Dec 6, 2019

The year's biggest boxing match highlights Saudi Arabia's "sportswashing"

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz Jr. will try to replicate his stunning victory over Anthony Joshua in Saturday's rematch. It's a compelling sports story and arguably the year's biggest fight, but the controversial location — Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — casts a dark shadow.

Why it matters: Saudi Arabia's global reputation was starkly affected by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi a year ago, and the country has been accused of hosting sporting events to divert attention away from that story and other human rights abuses, while rebranding itself and boosting tourism.

  • In addition to boxing, WWE wrestling, ATP Tour golf, Formula E racing and the Italian Super Cup (soccer) have all recently been staged there.
  • In the next month alone, it will host the Dakar rally, the Spanish Super Cup, an international tennis event and a European Tour golf tournament (Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy turned down multi-million dollar appearance fees).

What they're saying: Joshua's promoter Eddie Hearn sees nothing wrong with hosting the fight in Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis want a more positive image worldwide by bringing in events. But isn't that what they should be doing? They have got to change, and they are changing."

  • "The plan is to make Saudi Arabia the home of mega boxing," Hearn added. "All due respect to Las Vegas, but this place has the ability to bring any fight they want here. ... I also believe that no one has the right to tell a fighter how and where they can earn their money."

The other side: Amnesty International has warned that the Saudis are using this fight to "sportswash" their image.

  • "All over the world, countries are using sport to promote a welcoming picture on the international stage, which often masks a very different reality for ordinary people living in those countries — and when the media circus rolls out of town, things go back to being as bad as they ever were."

The bottom line: "Another lucrative new frontier has emerged in the world of sport. But it may present those tempted to come here with as many quandaries as it does opportunities," writes the BBC's Dan Roan.

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