By Terry Dooley
Raging tribalism caused by two deeply entrenched worldviews. Smears, insults and half-truths or outright lies. Ugly spats caused by binary thinking that can rip even the most solid friendships apart.
You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m talking about the upcoming General Election rather than the rematch between unified heavyweight holder Andy Ruiz Jr. (33-1, 22 KOs) and Anthony Joshua (22-1, 21 KOs) at the Diriyah Arena in Saudi Arabia this evening. The split between some Joshua fans and Ruiz ones — or, alternatively, Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder fans who have flocked to Ruiz — isn’t the worst we’ve seen yet epitomises the deeply divisive nature of boxing.
At its core boxing has always been a contentious sport, after all you have to pick one fighter over another. You can easily and instinctively fall into the “You support fighter A and I support fighter B so now I despise A, and I want them to lose” mind-set that has been the ruination of modern-day politics.
This fight is no different and no less divisive. It takes place against the backdrop of an election in which we are asked to cast a vote for one of the two biggest berks walking the face of the earth. Whoever wins, we lose — and nothing much will change in the long-term. Ruiz-Joshua may take place in a political, religious and moral hotbed yet at its heart it is utterly vacuous in every other aspect other than a sporting one — funnily enough, the soullessness surrounding Saudi and the event itself is one of the things I like the most about it.
It means that I do not have to pick a side. I’ve long been sceptical about Joshua’s stilted persona, although you cannot argue against the fact that he brings a huge spotlight to the sport. I am not invested in Ruiz, either, so I can sit back, have a few overpriced hipster ales and enjoy it for what it is: two men hitting each other for the entertainment of the privileged, the poor, the eternal optimists, the infernal pessimists, and the odd anarchical fatalist — it is going to be a tremendous spectacle.
The most contentious issue is the choice of country. Many fans objected to the choice of Saudi, possibly due to the fact that we are OK with countries that have barely suppressed long-standing issues yet are outraged by the idea that boxing has moved into a lucrative market where everything is out in the open. Once you hit Saudi levels of human right infringements and abuse the temptation is to just say “Fair play” and then stop thinking about it before your head explodes.
The treatment of native and especially migrant workers is an issue over there, too. Organisers are quiet over how many people may have been injured while building the stadium in a relatively short space of time. Maybe no one did. It is possible that the only incident was when Majid Ahmad accidentally hit his hand with a hammer. I’m told (and this is purely my own speculation) by people who do that sort of thing that death or injury will have been an inevitable by-product of this type of construction project.
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been plagued by worker deaths. The International Trades Union Confederation estimated that there has been as many as 1200 fatalities caused as a result of the sudden need to construct stadiums and a doomsday figure of 4000 predicted before we hit 2022 despite recent moves to improve the safety aspect of the construction of the stadia.
In mitigation, the Saudis have only had to build a single arena yet they have an appalling record when it comes to worker safety, with over 35,000 H & S violations in 2015 alone. Over 2000 of them were related to workers having to work outdoors in extremely hot conditions, according to the Saudi Ministry of Labour’s findings. As recently as 2018 Yasir Azmat of the University of Salford argued that there are still Health and Safety issues when it comes to the way the Saudis handle their booming construction industry.
Moving away from the stadium, in 2018 Saudi Arabia’s officials admitted that the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was state sanctioned. This must have been a huge surprise to those who genuinely believed that a murder that took place in a Saudi state consulate in Turkey was something that could happen without some kind of state involvement.
The rights, or lack thereof, of women is a huge issue. Woman are allowed to drive now, and probably badly, but they still face potential arrest for actively seeking equality in other areas. Women have been detained without charge and can face up to 20 years in prison for their “crimes”, the most heinous of them seems to be that of being a woman in a man’s world. Indeed, during the run up to the much-heralded lifting of the driving ban there was a crackdown on female dissidents (per multiple sources, find them). One hand gives, the other takes away — and don’t even get them started on people who aren’t heterosexual.
Interrogation techniques used against females run the usual gamut: beatings, electrical shocks, and ‘forcible hugging and kissing’ — also known as sexual assault in most countries. The prosecutors are also arguing for the death penalty for dissidents, which appears to be Saudi slang for people who want basic human rights.
Women in Saudi Arabia are the chattels of their men due to the existence of the Walī system, a male guardianship regime that means they have to ask permission for basic things we take for granted such as travel — the obtaining of a passport has to be sanctioned by a male relative — and marriage also falls under this strict patriarchy.
To be fair, they have recently made sexual harassment a crime. However, it is a two-way street as women who make a “false” claim can face a stiff punishment. It is almost as if they passed the law in order to pay lip service to an issue while also making it exceptionally difficult for women to press charges for fear or being punished in retaliation.
Other state crimes include “breaking allegiance with the ruler”, i.e. anything goes. Punishment can be swift and irrevocable, with an estimated 139 executions in 2018, many by beheading and ‘sometimes in public’. Blogger Raif Bawai was handed 1000 lashes and a decade in prison. His lashes were to be handed out at a rate of 50 per week.
The chief problem with this barbaric form of punishment is that the first 50 lashes injured Bawai so badly the rest had to be postponed until he was physical able for them to recommence, according to Amnesty, and his main source of excitement is finding out on a weekly basis whether some of the outstanding 950 lashings will take place that week.
For a state defined by its religion, Saudi Arabia also has a strict definition of what religion is. Most other religions are debarred from public worship of their faith and there are strict definitions of what constitutes Islamic faith, so there is rampant discrimination against certain forms of Islam within an Islamic state.
In the wider world, the Saudi coalition airstrikes on the Yemen caused numerous casualties, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimating that around 6,592 civilians have been killed since 2015 with an estimated 10,471 injured. With claims that ‘Human Rights Watch has documented about 90 apparently unlawful attacks by the coalition that have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes,’ according to the HRW’s Kenneth Roth.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. It is why this event is an unedifying spectacle wrapped up in a genuinely big, compelling fight. Pure sportswashing. It is also one that I desperately want to watch for the mere cost of twenty-five quid. Despite everything I’ve said above I will pay for it and forget all of the stuff in the background the moment that first bell rings. The stadium will probably look lovely, too.
The long and short of all this is that we don’t really care, do we? We just want the event, whatever the cost. I’ve visited Tunisia, Morocco and Azerbaijan in recent years. If pressed on the treatment of people in those places I’d just say “Don’t ask me, mate, I’m here on holiday.” All of this is what makes this the perfect boxing event. As the man said, and I’ve repeated it often: “We are all part of the same hypocriscy.”
Granted, there is a lot more stuff to sweep under the carpet than usual for this one yet boxing sweeps so much stuff under the carpet the threads are now touching the ceiling. The only way to protest the backdrop to Ruiz-Joshua II would be to ignore it: don’t mention it, don’t pay for it and don’t watch it. Still, it is a good fight, a really good fight, so, and as we always do when we sit down to watch one, we need to leave our morals by the door as they have absolutely no place in this business.