The E-Prix track in Diriyah, an ancient village on the outskirts of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, will be transformed to host a world heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. in December. There will be sand dunes nearby but the venue will not be built from scratch in the desert, suddenly appearing like a fighting pit oasis for those weary sports fans dismounting from their camel rides.
The stands at the existing venue will be reconfigured, the ring erected and as many as 16,000 seats will be available on the night. It is possibly the most exotic location yet for a world heavyweight title fight and is certainly the most controversial. However, in the 1970s, fights took place in locations with bloody and violent histories and true despots in charge of both the country and the cash available.
The world heavyweight title has been on a grand tour during the last 120 years with stops in Sydney, Havana, Moscow, Berne, Manila, Kinshasa, Kingston, Carnival City, Caracas, Tokyo and Grozny in venues wet with paint, rich in history and with concealed torture chambers. In 1974 at the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, the dressing rooms had to be hosed down to clean away the blood of the slaughtered before the boxers — Muhammad Ali and George Foreman — could prepare to fight.
Legal and sanctioned fights have taken place behind bars, in the garden at the Playboy mansion and at hundreds of outdoors venues from Brisbane to Buenos Aires to Belfast. The boxers have fought bare-foot to help with traction in monsoons and hidden under umbrellas from the sickening heat during the one-minute break between rounds. On other frosty nights they have been wrapped in towels to stop them freezing.
The endless schemes to get Ali back in the ring during his exile included fight offers from all over the world. There was even one from Saudi Arabia and also one from Ali’s friend, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. Gaddafi had been in the crowd at Highbury football stadium, the home of Arsenal, in 1966 when Ali beat Henry Cooper to retain his world heavyweight title and had, so he claimed, somehow ended up in the dressing room after the fight. It is possible, as Gaddafi famously walked all over London in traditional Arab clothing during his military training in Britain. However, I refuse to believe that he sat next to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at ringside on the famous Highbury pitch.
In early 1970, there was a plan to have Ali fight Joe Frazier in a television studio in Miami with tickets priced at $2,000 each. It would have been a private event, free of any sporting regulations. It never happened and an Ali fight at outdoor venues in Tampa and a bullring in Tijuana also collapsed — members of Ali’s team actually went to Mexico to look at the possibility of the fight taking place there in a bullring. A dozen cities in America and another dozen all over the globe put in offers to get Ali back in the ring and most were in outdoor venues.
However, perhaps the greatest of the Ali fight plans was in 1969 when a plane was measured for a ring. Ali’s people were involved, this was not a joke. His wilderness years would end at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean when he would fight an exhibition with three boxers. It never happened.
A fight in June of 1970 in Las Vegas — four months before Ali ended his ring exile — was scrapped when it was claimed that Ali would “corrupt” the gambling city. “How can I corrupt Las Vegas?” Ali asked. When Ali did eventually fight, it was in front of a crowd of just 5,000 spectators at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, which is a dull alternative to a bullring or a giant Boeing aircraft.
There was a truly mad plan to have Naseem Hamed defend his WBO featherweight title in Yemen. The Yemeni sports minister gave Hamed and his promoter, Frank Warren, a tour of the site where the outdoor arena would be built in Sanaa, the capital. The plan collapsed when rebels in the south of the country launched a scud missile attack on the president’s compound. The planned site for the fight was about a mile away.
In 1992 there was a wonderful outdoor fight in the summer in Portugal.
The car park on the edge of the golf course sloped down to the sea on the Portuguese Algarve. It would be transformed into a glorious outdoor venue for Chris Eubank’s third defence of his WBO super-middleweight title, but there was just one big problem: An ancient stone pine tree — towering close to 90-feet and about 25-feet wide — had been growing for a hundred years on the exact spot where the ring was meant to be.
A few tourists heard the ugly noise in the night and in the morning, the tree was gone, vanished, and by nine that morning the ring was taking shape. The fight was repetitive, but the undercard started as the sun set in the ocean and provided the most fabulous of backdrops.
Eubank fought at White Hart Lane, Old Trafford and in front of 50,000 people at Parc Ui Chaoimh in Cork, in Cairo, in Sun City and in Dubai. He also fought at the Star Leisure Centre in Splott, Cardiff, watched by 300 fans on a cold Tuesday night in January. I know, I was there.
There was a plan to have Wladimir Klitschko defend his world heavyweight titles on some type of luxury super yacht off the coast of Ibiza, Marbella or Cannes. Tickets would have been a million dollars each with just 200 invited guests. That fight was probably more likely than the perennial story that Centre Court at Wimbledon, which would be boxing’s greatest ever venue if it were to be the location for a fight.
In Diriyah, the ringside seats will not be a million dollars — which would be affordable to many of the guests. It could be, as Eddie Hearn, the fight’s promoter said, the start of a new era in boxing and that will mean even more fights in strange venues. Amazonian forest, the Arctic, space?