from outside of the Kingdom, as Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world that still do not issue tourist visas. The audience will likely be Saudis rich enough to attend, given the price of admission for such events in the kingdom. 
The fight would be happening against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s continued human rights abuses. Indeed, the announcement of the bout brought accusations that the event would be yet another exercise in “sportswashing” by Saudi Arabia.

True, in trying to transform itself into a country no longer dependent on oil and less reclusive, Riyadh has announced plans for new investments in entertainment and a partial lifting of state bans on women driving or travelling without male family members. However, these reform comes as a new set of privileges, not real rights. 

Meanwhile, women’s rights activists remain imprisoned by Saudi Arabia for asking for too much, too fast, with prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul reportedly having been offered freedom by her jailers in exchange for denying that she had endured torture in custody.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has been pursuing a bloody war in impoverished Yemen that has killed thousands, devastated its civilian infrastructure and brought the country epidemic cholera and famine.

Its 33-year-old Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or “MBS,” who has cast himself as the face of these reforms, gave orders to kill and dismember dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and permanent US resident. 
The high-profile boxing re-match "is likely to be yet another opportunity for the Saudi authorities to try to 'sportswash' their severely tarnished image," Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK's Head of Campaigns, told CNN. 
"There's been no justice over the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen is carrying out indiscriminate attacks on homes, hospitals and market-places with horrific consequences for Yemeni civilians,” Jakens added. 

But what’s wrong with the boxing match isn’t just the "sportwashing".

Sport or brutal prize-fighting? 

Boxing itself is a problematic 'sport' whose purpose is to harm people and often permanently damages athletes for money and entertainment, and debases the audience too (Perhaps just as the United Arab Emirates replaced South Asian enslaved children with robotic whipping devices to drive the animals around the track, the Saudi crown prince could leverage his new found obsession with artificial technology to replace human fighters with robots).

All the while, a huge sum of money inevitably lands in the pockets of fight promoters. 
Take, for instance  Eddie Hearn, the man profiting from the battering of two other men’s bodies. The men will be compensated, of course, and so will Hearn.

Hearn welcomed the controversy over the fight being hosted in Saudi Arabia as just a way to sell even more tickets and pay-per-view subscriptions, setting the bout in an impossible locale. 
"I knew that when we made the decision not every response would be positive, and that there would be criticism and controversy. I'm a boxing promoter and sometimes the criticism and the curiosity will lead to an event of an extraordinary magnitude," Hearn said, according to The Guardian.
The physical exploitation is in fact reminiscent of the dysfunctional relationship between the Saudi elite and migrant, contracted labour.

Despite the fact that their compensation will be orders of magnitude higher than that of any migrant worker, many of whom endure abuse or imprisonment in Saudi Arabia, Ruiz and Joshua can be seen as providing a form of such labour, as workers hired from abroad to provide a service in the kingdom.
when footage of the fight in Saudi Arabia will be broadcast, the spectacle of brutality for the sake of entertainment will only be bad optics for the already beleaguered kingdom, and an act of complicity by the promoters and fighters in Saudi rights abuses
Although he will be there for just a short time, Hearn's whole business relies on the willingness of people to hurt themselves and others to pay for the privilege of seeing it live. The long term health and wellbeing of the boxers, however, is the victim of the whole ethically dubious sport. 
Losing brain function is not something money can compensate. Boxers, even if they retire, often receive a life sentence to a slowly collapsing brain, just as dozens of American football players have. But lasting brain injury in boxing is sometimes even more guaranteed than from playing on the football field, where some positions are more at risk than others. 
Boxing, by contrast, is the only sport where the primary goal is to injure the other player. 

Perhaps the case of legendary boxer Mohammed Ali provides the best example of this. 
Ali remains one of the greatest Americans to ever live, and at his time he was one of the first, most prominent Muslim Americans. His mind's power to inspire is what boxing took from the world, a tragically irreversible fate for the man who had once stood up to US militarism by refusing to fight in Vietnam, costing him a title and a huge sum of money and earning him a criminal charge. He was banned in 1967 from boxing in the US for three years, losing his livelihood, and being forced to pay a $10,000 fine. 
"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" Ali famously said, acknowledging that he was giving up millions of dollars for his stand.

"I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality."
Ali's words remain as a reminder of the enduring and continuing legacy of these enormous wrongs. Boxing, as a sport, deprived history of more of these statements, as Ali was rendered nearly mute in his later years. 
Boxing, as a martial art, is possible to practice more safely than prize-fighting. Olympic sparrers wear protective gear, and judges look to their technique more than their ability to give each other a dangerous concussion. But Olympic-style boxing does not draw the same crowds and publicity as brain injury profiteers like Hearn -- and his Saudi clients -- would have. 
Saudi Arabia may think hosting such events will 'sportwash' its image. And the promoters and (reluctant) boxers may think Saudi money is easy, consequence-free money. But when footage of the fight in Saudi Arabia will be broadcast, the spectacle of brutality for the sake of entertainment will only be bad optics for the already beleaguered kingdom, and an act of complicity by the promoters and fighters in Saudi rights abuses.

Just like boxing itself, the world doesn't need that.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture.

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.