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Hearn dismisses 'sportswashing' concerns over Ruiz-Joshua rematch in Saudi Arabia

‘I mean… I don’t understand that term.’

Eddie Hearn (left) during a press conference at The Savoy Hotel, London.
Eddie Hearn (left) during a press conference at The Savoy Hotel, London.
Image: Ian Walton

BOXING PROMOTER EDDIE Hearn has dismissed the blowback over his decision to stage Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight world-title rematch with unified champion Andy Ruiz in Saudi Arabia, a nation with an appalling back catalogue of human rights abuses.

Groups such as Amnesty International and vast portions of the wider public contend that the highly anticipated sequel, and the uber-marketable Joshua in particular, will be complicit in ‘sportswashing’, wherein the repressive Saudi government can sanitize its global image by way of staging a major sporting event on its soil.

In an interview with Rob Harris of the Associated Press, Hearn claimed he didn’t understand the term ‘sportswashing’, evading what he described as “political-based questions” when challenged on issues such as the potential persecution and prosecution of LGBT Joshua fans if they were to travel to the Gulf state.

He rejected any criticism regarding the venue for the fight, for choosing which it’s understood Joshua and Matchroom Boxing were heftily compensated.

Instead, Hearn claimed Matchroom were merely following the lead of other sporting organisations — such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), golf’s European Tour, and the Italian FA — in staging a major event in a region previously unexposed to such global sporting occasions.

“Every promoter under the sun has been trying to land a mega fight in the Middle East for many, many years,” Hearn said. “I’m the one that’s done it, and with that comes a little bit of a stick because we’re the trailblazers behind that.

“We knew the criticism we may face when we announced this, but we’re following organisations — which it pains me to say are considerably bigger than Matchroom — who have been there, who have had success there, who have grown their sports there, and have actually had events that the general public in Saudi have absolutely loved, and that international fans have loved as well.

“And it’s our job to make sure that the fans in Britain are aware it’s very easy to attend this fight. You are issued a visa when you buy a ticket: men, women — all welcome to this event.

“So, the political questions which are above my head are one thing, but the answers that I can give you from an event perspective have to be answered because a lot of the stuff that I’m seeing is actually incorrect in terms of the event and how accessible it will be.

“9:30[pm] UK start time for fans on their sofa, or a six-hour flight and entry into Saudi like that,” Hearn added with a click of his fingers.

“So, we’ve got to make sure that as many fans attend the event as possible.”

However, the aforementioned LGBT community and others, such as Joshua fans with Israeli passports, would either be risking their personal safety or simply find it difficult to enter the Arabic nation in the first place — political issues which Hearn said he understood but couldn’t address in his position as a promoter.

“Well, that’s one that’s above my head as a sports promoter. You’re asking me questions that are more political-based.

I’m a sports promoter, and how I answer that is that they (Saudi Arabia) have a vision for the sport of boxing, and a vision for sport. You either believe in that — or you think that has potential — or you refer to other stories, which, you know, I understand as well.

Those stories include the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year — a killing in which the Saudi state has denied any involvement by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but as evidenced by its own investigation was planned by two of the prince’s top aides.

“But what I can tell you is, as a sports promoter, as someone who’s promoting the sport of boxing, I believe that Saudi Arabia and other countries in that territory are going to be huge players in the sport of boxing,” Hearn continued.

Sportswashing… You know, if you’re creating huge events that the public are enjoying, and are actively growing — in terms of participation, in terms of event experience — I mean… I don’t understand that term.

“What I do know is that all of the events that they’ve been running have been hugely accepted by the public, enjoyed by the public, and you will see when Joshua fights Ruiz in Saudi Arabia, that the public will love this event; they will grow the sport of boxing in that region.

“We’re a huge organisation. We’re not as huge as the other people that I mentioned. We spoke to all those people, we did our research. All those people had a fantastic experience — from an event experience, from a commercial experience, from a logistical experience — and we followed suit.”

Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua File Photo Andy Ruiz lands a right hand on Anthony Joshua. Source: Nick Potts

Asked by Rob Harris if there are any countries in the world which Hearn would consider off-limits from an event-promotional standpoint, the Matchroom chief replied: “I don’t think there’s been a demand for a fight in North Korea. I think that’s a funny old question.

“But I think that any country that is staging significant events, as a sports promoter, you certainly have to consider if there’s potential for growth in that region.”

Neither Anthony Joshua nor Andy Ruiz were present at Monday’s press conference confirming their rematch.

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