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Boxing in Saudi Arabia: How Soleimani incident likely changes things

Lee Cleveland Updated
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December's fight card featuring the heavyweight title rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was a big win for promoters and its host.

In fact, the powers that be in Saudi Arabia subsequently expressed a strong interest in hosting more high-profile fight cards there, hinting they'd love to have fight legend Manny Pacquiao grace the Kingdom in 2020.

By bringing big-time boxing to Saudi Arabia, the regime is hoping to boost the Kingdom's reputation and living standards, and open up the country to more tourists.

Of course, the Saudi government - and the decision to host a major fight card there - isn't without criticism. Some blasted promoter Eddie Hearn for collaborating with a regime many Westerners consider draconian. Nevertheless, following Joshua vs Ruiz 2, Hearn vowed to stage more events there.

“They want that [Pacquiao and Garcia] fight,” said Hearn last month. “They want the biggest of the biggest fights in Saudi Arabia. They have loads of money and are not going anywhere. If you get [a mega fight], they have the money for it."

"You know, if I’m going to do two shows in Saudi, they are going to be f—ing monsters … I’m getting approaches from everybody in the Middle East to do fights, but right now, Saudi Arabia is the one who put the money up and the trust in us.”

Given the change in political climate in the Middle East, created a mere 96 hours ago, Hearn's plan may have hit an obstacle. And a serious one.

Let's not forget, there was already some concern last month for the personal safety of those who partook in Joshua vs Ruiz 2 amid terrorism fears and political unrest.

Yes, on September 17, the U.S. government issued to its citizens a Level 2 Travel Advisory for Saudi Arabia. It starts as follows: "Exercise increased caution in Saudi Arabia due to terrorism and the threat of missile and drone attacks on civilian targets."

Now, following last Friday's high-profile killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by an American drone, all bets for high-profile boxing in Saudi Arabiain 2020 might be off. In fact, we may not see another high-profile fight card in the Kingdom for another 10 years.


Although Iran and Saudi Arabia are not friends, the threat of retaliation on Saudi soil looms due to potential Iranian missile strikes, possible insurgents from Yemen and from some Saudi citizens who may be sympathetic to Iran. Saudi Arabia is not without vulnerability.

The average American tourist traveling to Saudi Arabia, Israel or the UAE sill might be relatively safe. However, high profile events in the Middle East involving Americans and/or Brits would certainly serve as targets of revenge for the death of Soleimani. And Iran has made it very clear it will seek retribution.

So, while the Saudis would likely assure the safety of foreigners in order to bring more high-profile fight cards there, what American or Brit would want to take that chance now?

Saudi Arabia's Minister of Foreign Affair Adel Al-Jubair tweeted early Saturday: "The Kingdom’s statement regarding the events in Iraq stresses the Kingdom’s view of the importance of de-escalation to save the countries of the region and their people from the risks of any escalation."

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