Joshua vs Fury: Will the size of Saudi Arabia's wallet be enough for boxing to turn a blind eye to 'sportwashing'?

Tom Morgan
·8-min read
Promoter Eddie Hearn and Anthony Joshua celebrate - ACTION IMAGES
Promoter Eddie Hearn and Anthony Joshua celebrate - ACTION IMAGES

Saudi Arabia is expected to table an offer in the region of £150 million to host the fight of the century between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury. The pair will also share around £95m in pay-per-view fees in a potential split with four major broadcasters as part of the biggest deal in British boxing history.

Logistical headaches around hiring and then selling tickets for a 90,000 venue midway through the pandemic has all-but-ended hopes of the first fight taking place in London or Las Vegas. As a result, a bidding war begins in earnest in the Middle and Far East, with Saudi Arabia facing the most serious rival offers from Shanghai and Singapore for the first bout.

An upfront offer from Saudi Arabia is already the front-runner, with analysts predicting a deal at least double the £70m fee it paid for Joshua's rematch against Andy Ruiz Jnr. However, the potential choice of location for one of the biggest British sporting spectacles of the modern era has already worried human rights campaigners. Here Telegraph Sport scrutinises the potential two-fight deal which is likely to be worth at least £400m...

Why Saudi?

As far as the promoters are concerned, an upfront fee from Saudi Arabia is by far the fastest and easiest route to getting a fight done mid-pandemic. Such is the determination within the nation's ruling family to become "the home of live sport" that it is creating a new city, called Neom, near the Red Sea, that is costing £400 billion.

The state's leaders, keen to enhance their status on the global stage, will table the highest offer because they will need to offset the potential corporate disadvantages of smaller venues and a lack of sponsorship opportunities for gambling and alcohol firms, who are banned.

Joshua has already staged a "Clash on the Dunes" in 2019 in the newly-constructed 15,000-seater Diriyah Arena for his rematch with Ruiz Jr. Fury has also fought in Riyadh under bizarre circumstances when he joined WWE for a one-off fight against the 6ft 8in "Monster Among Men" Braun Strowman.

Anthony Joshua stages a 'Clash on the Dunes' against Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia in 2019 - PA
Anthony Joshua stages a 'Clash on the Dunes' against Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia in 2019 - PA

Omar Khalil, who works for Skill Challenge Sport and Entertainment Agency, the company in charge of running the Joshua-Ruiz rematch, could play a central role in getting the Saudi deal done. "We are a demographic of 40 million people and 70 per cent are below 24 years old," he said last year. "So the appetite for such events is huge. This event is a continuation of the plan Saudi is working on to enhance that population's quality of life and overall wellbeing."

Show me the money

An offer of up to £150m from Saudi for a fight in June or July would be just the start for the two British heavyweights. The contract would have the fighters getting a 50-50 split in the first bout and a 60-40 split in the rematch where the winner would get the higher share. Expect fireworks.

A controversial first fight will only raise the potential value even further for the rematch, when there will be pressure on promoter Eddie Hearn and his counterpart Bob Arum to deliver a blockbuster British or American venue in October.

While 90,000-plus fans at Wembley would be the most obvious choice, the unpredictable weather might prompt the promoters to consider Cardiff and its retractable roof. Los Angeles or Vegas will also be considered if broadcast interest catches fire in America. The two fights will also be by far the most lucrative TV deals in British boxing history. "I can’t speak for people we don’t represent but this is the biggest fight in boxing so there’s going to be a huge amount of money on the table," Hearn recently told Telegraph Sport.

Eddie Hearn and Anthony Joshua on stage - GETTY IMAGES
Eddie Hearn and Anthony Joshua on stage - GETTY IMAGES

A Tyson-Holyfield-style arrangement where the deal would be shared on a pay-per-view basis between four broadcasters - ESPN, DAZN, BT Sport Box Office and Sky Sports Box Office - has been mooted as Fury has long-term connections with BT, while Hearn has a partnership with Sky. "No meetings, no discussions," said Hearn of current broadcasting arrangements. "Obviously Sky will be broadcasting the fight. AJ is the one with the exclusive deal in the UK but the general feeling among the broadcasters is that there’s no push back on a dual-airing of this event on those platforms, and I do believe that’s what will happen."

At £30 per head on the night, the pair would be in line to share around £75m in the UK alone, with analysts suggesting 2.5 million homes could tune in. Globally, another million viewers can be expected, raising another £20m.

James Begley, chief executive at branding specialists Pickstar as well as the Vlast agency, said the fight was almost "once in a lifetime" in terms of its commercial appeal in the sporting world.

"The superfight is not just the coming together of two of boxing’s biggest names, it’s also the match-up of the polar opposite personalities in the sport," he said. "The estimated £400m generated by this two-fight deal will come from a number of sources. Physical ticket sales, merchandise, pay-per-view access, the sale of broadcast rights to networks and to satellite distribution networks, advertising, and potential sponsorship deals will ensure this is a game-changer for British boxing...

"The reason why this fight will be so big is simply because of the personalities on show, and their teams' ability to maximise the commercial opportunities for their talent. Fury and Joshua’s paths have seen them become the two stand-out names in the heavyweight division globally. Adding all these driving forces together means that overnight, both fighters could well join the list of the highest-paid British athletes of all-time."

What are the key players saying?

Hearn announced the two fighters had finally put pen to paper on Monday, but said a site had yet to be agreed. However, he is known to have been in contact with Saudi Arabia several times in recent weeks. "Saudi just did Formula E and the golf, they are not slowing down the development of sport," he sad.

Wherever the fight is staged, both boxers must be in full agreement. The fact that both Joshua and Fury have already appeared in Saudi strengthens Hearn's chances of taking them back to the Diriyah Arena.

Tyson Fury (right) squares up to Braun Strowman - GETTY IMAGES
Tyson Fury (right) squares up to Braun Strowman - GETTY IMAGES

Fury has told Telegraph Sport that it is too early to comment, but the parties say the location must be agreed upon within 30 days or the deal is off. Last week, Hearn said: "I spoke to them (Saudi Arabia) and we have a catch-up call on Monday. They told me 100 per cent they want to stage the fight but Saudi are just one of six or seven we’re talking to. I think Saudi is a definite possibility. We all have to agree to where the fight will take place and what the money is. But ultimately we didn’t want to go out and start going through that process until everyone is signed. Both parties and promoters have to be happy with the financial and site deal."

He previously said the choice of Saudi over Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar for the Ruiz fight had been because, "we wanted to go somewhere that had a vision for the sport of boxing".

"We already knew Saudi Arabia was for real and investing in the sport. We have to realise that there is another world out there outside of Cardiff and Madison Square Garden," he added.

But what about the human rights controversies?

The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been disastrous for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his drive to earn new Western allies. He has pressed ahead with dramatic reform to modernise Saudi but campaigners have repeatedly said his attempts to invest in sport - including the failed £300m takeover at Newcastle United - were distracting from alleged human rights abuses of the country's population.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, says she would be concerned by the prospect of Fury-Joshua taking place in the state at a time when Joe Biden has reportedly received declassified intelligence that names bin Salman as complicit in the grisly murder of Khashoggi. Allen told Telegraph Sport: “If this fight takes place in Saudi Arabia, it will come as no surprise to see the Saudi authorities once again using a major sporting event as a means to sportswash its atrocious human rights record. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants people around the world to be talking about sport in Saudi Arabia, not the dissidents being locking up after sham trials or the people being tortured in Saudi jails.”