Anthony Joshua’s crucial world title rematch with Andy Ruiz in Diriyah is “all systems go” despite the recent escalation in tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The heavyweight contest, scheduled for 7 December, was seemingly plunged into doubt earlier this month when key oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in the east of the country were attacked in pre-dawn drone strikes.
It amounted to the biggest attack ever on Saudi’s oil industry and is reported to have affected around five per cent of the world’s oil production.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that Iran are behind what he described as “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply” and a clear “act of war”. Houthi rebels in the Yemen have claimed responsibility but Pompeo also stated that there was no evidence of their involvement. Iran, meanwhile, insist their hands are clean.
Regardless, the situation in Saudi has become so perilous that air-raid sirens have been tested across the capital Riyadh in case of any further attacks on the Desert Kingdom.
The affected oil plants, however, are nearly 120 miles from the site on which Joshua will attempt to reclaim his WBO, WBA and IBF world heavyweight titles from Ruiz six months after he lost them to him in New York. As such, promoter Eddie Hearn insists they have not even considered changing their plans for the fight to go ahead in the Gulf.
Hearn said: “[After the attack] We did contact our partners in Saudi and ask if everything’s OK, and they said it was. As far as we’re concerned it’s all systems go. It’s a long way from Diriyah.
“It doesn’t affect the dynamics – the financial dynamics – of the event, as long as everyone’s safe and happy, the fighters and the broadcasters.
“Right now, unless someone came out of the government and said it’s not safe... The advice is not ‘don’t go there’ but the advice is to travel with caution, it’s the same category as the UK, France and Mexico so there’s no advice from any government to not travel to Saudi Arabia.”
Matchroom’s CEO Frank Smith, Hearn’s long-time right-hand-man, visited Diriyah last week, just days after the attack, and was very happy with the situation at the Unesco World Heritage site which will play host for the fight.
Despite suggestions that Ruiz v Joshua II would end up in Cardiff or New York, the financial incentive provided by Saudi Arabia proved too good to turn down. Hearn says they could still change the venue should the rising Gulf tension reach breaking point but he does not currently anticipate any need to do so.
“We can change the venue if something major happens,” he added. “But Frank Smith was on a site visit at the stadium last week with the international broadcasters, who all flew, and everyone was happy.
“Generally, the one thing in terms of research is understanding the culture and what’s allowed, like talking about female presenters. Everyone has questions but once everyone goes and has the meetings they’re very comforted.
“It’s always going to have its criticisms but the logistical meetings are 20 times more advanced than having the same meeting in London or New York. You think ‘this is unbelievable’, everything is like clockwork so you leave happy.”
Hearn likened the situation to that of Kell Brook against Errol Spence Jr at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane in May 2017, which took place just days after a suicide bomber killed 23 people in an attack on the Manchester Arena.
There were calls for the show in Sheffield to be pulled completely but Hearn and Matchroom decided to press on.
He said: “We had Errol Spence v Kell Brook four days after the Manchester bombing and it looked like we’d have to cancel that show. We ended up having had to spend significant money on policing and anti-terror squads for the event to go ahead.
“Things can happen but, all systems go. If we had to change the venue, could it be done? I guess so but it’s not even part of the mindset.”
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