Eddie Hearn knows that some critics will never be satisfied with his working relationship with one of the more controversial nations in the Middle East.
The head of Matchroom Boxing famously staged the rematch between his star charge Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz in 2019 in Saudi Arabia, the oil kingdom widely considered a human rights violator and bastion of illiberality. At the time, Hearn defended his decision by pointing out that his responsibility is to fetch top dollar for his clients, a condition Saudi Arabia has been all too happy to provide as part of a practice critics have referred to as “sports washing”; the country has flaunted its checkbook to various high-profile sports organizations in the western world – from professional wrestling to golf – in a bid to cover up its faulty humans rights record. US intelligence reports suggested last year that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Muhammad bin Salman ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the country.
Despite the opprobrium of organizations such as Amnesty International, Hearn will return to Saudi Arabia, in the port city of Jeddah, on Aug. 20 to promote the heavyweight unification rematch between Joshua and WBA, WBO, and IBF champion Oleksandr Usyk.
Hearn has once again trotted out the same line in his defense. Recently, however, he also pointed to what he feels are visceral improvements being made in the country, particularly from the country’s investment in “grassroots” boxing. Hearn said boxing has become much more popular in the country since Hearn staged Ruiz-Joshua II in 2019, and that such a commitment to the sport should be applauded. Hearn said his own country, the United Kingdom, could “learn a lot” from the way amateur boxing has increased in popularity in Saudi Arabia.
“Now we have to deal with a bigger social issue, which is the issue of change,” Hearn told BBC 5 Live Boxing. “We’ve seen the change there. I was in Saudi Arabia – Jeddah – last week. The change from what I’ve seen from two years ago in that country from the Andy Ruiz fight is substantial.
“Also [Saudi Arabian officials] tell me things that I’m interested in: Investment into the sport within the country. Investment into the grassroots level. Our government could learn a lot from the way Saudi Arabia has invested in the grassroots of boxing there. It’s up over 300% participation in amateur boxing clubs since the Ruiz fight. There’s a genuine interest in the sport.
“Of course, if you see that, it’s going to motivate people to do it. Does there need to be more change? Loads of it. Is there change? I see it. These people have delivered it before. These are people that are passionate about boxing.”
Hearn is hopeful that the publicity that Usyk-Joshua II will bring will help loosen up some of the more restrictive laws in Saudi Arabian society.
“I still go back to: this is a dangerous sport,” Hearn said. “My job is to provide the best opportunities for these fighters. But of course, we want to see a better place, more change, and hopefully this can help promote that.”