During the 1960s, the New York Times introduced an editorial policy to only refer to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay. Most other major publications followed suit. Even if a writer declined to use what the fighter described as his slave name, their act of rebellion would be corrected during the production process.
That was the power of Ali. His unapologetic voice of protest was so loud that merely using his preferred name — given to him by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad — implicitly declared where you stood on the civil rights movement; or even hinted that you might be a Black Power sympathiser.
By the time the Rumble in the Jungle came around in 1974, most of the media had dropped its war on semantics but Ali remained an immortal symbol of defiance. The aura he brought into the fight combined with the masterful display he produced, cemented its place in the history books as one of the greatest ever.
It’s been easy to make a connection to that day as we build up to Anthony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia at the weekend. A big-money, heavyweight-title bout fought under the gaze of a contentious regime? The parallels are plain to see.
But just as the Clash of the Dunes has the potential to carve its place in the annals of history, so too could it just as easily fall into obscurity — dragging the fighters down with it. Will anybody be talking about Joshua or Ruiz three decades from now? There’s a case to be made that both face serious challenges to their legacy on Saturday.
Getting to this point in the first place is the culmination of a hilarious set of circumstances. Ruiz, relatively unknown at the time, was granted the opportunity to challenge Joshua the first time round only after the Brit’s scheduled opponent, Jarrell Miller, tested positive for three different banned substances. Even then, it has since been revealed, the Mexican had to resort to sending the fight promoter a DM on Instagram begging him to give him a spot in the fight, promising to beat the four-organisation champ.
What followed sent shock waves through the sporting world. Here was Ruiz, commonly and euphemistically referred to as “fleshy”, dominating a man with a demigod physique and few demonstrable weaknesses. Joshua looked utterly exasperated as he repeatedly scrambled to his knees — puzzled by what he had just been hit with. In seven rounds he had gone from the next great British hope to the butt of endless memes.
The win shot Ruiz to fame and fortune — and he’s evidently enjoyed splashing the latter. In two revealing day-in-the-life episodes on a YouTube channel called Dank City — a weed culture enterprise that somehow set this up — we see the new star flaunting his Rolls Royces before trading one in to get an even more extravagant modified Mercedes G-Class. Oh, he also scoffs down a couple of slices of pizza the day before he leaves for Saudi Arabia.
Should he lose on Saturday there will no doubt be countless think pieces written about how this plucky upstart caught a break only to get lost in the maelstrom of success. As big as his June win might have been, all it would take is one loss to completely shift his narrative to a short fizzle.
The stakes for Joshua’s reputation are equally high. Before his hammering by Ruiz he was undefeated and it was easy to overlook the fact that he had yet to face Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. Now, all of a sudden, it serves as a foreshadowing that perhaps his 22-0 streak was helped along by the level of opposition he had faced thus far.
Many boxing pundits still pay Joshua’s ability a compliment by suggesting his arrogance was his undoing in his first loss. With months to motivate himself for this weekend’s match, there will be nowhere to hide should he lose. Should he fail, it will certainly be some time before he gets another shot under the big lights.
What the fighters share equally is their ambivalence to the significance of fighting in Saudi Arabia.
The outdoor, 15 000-seater Diriyah Arena, on the edge of Riyadh, didn’t even exist before October. Its erection represents the latest attempt by the Saudi General Sports Authority to present the kingdom in a positive light to a global audience. Or “sportswashing”, if you prefer. The term has become synonymous with a regime that is willing to throw an infinite budget at football teams, tennis tournaments, pro-wrestling events, motorsport races and anything else that makes the country seem like a global player in the sports and entertainment world.
Organisations such as Amnesty International have begged the fighters (Joshua in particular) to refuse the location, reminding them of the terrible human rights record of the Saudi monarchy. They’ve been ignored.
Joshua said he “can’t put on a cape and be a superhero” before launching into an impassioned monologue about how high his taxes are and he doesn’t actually make that much money, thus will take what he can get. Ruiz, as we’ve established, is not in the business of pleading poverty and instead has ignored the issue entirely.
Are we right to expect more from boxers? Particularly those at the pinnacle of the sport?
It’s easy to forget that Ali was also criticised for the Rumble in the Jungle. Similarly, the fight was a clear powerplay by Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and its then dictator Mobutu Sese Seko — the chief protagonist in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, a thinker who Ali admired.
There’s an argument that the fight was an indication of the waning of Ali’s willingness to always fight the man.
Others point to the nuance of the situation and what it would have meant to many in the Black Power movement to hold such an illustrious event on African soil.
Whatever the great fighter’s motivations, there’s no denying that he was immortalised for as much as he did outside the ring as he did in it. He stood for something.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect Joshua or Ruiz to take a stance on political issues that neither has an interest in. Maybe either or both will go on to have storied careers after this weekend’s bout. But will columnists and sports scribes write about December 7 2019 three decades from now? That’s hard to imagine.