The Diriyah Diary: What Fight Week's Really Been Like Ahead Of Ruiz-Joshua 2

Saudi Arabia has its idiosyncrasies but the boxers are looking more than ready for Saturday night
09:00, 07 Dec 2019

The tone was set from the off. On arrival, men dressed in traditional white robes and red headscarves handed out bunches of flowers to tourists at customs, and the welcome as been as warm all week.

Our taxi driver explained on the way into central Riyadh that "things are changing quickly," referring to this highly conservative country relaxing its strict laws. Around 18 months on from the government passing a policy to allow women to drive, Reema Juffali will become the first Saudi woman to race professionally in the Kingdom next year. It's one example of Saudi's new vision. 

Speaking of driving, the roads here have been the most trying aspect of the trip. On Monday, we were invited to interview Anthony Joshua at the Central Mall, a short taxi from our hotel. 

For around 20 minutes, we watched three lanes of traffic, all heading in different directions, try to untangle itself from the backseat of our Uber.  Nervously glancing at the clock, we headed out on foot in fear of missing our slot with AJ. Saudi, despite all of its advances, isn't ready for pedestrians with bags full of video equipment. We eventually arrived unkempt into the pristine mall, after navigating giant kerbs and busy intersections with our gear in tow.

Before we had chance to dust ourselves down, a colleague was showing us a photo of a car that had taken a corner at speed and was now resting on its roof close to their hotel. Despite the roads, we got our moment with AJ, and he looked a different beast. 

THE FOCUS

Covering a fight in person is always more valuable than from afar. Your ability to assess a fighter's mood, confidence, and demeanour is more intuitive.

We take our position behind a flimsy black rope that will annex off the former champ from a line of the media. A rumble of commotion always precedes AJ's arrival. In Saudia Arabia it's no different.

Back in June, the talk of a potential Wilder fight dominated the discussion. Joshua fielding question after question about a mega showdown with the outspoken American while Ruiz, the softly spoken assassin, quietly went about his business. This time the Mexican is respected as a certified threat and AJ has a renewed focus because of it. The Brit sidles up to us and we get a look at him up close; lean, unshaven, determined.  His answers are all business. 

At times in New York the Londoner appeared apathetic, going through the motions of another heavyweight title defence. This week there's a hunger about him, he's a man with fire back in his belly. A challenger mentality. A motivation that appeared to desert him on that warm June evening when his promoter Eddie Hearn was left with his head in his hands. Hearn - who's now back in jovial spirits after accepting the Saudis' $40 million site fee - joked earlier this week that people think hosting an event in Saudi is sticking up a boxing ring in the desert with a couple of camels looking on. Quite the opposite.

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THE PRESSER

On Wednesday we sat aboard a stationary single-decker coach, waiting to be ferried to the final press conference.  After 40 minutes melting under the midday sun, the driver announced that the King of Saudi was boarding a helicopter atop the hotel we were parked outside, putting the brakes on any vehicles entering or leaving the complex.

Eventually, the King was airborne and we were headed for the desert, the shuttle alive with boxing chatter.

On the outskirts of the city we got our first glimpse of the entertainment complex that has risen out of the desert inside six weeks. Men in high-vis and hard hats were still adding finishing touches to the festival-sized stage that will host RnB legend Usher over the course of the weekend, as well as AJ's bespoke 15,000-seater stadium. Not a camel in sight. 

Six months ago we sat in the adjoining theatre to Madison Square Garden; a state-of-the-art complex in the heartbeat of New York. Some 6,000 miles east of New York, we were chaperoned into a two-story wooden structure with exposed wooden beams and creaky floorboards. The collection of media was a mix of western jeans and traditional local robes. Prince Khalid commanded the centre of the top table, flanked by Hearn, who referred to his new business partner as "The Big K". 

To the Prince's right, Ruiz was waging psychological warfare, sporting the basketball jersey of the New York Knicks, who famously play their home matches at Madison Square Garden. To his left, an intense Anthony Joshua. You got the feeling this AJ wouldn't hand his belts over to Ruiz like he infamously did at their New York weigh-in. Both men appeared confident and ready, though last-minute preparation for the clash has been somewhat out of the ordinary.

They're focused though. When AJ first dropped the line about being on "lockdown", it reminded me of the New York open workout. There, after going through his drills, he spent 30 minutes or so in the ring, face-timing JD Sports for a commercial commitment. None of that here. Straight back to the gym. Four days out, the Londoner was still sparring.

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THE BRITS

The Sportsman landed in Riyadh on Sunday to cover a heavyweight showdown that could define Joshua's career. But it was only on Friday that we ran into our first British fight fans, checking in at our hotel's reception. 

The pair of loyal Londoners recognised our accents and asked: "Is Saudi safe?" A concern that could go someway to explaining why AJ's light on home support.

Six months ago in New York, in the lead-up to AJ's shock defeat to Ruiz, the scene was different.  All week we mingled among supporters, listening to their debates over which round AJ would dispatch the late replacement from Mexico. 

At the open workout overlooking Hudson Bay, the familiar Anthony Joshua chants rang around the venue, creating an atmosphere and anticipation for fight night. Earlier this week, beneath some elaborately-shaped government buildings, AJ shadowboxed for a few dozen excited but low-key locals. British boxing supporters generate a unique amount of noise that's been missing here in the Gulf.

THE PREDICTION

The psychological side of this fight is huge. On the ground, I've repeated the question: "Has AJ exorcised the demons of New York?" and I'm yet to get a conclusive answer.

Hearn said he wants AJ to remember the pain, while Ruiz and his coach Manny Robles sidestepped any suggestion Joshua is still haunted by his first defeat, choosing to pay respect to their opponent. They have cunning, quiet confidence in their small team. 

At Tuesday's open workout we peered through the ropes and watched Ruiz whip in hooks at a speed which seems unnatural for a man of his size. There's no doubt it could end the same way as their first contest. That said, I'm leaning towards Anthony Joshua, our great heavyweight hope who was dropped four times on his American debut.

AJ confirmed this week that something was off in New York, admitting he will "tell everyone" the story behind his first loss. Mentally, Joshua seems a different man six months on.

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