Early morning muezzins and the salacious beats of shipped-in rap superstars have contributed a cacophonous backdrop to Anthony Joshua’s rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr. in Saudi Arabia tonight.
Not since Muhammad Ali shocked George Foreman atop the torture cells of the 20 May Stadium in Kinshasa in 1974 has a world heavyweight title fight stirred such a mixture of international intrigue and moral indignation.
Inconsistencies swirl in a city where the likes of Pitbull and Lil Wayne have held court for weeks, barking the kind of lyrics whose public enactment would invoke the death penalty in a country with the third highest execution rate on earth.
Somewhere at the centre of the sandstorm sits a boxing match which will earn its contestants a combined purse of over £70million and likely herald a lucrative new financial era not only for their division, but for the sport itself.
Unique backdrop aside, the rematch serves up the sort of intrigue that would make it stand out if it were staged in a regular Nevada casino or UK football stadium, never mind a temporary 16,000-seat arena in a dusty Saudi suburb.
Reeling from his knockout loss to late replacement Ruiz in their first fight in New York six months ago, Joshua knows another defeat will effectively end his carefully laid plans to unify the division and reign Ali-style over all corners of the globe.
For all the extraordinary hype and riches heaped upon Joshua since his Olympic triumph, he remains an essentially unproven fighter, subject to psychological frailties and alarmingly susceptible to a swinging left hook.
“I learned how to take a loss like a man, and to always be grateful for having a second opportunity to go again,” said Joshua. “It affected me, but not in a negative way. It will take more than that to knock a man like me back.
“I’m just another kid who’s got a chance to fight for the heavyweight title. That’s who you’re talking to now. For me it’s not about the rematch, it’s not about Andy. It’s the opportunity of a title shot.”
No fear in my heart. No fear in my eyes. No fear in my mind 👊🏾 pic.twitter.com/oZKOsUvxto
— Anthony Joshua (@anthonyfjoshua) December 6, 2019
Ruiz’s desire to prove he is more than a mere one-hit wonder in the mould of Buster Douglas or Hasim Rahman was undermined when he tipped the scales at 20 stone 3lbs – more than a stone heavier than the night he stunned the champion at Madison Square Garden.
Assuming Ruiz was not hiding something under his giant sombrero his weight gain exactly matched that put on by Douglas in the eight months between his conquering of Mike Tyson and his abject surrender to Evander Holyfield.
The scales tipped a previously 50-50 fight firmly in favour of a lighter and apparently better-trained Joshua, who must nevertheless still evade the crude swings of his opponent that slapped him to the canvas four times in New York.
I don’t know if he is going to try to box me around and beat me on points, but I am a good pressure fighter, an attacker, and I am going to be looking for that knockout
“I don’t know if he is going to try to box me around and beat me on points, but I am a good pressure fighter, an attacker, and I am going to be looking for that knockout,” said Ruiz.
“He has lost weight and we don’t know if he will have that same power. I think he will come in confident, but as Mike Tyson always said, everybody has a plan until they get hit.”
Such fight talk must be contextualised in a country in which public beheadings remain commonplace, and the stench of the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in October still lingers.
#JoshuaRuiz is an attempt by Saudi Arabia to 'sportswash' their despicable human rights record. @anthonyfjoshua should use this opportunity to speak out, otherwise Saudi Arabia will be literally getting away with murder. pic.twitter.com/jtSL3LTfRw
— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) December 5, 2019
For some, hauling the heavyweight caravan to Saudi is a step too far; for others, simply the latest incarnation in a history of dictator-driven duels which have seen the heavyweight title decided not only in Mobutu’s Zaire but under martial law in Manila in 1975, and even in war-ravaged Grozny.
Its defenders, chiefly promoter Eddie Hearn and its main backers at the country’s Public Investment Fund, point to the contest and its associated series of concerts as a catalyst for continued, creeping change in Saudi society.
But no amount of geniuses in the cavernous General Authority for Statistics, which hulks across the street from the main media fight hotel, could massage facts which leave Saudi Arabia languishing on lists for press freedom and extra-judicial killings.
If, as Hearn has indicated, the cash sums on offer make Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a boxing superpower inevitable, then a sport that has never exactly been a beacon of morality will be accused of selling what remains of its soul.
For the record – and sombrero secrets notwithstanding – Joshua ought now to have the clear edge over his opponent on a night fraught with difficulties, not only for his own heavyweight ambitions, but for the conscience of all those who are invested in it.