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Unleash Your Demons: Dive into the Ring with Big-Time Boxing's Sinister Maestro

Tuesday, 21 May 2024 16:27 Sport

In the clash between Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury in Saudi Arabia, the stage was set for a spectacle that transcended mere boxing. It was a collision not just of fists, but of ethics, as the sport found itself entangled in the web of sportswashing.

I'll admit it upfront: I paid for the fight. £24.95 from my once-"ethical" bank account, exchanged for the raw thrill of watching two men pummel each other in the ring, broadcast live from a controversial location. No sanctimony here, no moral high ground. Just a guilty admission.

Big-time boxing has a way of laying bare the moral ambiguity within us all. It's the evil genius at work, coaxing us into confronting the darker corners of our souls. Mike Tyson's almost-quote rings true: principles crumble in the face of a succulent heavyweight bout. Throughout history, terrible men have understood this truth, and Saudi Arabia's rulers seem to be following suit.

Consider Anthony Joshua's plight in 2019, thrust into the spotlight of Riyadh for a title rematch against Andy Ruiz. He faced a barrage of criticism, forced to confront uncomfortable questions about human rights and geopolitics. His attempts to play diplomat fell flat, overshadowed by a selfie with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Joshua became the unwitting trailblazer, venturing into the Saudi arena so that others, like Fury and Usyk, could fight unimpeded. But let's not pretend it's about sparking change from within. No transcripts exist of Joshua's supposed tough talks with the Crown Prince. Instead, he became a pawn in a PR game, paving the way for others to profit from Saudi patronage.

In the end, it's a sobering reminder of boxing's entanglement with power and politics. As we revel in the spectacle, we're forced to confront uncomfortable truths about the sport we love.

In the early days of Saudi Arabia's foray into sports ownership, there lingered a naive hope that this juggernaut could be slowed, diverted, or even halted altogether. Athletes signing contracts found themselves navigating the awkward terrain of questions about Jamal Khashoggi, their discomfort transformed into a bizarre form of performance art. "I Know Something Very Bad Happened Inside There" (Rafael Nadal, brush strokes on the red carpet, 2018). "We All Make Mistakes" (Greg Norman, splattered excuses on canvas, 2022). But these days, such sentiments are sparse, if existent at all.

Last week, if either Fury or Usyk addressed the ethical quandaries of fighting in Saudi Arabia, it must have slipped beneath the radar. The ground beneath their feet has solidified, the landscape now dominated by realpolitik — the complex interplay of money, power, and influence. It's a world where human rights take a backseat to geopolitical maneuvering, where the plight of jailed dissidents competes for attention against the relentless barrage of global tragedies.

We already have a glimpse of Fury's stance on issues like women's rights, LGBT rights, and freedom of the press, and it's not one that sits well with Amnesty International. To Fury, Saudi Arabia is more than just a paycheck. It's the royal treatment, the overt displays of power, the effortless bypassing of airport queues. If Fury ever learned about Yemen's proxy war, he'd likely be on the next flight, ready to settle scores with his bare fists.

As Fury and Usyk traded blows in front of a select audience of Saudi dignitaries, alongside Josh Denzel from Love Island and Cristiano Ronaldo flaunting a £1.2 million timepiece, my mind wandered to the 20th May Stadium. Once known as the Stade Tata Raphaël, it stood as a crumbling relic until 1974 when Muhammad Ali and George Foreman descended upon Kinshasa to vie for the world heavyweight title, briefly transforming it into the epicenter of the universe.

In the eyes of Mobutu Sese Seko, the tyrannical ruler of Zaire, the stadium stood as the epitome of his authority. Built at an exorbitant cost, equipped with dungeons and chambers for torture, it surpassed even his network of opulent palaces or the millions stashed away in Swiss bank accounts. Here, within these walls, lay the embodiment of both benevolence and cruelty, the duality of power personified. It was a structure where repression intertwined with respite, where wonder coexisted with fear.

The phenomenon of sportswashing extends beyond mere manipulation of memories and emotions; it blurs the lines between oppressors and oppressed. Amanda Staveley, a Conservative donor with connections to Middle Eastern billionaires, dons a Newcastle scarf and is hailed as a champion of the working class. Mobutu invites Ali and Foreman to Zaire, masquerading as a champion of decolonization while his death squads unleash havoc. Fury and Usyk, despite their immense wealth, are portrayed as valiant warriors rather than collaborators with one of the world's most brutal regimes.

And where does that leave us – neither millionaires nor dictators, yet accused of hypocrisy for advocating human rights while enjoying the comforts of modern life? Brendan Ingle, the late boxing trainer, aptly described the sport as a "dirty, rotten prostituting game" that, at its pinnacle, embodies unparalleled beauty. As I witnessed Usyk triumphantly raising his battered arms on my Riyadh Season-branded television screen, I grasped the essence of Ingle's words.

In this complex web of power, politics, and spectacle, where moral lines blur and perceptions are manipulated, finding clarity becomes a daunting task. Yet amidst the chaos, the inherent contradictions of our existence demand introspection and action.

In the tumultuous arena of sportswashing, where moral ambiguities are exploited for political gain and public perception is carefully crafted, the conclusion remains elusive. As we bear witness to the spectacle of triumph and turmoil, it becomes imperative to navigate the murky waters of conscience and complicity. Brendan Ingle's poignant reflection on boxing resonates deeply – it is indeed a dichotomy of beauty and corruption, a reflection of humanity's contradictions.

In the face of such complexities, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, to succumb to cynicism or apathy. Yet, it is precisely in these moments of uncertainty that our actions hold the most significance. We must confront the uncomfortable truths, challenge the narratives of convenience, and advocate for justice and accountability.

As Usyk raises his arms in victory, bathed in the glow of Riyadh's branding, let us not forget the deeper implications of our choices as spectators and participants in a globalized world. Let us strive for a future where the pursuit of excellence in sport is not overshadowed by the shadows of oppression and exploitation. Only then can we truly honor the beauty of the game, while acknowledging and addressing its darker realities.

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