For boxing fans it was one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year, but Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight fight against Andy Ruiz Jr was also controversial.
Joshua was to earn a career-high fee of about ￡60 million (US$78.84 million) yesterday when facing Ruiz in the ancient Saudi Arabian city of Diriyah, on the outskirts of Riyadh.
However, human rights groups have reacted with horror and warned the British boxer that he is being duped by a regime trying to “sportswash” its international image.
Amnesty UK head of campaigns Felix Jakens said that while they never expected Joshua to be an overnight expert, “if you’re fighting for big money in a country with a human rights record as bad as Saudi Arabia, then you’d be well advised to counter criticism by speaking out about human rights issues.”
“The fight is pure sportswashing and that’s why it’s so important to challenge the Saudi propaganda machine and its increased use of sport to gloss over its abysmal human rights record,” Jakens said. “Joshua has a record of supporting charities here in Britain and we’d hope he’d be prepared to voice concern for people like the jailed Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.”
Al-Hathloul was among at least a dozen women arrested last year as Saudi Arabia ended a ban on women driving cars, for which many of the detainees had long campaigned.
The Saudi Arabian government has said that hosting the “Clash on the Dunes” — the first heavyweight title fight to be staged in the Middle East — is part of an initiative to get more people active, boost living standards and open up the kingdom to tourists.
Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, chairman of the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia, said that “no country is perfect,” but Saudi Arabia had made drastic reforms in the past two years, such as allowing women to drive and attend sporting events unaccompanied, as part of its “Vision 2030” plans.
“It’s all well and good the Saudi sports minister smiling for the cameras ahead of a glitzy, multimillion-pound boxing match, but he must know that people are being arrested on a regular basis in Saudi Arabia simply for daring to voice criticism of his government,” Jakens said.
Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, said that the fight was just the start of things to come.
“They want to make Saudi the home of boxing,” he said. “If they’re going to be investing this kind of money in the sport, we’ve got to be realists. Everyone’s coming and they’re all coming for one reason: they want the money.”
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