Eddie Hearn, managing director of Matchroom Sport, explains how Ruiz vs Joshua 2 came to be hosted Saudi Arabia and suggests it could be an era-defining night for boxing.
On October 30, it will be exactly 35 years since the Rumble in the Jungle, which pitted world heavyweight champions George Foreman against Muhammad Ali – one of boxing’s most iconic matches. The bout, in Kinshasa (then Zaire), was designed to take boxing to a wider audience and a year later, Ali was playing the role of boxing missionary again when he fought in the Thriller in the Manila.
Though both contests were memorable, they did not prove to be watershed in terms of boxing’s ambitions for global domination. The world’s biggest fights since then – both in terms of profile, purse and pay-per-view numbers, have almost exclusively taken place in Las Vegas.
This December, however, an unfamiliar destination will be etched into the annals of heavyweight history, when Andy Ruiz Jr defends his belt against Anthony Joshua. Ruiz vs Joshua 2, the ‘Clash on the Dunes’, will take place in Al Diriyah, Saudi Arabia.
Many were understandably stunned by the decision to host one of the sport’s most eagerly anticipated rematches in the Kingdom, a left-field location with little boxing heritage.
But after years of false dawns in terms of bringing a blockbuster boxing event to the Middle East, renowned promoter Eddie Hearn finally pushed it over the line.
🗣 “Ruiz is the best Heavyweight out there at the minute. I’m focused on what’s in front of me, I’m walking straight to it. I can’t wait to trade some leather!“ – @anthonyfjoshua#RuizJoshua2 #ClashOnTheDunes pic.twitter.com/QJRpLTXiQV— Matchroom Boxing (@MatchroomBoxing) September 6, 2019
“Our mind was set on Cardiff after turning down America but then Saudi Arabia came in really later in the day,” Hearn recalls to Sport Industry Insider. “Actually it started with an Instagram message that was sent to me about potentially hosting it in Saudi. I responded saying if it was serious we really had to get moving on it and soon I was talking to Prince Khalid [bin Sultan Al Faisal Al Saud] – he was telling me how much they wanted to make it happen.
“Honestly, I was a bit blunt with him because I’ve probably had two dozen conversations with people in the Middle East about bringing major fights there in the past – as probably every other promoter in boxing has – but it has always come to nothing. We’ve had approaches from Qatar and Abu Dhabi about Joshua before but you kind of lose belief that anything will ever happen.
“Amazingly, the whole thing was wrapped up in less than a week, from the first conversations to the contracts being signed. Considering how much money we’re taking about, they moved very, very quickly on it. It was a surprise.”
The figure that Saudi Arabia paid to host he fight has not been confirmed, with guesses varying wildly from $40 million to upwards of $100m. And while the chance to develop boxing in a new market was appealing, Hearn freely admits the money on offer was a major motivation.
“It’s a fight at the end of the day and our job is to provide the best opportunity financially, for the fighters,” Hearn says. “They paid great money for the event but actually we did have an offer for more from another side. The whole package felt right here. Ruiz didn’t want to fight in the UK so the fact this was a neutral venue suited him. And also Prince Khalid’s passion for boxing and desire to host it.”
Ruiz vs Joshua 2 will be the third time in 14 months that Saudi Arabia has hosted elite boxing. Amir Khan headlined an event in Jeddah in July and the World Boxing Super Series Final, whose bill was topped by Callum Smith beating George Groves, was the first foray into the Kingdom last October. Hearn was at Smith vs Groves in Jeddah and he admits a seed was planted that night.
“When the World Boxing Super Series announced Saudi Arabia as the venue for the final, I was one of many who couldn’t really believe what was going on. I didn’t know anything about Saudi Arabia as a country and went there with an open mind, though I was expecting it would be quite disorganised as it was something new.
“What I experienced was something completely different. The event was clockwork, the venue was stunning and the crowd had a really good energy. That’s probably what surprised me the most – two Brits were fighting in Saudi and the atmosphere was really good for them, and the undercard too. I’ve been to events in places like Germany where you can hear a pin drop and in Jeddah it was nothing like that. I definitely left thinking ‘this place has potential’.”
Since announcing Ruiz vs Joshua 2, Hearn has faced plenty of criticism – with fans and media questioning the logic of having the fight in Saudi Arabia. But he feels that most objections have been rooted in ignorance.
“No one has the right to tell a fighter where they can and can’t fight and it’s been very frustrating reading lies about the event and what you can and can’t do in Saudi Arabia,” Hearn explains.
“I’ll admit I’m still learning about Saudi myself but I do know that every sport event I’ve been to there, every time I’ve done any business, it has been a great experience. I will continue to judge it on what I see with my own eyes.
“I know there are problems, every country has got problems, but at the end of the day, I’m a sports promoter and I’m following some of the biggest organisations in the world, the likes of Formula E and the European Tour, in staging events in Saudi Arabia.
“When you look at the Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle, they were also events that were held in locations that surprised people. This is another one and I think the eyes of the world will be on Saudi Arabia to watch this fight on December 7.”
“If Saudi Arabia wants to become a new home of boxing it will bring a seismic change for the sport globally.”
There certainly appears to have been a boom in boxing’s popularity on the back of the World Boxing Super Series and Amir Khan’s fight in the Kingdom, but it is the potential for future growth that most excites Hearn.
“The message I’m getting is that Saudi Arabia want to make this a new home of boxing and they will be serious contenders for every mega-fight from now on. If that happens it will bring a seismic change for the sport globally.
“I try to tell people that there’s another world out there outside of Las Vegas and the O2. Britain and America are still leading the way in terms of live boxing but if the Middle East start backing the sport and investing money, it is only a good thing for the sport. Joshua-Ruiz could be just the start.”