Tyson Fury v Anthony Joshua confirmed for Saudi Arabia, says Eddie Hearn

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Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearn - Reuters
Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearn - Reuters

The clash between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury for the undisputed world heavyweight title will be held in an indoor stadium being built by the Saudi Arabian backers for the £200 million fight, the promoter Eddie Hearn revealed on Thursday.

Both parties are still agreeing final terms over the Aug 14 fight date, described by Hearn as “a done deal”. However, a source from Fury’s team indicated to Telegraph Sport on Thursday night that “nothing is signed” and may not be until next week.

But Joshua’s promoter said the focus was on a venue to stage the event. “They want to build a new stadium,” Hearn told Sky Sports. “They have indoors options. In August at 11pm it will be about 23C.

“They want to create something special. Last time they built a stadium for the [Joshua] Andy Ruiz Jnr fight in seven weeks and it held 18,000. This will be a similar set-up. They have the opportunity to hold it indoors but they want to create something that will shock the world. They want to build a stadium just for this fight.”

Hearn disclosed that the religious celebration of Eid in Saudi Arabia was the reason that Fury’s team had not yet received the full financial documents from the hosts, which is what is likely to either seal the deal or mean that the contest is delayed.

Sources have said that the final sticking points “are still to be agreed” with the Middle East financiers underwriting the richest and biggest fight in British boxing history.

Hearn is relishing the mental and physical battle that will go on between the two protagonists. “When the announcement comes and the press conferences start, the pleasantries will go away and it will become personal,” he said.

"It doesn’t matter who respects who. Both sides are desperate to win because this is everything.

“There are no fun and games. It’s ‘them and us’. AJ will go to war with Fury. He has plans to absolutely demolish him. That’s what I believe he will do. In the meantime we will go through the build-up, which will be a lot of fun, before the biggest event of 2021.”

The move to stage the fight in Saudi Arabia has dismayed the fiancee of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi and human rights campaigners.

Hearn overlooked repeated human rights warnings by instead hailing the “fantastic” Middle East organisers. Joshua, he suggested, was “very comfortable” with the choice, having fought there in 2019 against Andy Ruiz Jnr.

Hatice Cengiz, whose husband-to-be was assassinated at the Saudi consulate of Istanbul by agents of the state in 2018, said last month the deal would be “shameful”.

Rodney Dixon QC, her lawyer, said the announcement was “very upsetting news for my client” and that the Saudi regime was ­effectively being “rewarded, instead of being called out for their shocking deeds.” He added: “Hatice has urged the organisers to resist the temptations of big prize money and stand instead for justice. It is not too late to do the right thing.”

Amnesty International expressed disgust again, as Hearn said both men were happy to trust the Saudis with one of the biggest fights in British boxing history.

Within hours of Joshua telling Fury he was “tired of waiting” amid a tit-for-tat blame game for the delay, Hearn said: “From our and AJ’s perspective, we’re ready to go.”

The nation, which is thought to be paying around £107 million to stage the fight, had “delivered on every one of their promises” for Joshua’s fight against Ruiz in 2019, Hearn insisted.

Chris Evans MP, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on boxing, said the UK Government had missed a trick in failing to intervene to ensure “the historic moment” was brought to Wembley.

Meanwhile, Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, urged Joshua and Fury to at least condemn the nation’s “atrocious human rights record”.

She said that Saudi Arabia was “yet again trying to shift the media spotlight away” from its jailing of activists including Loujain al-Hathloul, the murder of Khashoggi and “its indiscriminate bombing of civilians in neighbouring Yemen”. “When he fought in Saudi Arabia in 2019 it was disappointing that Anthony Joshua ducked the issue of human rights, and this time we hope he and his opponent can speak out in the build-up to the fight,” she said.

Dr Andreas Krieg, of King’s College London and the Royal College of Defence Studies, said victims of the Saudi regime would see this deal as the state successfully “glossing over” its crimes. “This is not just about greed or selling out sport,” he said. “It’s about indirectly supporting and normalising a regime which in no way has any overlap with our ethics and morals and laws in this country.” Fury has yet to respond.

Analysis: What does Saudi Arabia really want from sport?

Success in bringing the Joshua-Fury fight to Saudi is among the most audacious raid for a sporting event by Riyadh backers.

