What is it With Heavyweight Boxers and Brutal Dictators? | Opinion

First we had the "Rumble in the Jungle" when a kleptocrat ruler of Zaire spent $10m hosting Muhammad Ali's defeat of George Foreman, probably the most famous bout of all time.

A year later, in October 1975, there was the "Thrilla in Manila," where Ali picked up another $4m from another dictator, this time to slug it out with Joe Frazier in the Philippines.

Now, 44 years on, we have the prospect of the "Clash in the Dunes" which, even though it doesn't rhyme, lies firmly in tradition of world heavyweight title fights with catchy titles being held in unusual places ruled by not very nice people.

Forget Madison Square Garden or the O2 Centre, the re-match in December between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr will take place in... Saudi Arabia.

Well, I suppose if you had to pick someone in the world today who was cut from the same cloth as Mobutu Sese Seko and Ferdinand Marcos the obvious choice would be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS.)

Joshua's British promoter, Eddie Hearn, clearly didn't see the irony when he proclaimed the December fight could be as big as the two Ali contests.

Dodging questions about Saudi Arabia's human rights record, he said they were "well beyond my head as a sports organiser," which is convenient when you're getting $40m (£33m) to bring the fight to Diriyah.

"Sportswashing" is how repressive states use the lure and excitement of glamorous events, like boxing fights, to remove stains on their reputation and pretend everything in the garden is rosy.

It's a modern term for something which has been going on for centuries.

The Romans used gladiator fights to distract the populus from their poverty in the hope they would not revolt.

Hitler used it at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and in South Africa the apartheid regime were continually trying to get "rebel teams" to tour there to help present a facade of normality.

In 1974 the "Rumble in the Jungle" took place in Zaire against a backdrop of widespread human rights violations with Seke accumulating a personal wealth of $15bn while his country was mired in extreme poverty.

Anyone who challenged his regime was put to death and on the night of the fight Seke rounded up 1,000 criminals and held them in rooms under the stadium. To ensure they didn't get out of line, he had 100 of them executed.

The "Thrilla in Manila" was held in a country which had already been under martial law for three years.

Ferdinand Marcos looted his country's economy of billions of dollars for the benefit of himself and his family, silenced the media and used oppression against any political opposition.

Under his rule the despot racked up over 35,000 torture cases, 70,000 incarcerations, 50,000 enforced disappearances and 3257 murders.

In terms of shear brutality, the modern day equivalent of is Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest sportswasher.

According to the CIA, its de-facto ruler, MBS, most likely ordered the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the Yemen War, now in its fifth year, is the worst humanitarian disaster of our time.

Up to 70,000 people have been killed, mostly Yemenis and two-thirds of these from Saudi-led air strikes. Millions are on the brink of famine.

Then there are the stonings, the public executions, the persecution of minorities and the continued incarceration of women rights activists peacefully demanding an end to the oppressive male guardianship system.

To deflect from all the bad publicity this generated, Saudi Arabia began promoting huge World Wrestling Entertainment events in 2014, with the first televised one in April 2018, called "The Greatest Royal Rumble."

Last year tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal came under pressure from human rights groups to pull out of an exhibition match in Jeddah shortly after Khashoggi's murder.

The Italian Supercoppa soccer match went ahead in Saudi Arabia in January and, shortly after that, it was golf's turn with the arrival of the European tour – all with the cries of foul from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch ringing in their ears.

For each event players have to weigh their consciences with their careers and bank balances, and boxing is no different.

Amnesty's UK head of campaigns Felix Jakens urged Joshua, from London, to "inform himself of the human rights situation."

But Hearn was in no mood for second thoughts, going as far as to suggest that the negative publicity could be a good thing because it would make the fight bigger, "an event of extraordinary magnitude."

For magnitude, read SKY pay-per-view hits.

It's not just human rights campaigners who have hit out, with some in the boxing world also calling it a "low-blow for the sport" and the victory of "money over morals."

Ruiz, the Mexican-American champion who caused an upset when he beat Joshua in June, initially bridled at the Saudi announcement—not because of any human rights concerns, but because he wanted a re-match on home soil.

He had to cave in, however, when it was pointed out that he had signed a contract to fight a re-match—and was just now being informed where it would take place.

With both boxers now committed to the fight, the authorities are pressing ahead with the £80m preparations for the bout at a temporary stadium being built on the outskirts of Riyadh.

Dismissing Ruiz' security concerns Hearn said: "You gotta understand, this is a government, royal family affair, where everything will be absolute perfection—perfection."

In other words, stand by for some serious sportswashing by the Saudi state.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts