“A loss that can be repaired by money is not of such very great importance.” – The Arabian Nights
I boarded my flight to Riyadh via Istanbul from Dublin with a great sense of anticipation of the historical even that lay ahead. Comparisons to legendary events like ‘The Rumble in The Jungle’ and ‘The Thrilla In Manilla” which were also held in obscure and exotic locations, allied to the expected spectacular no expense spared show were the reasons this pilgrimage for many was taking place.
Alcohol is illegal in The Kingdom of S.Arabia, so a four hour pre-flight drinking session ensued to take the edge of spending a weekend in a foreign country and a boxing event without the pleasure of a few beers. After, as I took my seat in the busted up and uncomfortable Turkish Air flight seats, I realised that I had left my luggage in the departure lounge bar. Much like Joshua versus Ruiz, with a steely determined focus and some fancy foot work I danced my way around the overweight air hostesses to reclaim my bags before returning to the plane ready for the adventure ahead.
Perceptions of S.Arabia are often very negative and this is of course is with merit due to the many well documented issues within the country. However, this is a country in transition and going through massive transformation in order to change these old ways and must be allowed like all nations to make that journey to becoming a better place for our fellow man.
Some of the changes, particularly in just the past number of years have been seismic in comparisons to earlier ways, beliefs and culture. The main cities of the country like Riyadh and Jeddah are liberal cosmopolitan places with the restaurants, streets and malls like any high street in the UK or Dubai whilst still maintaining their beautiful Arabic cultures. A new, dynamic, educated and forward-thinking youth are driving the country towards change with sport at the epicentre of this movement.
The striking impression when soberly entering the country after my ten-hour flight, a flight that ironically was like a three-day camel trip through the desert. Was how friendly and welcoming the local people are. Most Saudi people are fun loving with a great sense of humour who have been unfairly tarnished by the now disappearing policies and actions of old regimes.
Further reflections of the change occurring in the country is the soon to shift dependency on oil to tourism and the spectacular construction projects being built in the country presently. A quick google search will open the eyes to mind-blowing projects like NEOM, the Maldives of the Middle East. Also, a £400billion western sports city state (with alcohol to be legalised) which is to become one of the planet’s leading destinations for sporting events. Amaala mega projects on the coast of the Red Sea which has been given the title “Riviera of the Middle East”.
Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz was part of the Diriyah Season festival currently happening on the outskirts of the country’s capital city Riyadh. A celebration of sport, music and the arts it is part of many major events taking place in a purpose built, state of art complex. The Diriyah Arena is it’s show piece with the world heavyweight boxing title up for grabs.
Diriyah was the original home of the Saudi royal family. Diriyah The House of Saud is the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia. It is composed of the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud and site is now home to incredible old buildings and ruins where they once lived. Boxing fans will remember the press conference to announce Joshua v Ruiz took place there with the old buildings as the backdrop. What better location for a battle to be king of the boxing world.
As the rain poured down, we made our way into the arena. The first sight of the boxing ring area gave that buzz, this is something special. After the undercard finished the atmosphere began to grow and the venue slowly filled to what looked like near capacity. This was apart from the seats diagonally in line with the four huge posts at the corner of the roof covering the ring. These glowing pink neon posts would have covered about one quarter of ring itself from the spectator’s view.
It was clear that the local partisan Saudi dominated crowd was very pro Joshua. The Joshua chant, ‘Ohhh Anthony Joshua’ and shouts of “2-TIME” rang around the arena. I estimate around 20% of the crowd were westerners and about 80% Arab.
Sweet Caroline then rang out and there was an impressive rendition from the crowd, of this now classic pre-fight ditty. It may not have been sung with the same gusto as a charged-up crowd in the O2 London or a fight night in Belfast but enough to make it clear that this was not a routine to which the fans in the arena were unaccustomed. “So good, so good.”
The biggest cheer of the evening probably went to Khabib Nurmagomedov when he was escorted to his ring side seats and appeared on the big screen. Khabib a devout Muslim is massively popular across to the Middle East. We were sitting beside Saudi lads in their 20’s who had earlier recognised our Irish accents. Seeing Khabib prompted them to ask if we were Conor McGregor fans and if we liked Proper 12?
Clearly very inebriated they told us they had been drinking whisky all night and would like to try Proper 12. I was wearing a grandad style, flat cap hat, so was also asked in a bad Irish accent by my new, very merry chuckling friend why do the Irish wear those hats and “do I like Tommy fucking Shelby?!”
The sounds of ‘Fight to Win’ by Femi Kuti and those distinctive African style drums then rang around the amazing sound system in the arena. This was Joshua’s entrance tune inspired by his recent visit to Nigeria where he met Kuti. Live pictures of Joshua then appeared on the big screen as he made his way into the arena wearing his also distinctive white robe. There was now a feeling that something big, like a Rumble in the Jungle was taking place.
The crowd showed throughout the evening that they were educated fight fans and cheered the right shots and appreciated moments of class with applause and cheers of appreciation. In the end the main event was one for the purists and Joshua did what he had to do and got the job done.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.The weight of being world champion it seemed had become too heavy for AJ, however, not as heavy as losing his crown. Millions in prize money may have helped but only by winning back his titles would that loss in Madison Square Garden truly be repaired. AJ is the king of the boxing world once again and the new king of Diriyah.
By Kieran Hinphey