The highly anticipated world heavyweight title rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr is due to take place tonight in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. Boxing fans have been quick to point out that Saudi Arabia has no boxing culture or history, which may not warrant it hosting such a big fight. The fight’s controversial location has also drawn a deluge of criticism due to the Saudi government’s involvement in a long list of human rights violations.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations are numerous and well-documented, but possibly the most contentious issue surrounding the decision to host this fight on Saudi soil is the nation’s rife sexism. To describe Saudi Arabia — a nation which only began to allow its female population to apply for driver’s licenses in 2018 — as being slow to grant women equal rights would be a monumental understatement. The oppression of women is evident in all areas of Saudi society, including sport.
Although two female athletes represented Saudi Arabia for the first time at the London 2012 Olympics in an act of tokenism to appease the International Olympic Committee, Saudi women were prevented in law from entering sports stadiums until 2018 (although unofficially, women are still not allowed in sporting venues). Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn’s willingness to remove women’s bouts from the card in order to respect Saudi Arabia’s misogynistic culture is a great disservice to the female fighters he represents. Four of the last five Matchroom Boxing shows have featured female fighters so it seems extremely unlikely that their absence at this event is due to anything other than the sexism of the host nation.
Boxing promoters are not known for their integrity but Hearn’s response to this criticism has been even weaker than expected. Journalists have repeatedly challenged him on the issue but he has dodged questions and made vague, misleading comments regarding women’s inclusion in the event (both as fighters and spectators).
This ordeal has demonstrated, once again, that money talks. Although both Hearn & AJ have uncomfortably acknowledged the issues surrounding the fight’s location, moral discomfort could not dissuade them from their tainted cash, with Joshua pocketing a cool £70m paycheck. It is disappointing to see Anthony Joshua shy away from taking a moral or political stance when history has given us so many principled athletes who have used their sporting platforms to protest injustice.
In 1906, Irish long jumper Peter O’Connor travelled to Greece to compete in the Olympic Games. O’Connor believed that he would be representing Ireland but upon his arrival was outraged to find that there would be no Irish team, just Great Britain. At the flag-raising ceremony, the Union Jack was raised in honour of O’Connor’s silver medal. He scaled the flagpole (guarded by his teammate and countryman Con Leahy) and unfurled a green Irish flag emblazoned with a gold harp, shamrocks and the words ‘Erin Go Bragh’.
In the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Milton Green of the United States and Albert Wolff of France (among other athletes) boycotted the games in protest of the virulent anti-semitism in Nazi Germany. Jesse Owens, a black American athlete whose displays of physical prowess in the games had angered Hitler, gave an American-style salute on the podium (as opposed to the Sieg Heil). Naoto Tajima, the Japanese silver medalist, also declined to salute Hitler.
In 1967, Kathy Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon after signing in as ‘K.V. Switzer’. Officials attempted to drag her off the course but were unable to restrain her due to her sheer determination to compete.
1967 was also the year that Muhammad Ali famously refused to be drafted into the US army to fight in the Vietnam War, saying ‘why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?’.
1968 saw Tommie Smith and John Carlos step onto the Olympic podium with heads bowed and fists raised — an iconic Black Power salute in protest of racism and injustice faced by African-Americans in the United States.
In 1973, Billie Jean King formed the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973. She then threatened to lead a boycott of the US Open if the prize money for women was not raised to match the men’s.
In recent years, there has been a spate of public activism from black American sportspeople in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and numerous other African Americans who were killed in racially motivated incidents, at the hands of police, or whilst in police custody. NFL player Colin Kaepernick famously refused to stand for the US national anthem. He said, ‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people…To me this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way’.
It is regrettable that with Anthony Joshua’s monumental platform and media presence, he has chosen to look the other way. Had he demanded the fight take place elsewhere to take a moral stand against grave injustice and oppression, he could have stood to win much more than the world heavyweight title.