JEDDAH: With under a week to go to the biggest fight of the year, billed the “Rage on the Red Sea,” Anthony Joshua reflected on his first visit to Saudi Arabia in 2019 and how he is ready to “put on a show” for his second fight in the Kingdom: The rematch against Oleksandr Usyk.
At face value, Joshua’s ambitions are simple.
“Last time here I became two-time champion,” he says, just days out from his rematch. “The sole aim now is to become three-time!”
Scratch the surface a little, though, and there is a far greater depth to the goals of both the fighter and host nation.
The last time Joshua fought here he did so under similar circumstances. He went into 2019’s “Clash of the Dunes” in Diriyah bidding to reclaim the belts he had lost to his opponent just months earlier, and does so again in Jeddah after dropping those same titles to Usyk last year.
Joshua went on to outclass Andy Ruiz Jr. from start to finish in Diriyah, and the Briton, understandably, recalls the night with real fondness.
“I have great memories from 2019,” he said. “Everything about the event was spot on. From the purpose-built stadium, the organization and the hospitality, it was all 10 out of 10. It was a phenomenal event for boxing in general and, of course, very special for me as I became two-time champion.”
A seed was planted on Dec. 7, 2019, and boxing in the Kingdom has grown at a rapid pace ever since. There has been a 300 percent increase in participation across men and women in Saudi Arabia, the number of boxing gyms in the country has climbed from seven to 59, and last December saw the Saudi Arabian Boxing Federation introduce the first ever women’s boxing championship.
“Clash of the Dunes” left a legacy for boxing to build upon in Saudi Arabia, something the Joshua is immensely proud of and hopes to further once again when he takes on Usyk at King Abdullah Sports City on Saturday, Aug. 20.
“It’s fantastic that the country has taken the sport to heart,” said Joshua. “I know it has grown by over 300 percent, lots of facilities have opened since 2019 and the women’s championship happened last year. As professional fighters competing on a global scale it is fantastic to see the sport grow and inspire a new generation to it.”
Joshua departed Saudi Arabia a hero in 2019, having brought the pinnacle of the sport to the country for the very first time. The welcome he was given, as well as the support throughout his time there, left a mark on him.
“I have been shown such kindness since I have been here,” he explained. “It is obvious to me that the country has really embraced the sport and that certainly fills me with energy to want to perform in front of the fans.”
The 32-year-old will need all the energy he can muster from the Jeddah crowd as he runs it back against a man widely regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet.
Usyk extended his career unbeaten run to 19 fights by securing a unanimous points victory over Joshua, and the 35-year-old Ukrainian is a technical master in the ring. But, while Joshua insists Usyk deserves the respect his achievements command, he is ready to make the most of a rare opportunity at redemption.
He said: “Things happen in life, but resilience and mental toughness and consistency will always prevail, so we are still on the right road. I am focused on the target and goal and it’s all about performance now. I had to take the defeat like a man and hold myself accountable. I simply have to reverse it and move forward.
“We have to give him credit, I respect him for his craft. I am motivated to get better. The great thing is I have a second chance to beat him. You can put me down, but you can’t keep me down.
“My team and I are focused on the goal, taking all the learnings from the last fight and on Aug. 20 I will entertain the fans who come out to see a huge night of heavyweight boxing.”
The battle that tops the billing at “Rage on the Red Sea” is the obvious big-ticket draw for fight fans both watching in the stadium and at home on pay-per-view, but the remainder of the card will make history, too, and is littered with talented, high-stakes bouts from start to finish.
The impact of this event on the ongoing transformation of Saudi Arabia through sport will continue the momentum from the incredible response to “Clash of the Dunes.”
There is Saudi fighter Ziyad Al-Maayouf to inspire local fight fans, while Ramla Ali and Crystal Garcia Nova will be the first female boxers to ever feature in an official international fight in Saudi Arabia. Then there are light-heavyweight and heavyweight final eliminators between Callum Smith and Mathieu Bauderlique, and Filip Hrgovic versus the undefeated Zhilei Zhang, respectively.
Added to that are names such as former two-weight world champion Badou Jack and his opponent Richard Rivera, as well as Daniel Lapin, Jozef Jurko, Andrew Tabiti and Tyrone Spong.
For Joshua, this means only one thing: This event is not to be missed.
“All focus is on fight night, and we are certain to put on a serious show for them,” he said.
“I can’t wait to see everyone at the arena. It is set to be an unbelievable night of championship-level boxing. For any sports fan this is not to be missed, it has all the ingredients to go down in boxing history.”