Academics insist there is method behind the madness of Saudi’s sudden sporting obsession.

“This is bread and circus to fill the civil societal space,” says Dr Andreas Krieg, of King's College London and the Royal College of Defence Studies. Audacious sporting bids are domestic appeasement in a nation where political debate is potentially deadly. “The public sphere is entirely consumed by entertainment and sports because you’re not allowed to speak about societal or political issues.”

With jail and floggings among reported punishments for dissidents of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the social media void is filled by the country’s rulers drip feed sporting and entertainment gossip. Hype around Saudi hosting Formula 1 this year as well as a previous Anthony Joshua fight in Riyadh dominated national dialogue for weeks, with Saudi Arabians now accounting for the eighth biggest population of Twitter users globally.

Observers say life in the country is more authoritarian than ever since MBS came to power. The murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been disastrous for MBS’ efforts to earn new Western allies, but domestically the case is just one of countless claims of human rights atrocities.

“The very strict enforcement of Sharia law simply goes beyond what Islam intended,” the academic adds. “It’s quite literally chopping people’s hands and heads off, and capital punishment is being used routinely against minors.”

Pressure on MBS following Joe Biden's election to the White House has led to prisoners of conscience being freed in recent weeks, but Krieg says there can be no moral justification for bringing a major fight to a nation where citizens have been imprisoned just for campaigning on women’s driving rights.

“These people were imprisoned because there can be zero toleration of any form of opposition, any form of critical voices, whether online or offline,” he adds. “When you think about Saudi we always thought about a more repressive, authoritarian country, but it was never as bad as it is under MBS, because at least there was some sort of discourse going on - now it is absolutely zero tolerance.”

Aside from helping fill the vacuum in public debate, bringing big sport to Saudi also helps MBS attempt to convince the world he is a global player. Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), is among the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world due to the oil boom of the previous century, with total estimated assets of almost £300 billion. It has become a so-called “piggy bank” for MBS, who is reported to have extracted funds directly from it to add to the total pot for Joshua’s previous fight in Riyadh against Andy Ruiz Jr.

What else is motivating the Saudi sporting takeover? Much of MBS’ competitiveness is drawn from a ‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’ eye on progress on his contemporaries in Qatar and UAE. One has the World Cup, the other owns Manchester City. MBS’ trump card in return is his extraordinary ambition to build an equivalent of Dubai from scratch - the 10,230 square mile Neom development that could cost £400bn. The shiny marketing materials suggest the city could one day become a major international sporting hub, perhaps one day staging an international sporting competition, but observers, again, are sceptical.

Dr Krieg says progress at the site currently amounts to an airport and little else as questions mount over the stability of Saudi's long term financial outlook with oil prices unstable. “Nobody has any real numbers on unemployment but they are at more than 25 per cent among 18 year olds to 35 year olds,” he says.

Bill Law, a Middle East analyst and editor of Arab Digest, says much of MBS’ Vision 2030 - a dramatic remaking of the Saudi economy and Saudi society - will be dependent on sport as “a big part of that agenda”.

The ambition promises to encourage women into sport, creating 40,000 new jobs, but has effectively justified authorities in using the PIF to pursue Newcastle, F1, and now potentially tabling a £100million-plus offer for the Fury-Joshua fight.

“MBS will take anything he can get his hands on because it gives him a much better image and it feeds into his narrative that Saudi Arabia is open and changing, becoming moderate,” Law says.

“He's been very successful in engaging sports. Yeah. I wouldn't be surprised to see Major League Baseball have an exhibition series too. It's all too irresistible for these big sporting bodies.”

The Joshua-Fury fight or indeed attempts to bankroll the controversial golfing breakaway will do little to benefit soaring numbers of unemployed, Law explains. “As much as these sporting events are popular with young Saudis, most of them quite frankly can’t afford to go to them because they don’t have jobs,” he said.

“He needs to deliver over a million jobs, and he’s showing no signs of doing that. Young Saudis can’t get married because they can't afford to get on the housing ladder. So while he's bringing in all of these splashy big sporting events, and spending hugely on Neom, the basics are not getting done. And I think the longer that goes on, and the more the oil revenues contract, the more difficult it's going to be for him. That's where again sports-washing is useful.”

A version of this analysis first appeared on May 6

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