Give Eddie Hearn his due. Not only has the promoter brought the world heavyweight championship to Saudi Arabia, he is also rapidly embracing its culture. In a country ranked 172 out of 180 in the world press freedom index – two places above Syria and seven ahead of North Korea – he did not bother to invite questions from journalists at the final press conference before Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr meet in a rematch on Saturday.
Still, Hearn was able to glean a few nuggets by himself. That Ruiz is convinced his opponent will come in lighter and faster, in a bid to dance and entrance for 12 rounds. That Joshua has forewarned his audience that “I am not here to put on a show, I am here to win”. And finally – as every fighter on the bill kept reminding us – that the hospitality of the Saudis has been spectacular.
At one point Joshua even described Diriyah, on the outskirts of the capital Riyadh, as “the real Mecca of boxing”–which will raise eyebrows in Las Vegas to put it mildly. The press conference might have been held in a luxury box overlooking the city’s Formula E track, but there was little chance of Hearn doing a U-turn about coming to the Middle East. In fact the promoter doubled down on his decision, lavishing praise on his hosts as he predicted a “historic” night of boxing.
Addressing his highness Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, he told him: “I can’t tell you how honoured I am to be in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We were very close to going to Wales, then I got a message from Prince Khalid. I told him: ‘Don’t waste our time.’ But the passion this man had to bring the fight here was undeniable.
“Sometimes there was shock. Sometimes there was criticism. Sitting here today I can tell you it was a wonderful, wonderful decision.”
Then came a delightfully sycophantic question for the prince. “I know you as the one and only Big K,” said Hearn, beaming like the cat that has not only got the cream but is having it mainlined into his mouth. “How does it feel to be bringing the fight here?”
After a few words of happiness from the prince, Hearn was off again. “Just 10 weeks ago they embarked on getting a purpose-built stadium,” he said. “It is not just done – it is done as one of the most beautiful stadiums in the world. My stomach right now is full of butterflies. This is a new dawn for the sport of boxing.”
History will be the judge of that. But for now at least the big fight playbook is not so very different. At the traditional staredown Ruiz, wearing a New York Knicks top to remind him of where he ripped the WBA, IBF and WBO belts from Joshua’s grasp in June, started shouting: “And still! And still!”
Joshua’s camp replied: “And the new!” Then the boxers smiled and shook hands. At least we can say this with confidence: both men are a credit to their sport.
Earlier the Mexican-American had promised to be better prepared, before engaging in a minor act of clairvoyance. “It has been a long three months in camp and I am ready to rock and roll,” said Ruiz. “I know Joshua will come with a different gameplan, that he has lost weight and will try and box me around. But I am ready. I have been doing this since I was six years old. It has been a long rollercoaster, and there is no way I am going to let these belts go.”
Joshua, meanwhile, hinted at the single mindedness that has possessed him ever since losing his belts at Madison Square Garden. “As soon I got back from New York, I didn’t lose any heart, I didn’t lose any fire in my belly, and I went straight back to hitting the heavy bag at Finchley ABC,” he said. “There is no fear in my heart, no fear in my eyes, no fear in my mind.”
Tellingly, he also gave a warning to those expecting a repeat of their brawl in June. “I am not here to put on a show, I am here to win.”
And after a lot of hype and hot air, that truth carried all the power of one of his overhand rights.