Given that they signed up for a fight venue dictated by nothing but money, it was somehow fitting that Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jnr staged their arrival ceremony in Saudi Arabia in a designer shopping mall.
Beyond the “Clash on the Dunes” billboards, there was little attempt to evoke the symbolism of the desert or the mysteries of an ancient land, as the two fighters strode down a black carpet encircled by Prada and Gucci boutiques. Ruiz, sporting a wristwatch studded with more diamonds than an Elizabeth Taylor necklace, looked as if he had bought up half the place himself.
In contrast to other Eddie Hearn productions, there were no upturned tables or profane insults hurled across a crowded room. Local custom decreed that both men had to be on their best behaviour, especially with scores of Saudi dignitaries in the welcome party. Not that either had much temptation to deviate from the script, with austere, puritanical Riyadh the diametric opposite of boxing’s customary Las Vegas circus. Cooped up in separate wings of the Al Faisaliah hotel, their primary concern is to avoid each other at breakfast.
Why in the world are we here? If one believes the official PR spiel, the intention is to trigger a Saudi sports revolution, where thousands of children start taking to school gyms in emulation of their distinguished visitors. More accurate is to say that wealth, here in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, trumps all. Joshua, whose estimated earnings for this fight have been put as high as £59 million, might never have a greater payday. Ruiz, having built a vast ranch on the mesquite scrub outside his home town of Imperial, California, is set for life. Even Hearn, who could rival Ray Winstone with his gift of the gab, turns unusually quiet when asked about the size of the purse.
If the prelude to this strange spectacle has been dominated by allegations of Saudi “sportswashing”, then fight week itself is awash with Chinese whispers. Joshua’s physical condition is one subject on which it is impossible to reach agreement. Ahead of his first bout with Ruiz at Madison Square Garden, Hearn crowed that his boxer had never been lighter. Come the weigh-in, it turned out that he had never been heavier.
The same applied this time: no sooner had Joshua spoken of his reinvention as a fighter, or of losing muscle in an effort to be quicker and more nimble around the ring, than a report surfaced that he had been seriously hurt in sparring. This is, of course, his camp’s deepest fear: that a perfect punch, just like the one with which Ruiz floored him in the third round in New York, could lay him out once more. Within minutes, his support team were scurrying around the Centria mall to deny any suggestion of an injury.
Joshua is trying to salvage his lost pride this week, and already he is dialling up the bravado. “I’m going to whoop him, show how great I am,” he said. “I’m apparently fighting the best in the division. People think he’s that great, so when I beat him I want everyone to bow to me. I’m confident, because I’ve prepared really well for this fight. It’s not just physical, it’s mental.” Pressed for a prediction on the Saturday night showdown in Diriyah, he laughed. “A knockout – by me.”
Glaringly, Joshua and Ruiz are changed people from that extraordinary Manhattan evening seven months ago. For a start Joshua, normally a placid and eloquent talker, is swearing with an abandon of which his God-fearing parents would doubtless disapprove, referring frequently to his “f--- you attitude”. Ruiz, likewise, is no longer the “little fat Mexican”, as he once gleefully caricatured himself. He is trimmer, richer, cockier, swaggering in for his interviews with an entourage of more than a dozen.
Now that Ruiz has achieved distinction far exceeding his own expectations, Joshua is entitled to wonder if his opponent’s motivation is quite what it was. That suspicion, it would seem, is misplaced. “We’ve got to see where he’s at, because all the pressure is on him,” Ruiz said. “It isn’t on me, because I followed my dream, made all my dreams come true. But naturally, I want more.”
This weekend, on the desert sands of Diriyah, the boxers’ blithe assertions will be put to a decisive test. As with the Rumble in the Jungle in Mobutu’s Zaire, sport is about to set down roots in an unfamiliar land, at the inducement of an autocratic regime. For Hearn, the sheer mountain of cash justifies the gamble. For Joshua, though, none of the trash-talk can mask the vestiges of vulnerability. In terms of his bank balance, he can afford to keep grinning. In terms of his image, he has everything to lose.