Alan Hubbard

First, it was the Rumble in the Jungle, then the Thrilla in Manila. Now stand by for the Rage on the Red Sea.

Big-time boxing loves a label, and its supreme prize, the heavyweight championship of the world, has taken us to some weird, and occasionally not-so-wonderful places.

The latest excursion is to Jeddah, the coastal city in Saudi Arabia, where sometime after midnight this Saturday two Olympic champions will step into the ring at the King Abdullah Sports City to do battle for the second time.

The event is one of the most remarkable in sport, as well as being intensely controversial.

It is a decade since Britain’s Anthony Joshua and Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk stood on the podium at London's Excel Centre to receive their respective gold medals - Joshua at super heavyweight and Usyk at light-heavy.

Nine years later both had ascended to professional world status with Joshua holding four of the five heavyweight belts and Usyk the reigning cruiserweight champion.

Despite the difference in size and weight Usyk stylishly relieved Joshua of his heavyweight titles, giving the Londoner a lesson in ring craftsmanship at Tottenham Hotspurs' swish new stadium.

A return was inevitable and Saudi Arabia swiftly stepped in with a multi-million dollar offer which simply could not be refused, creating an oasis of stage-managed liberalism in a land ruled by one of the world's most repressive regimes.

The bout between Britain’s Anthony Joshua, right, and Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk is being billed as the Rage on the Red Sea ©Getty Images
The bout between Britain’s Anthony Joshua, right, and Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk is being billed as the Rage on the Red Sea ©Getty Images

No one should doubt that this is all part of Saudi’s ploy to use sport as a vehicle to distract us from focussing on their abhorrent abuse of human rights which Amnesty International regularly condemns.

Sportswashing is the term used. And Saudi has already poured billions of an unlimited supply of petro-dollars into hosting numerous international sporting showpieces, of which the Rage on the Red Sea is not only the latest but the most extravagant.

The combatants will share a $100 million purse, a figure which will be doubled should WBC champion Tyson Fury change his mind again about quitting to meet the winner in a historic unification belt.

No doubt he will, especially if it is Joshua, as he is not the retiring sort.

Jeddah is just an hour's drive from Mecca, the hub of the Islamic religion.

Now it seems there is a determination to make Saudi Arabia the Mecca of world sport, whatever the cost.

I've visited there on three occasions and it is far from my favourite country.

The last time was some five years ago and to imagine that this desert nation, locked in medieval practices, would host a world heavyweight championship, let alone a Formula One Grand Prix among other international marquee events, seemed something of a mirage.

The take-over of Newcastle United and the establishment of the LIV tour that has caused such an uproar in the world of golf are further examples of Saudi's ambition to get the world focussed on sport rather than the abuse of human rights, the bombing in Yemen and the macabre murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, widely believed to have been masterminded by the Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman, who is bankrolling the project.

More so is another astonishing event happening this weekend.

An all-female fight will be staged in Saudi for the first time, which, knowing the rigidly chauvinistic attitude towards women in the kingdom, seemed as unlikely as a snowstorm in the Sahara.

Somalian Ramla Ali, left, and Crystal Garcia Nova from the Dominican Republic will face each other in the first all-female fight in Saudi Arabia ©Getty Images
Somalian Ramla Ali, left, and Crystal Garcia Nova from the Dominican Republic will face each other in the first all-female fight in Saudi Arabia ©Getty Images

But never mind climate change, this is a culture change of phenomenal proportions.

One of the supporting bouts on the bill will feature an eight rounds super bantamweight contest between Somalian Ramla Ali and Crystal Garcia Nova from the Dominican Republic.

The 32-year-old Ali's backstory is soon to become a movie.

As a child, she fled Somalia by boat, and came to London as a refugee to take up boxing, becoming the first Muslim woman to win an English title.

She then reactivated her Somalian citizenship to carry the nation's flag at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics last year.

Now she is unbeaten as a professional, as well as being a high fashion model featured in the edition of Vogue that was edited by Meghan Markel.

She is also an outspoken activist for women's rights, something which makes it even more remarkable as this is punishable by imprisonment in Saudi.

However, she says she is convinced that including this fight indicates that the role of women will be enhanced.

"If I am trying to fight for women’s rights why wouldn't I support a country who is trying to make a change," she argues.

It would seem that the Saudi Government is so desperate to camouflage its well-documented atrocities that it is prepared to ditch the ban on female participation in almost every elite sport.

Time to burn the burqas?

Recently a Saudi airliner flew for the first time with an all-female crew, including the pilot.

But such a breakthrough does not sit easily with the news that a young Saudi woman has just been jailed for 34 years for making a critical comment about the regime on Twitter.

But back to the big fight, and a few tips for any fans going to watch it in Jeddah.

Don’t be fooled should you see two men walking together and holding hands. It is simply an old Arab custom.

Homosexuality is banned, as is booze. Found in possession of even a can of lager risks a visit to the infamous "Chop, Chop Square" in the capital Riyadh for a public lashing.

This is where hundreds of tortured prisoners end up minus their heads. Or hands.

Not that the combatants or crowd in the Jeddah Superdome will be concerned with such issues.

As to the outcome, I believe Joshua's best hope for revenge is the possibility that Usyk will have taken his eye off the punchball, distracted by the happenings at home.

The Ukrainian, given special leave from duty with the Territorial Army Reserve, acknowledges the situation, saying: "Compared to my friends fighting on the front line in Ukraine, me fighting Joshua is nothing."

A victory for Oleksandr Usyk will be a moral win for Ukrainian soldiers fighting against the Russian invasion ©Getty Images
A victory for Oleksandr Usyk will be a moral win for Ukrainian soldiers fighting against the Russian invasion ©Getty Images

When they fought before, Joshua was a heavy favourite but it was Usyk who dominated from the beginning.

He won on a unanimous points decision but was close to stopping Joshua in the final seconds of the last round.

There is no doubt that Joshua can bang, but he has flaws, one of which is being open to a counter punch.

This is the principal weapon in the Ukrainian's armoury.

With the blessing of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Usyk knows that victory will be an enormous boost for his nation's morale at a time when it is most needed.

However, his preparations have been far from straightforward.

Five months after beating Joshua, he was defending his country against the Russian invaders.

He left Ukraine in March for training camps in Poland and Dubai.

Interestingly Joshua has axed trainer Robert McCracken, who tutored him to both the Olympic and world titles and replaced him with American Robert Garcia which suggests a change of style and tactics.

Joshua, 32, has slimmed down considerably while the 35-year-old Usyk has put on 15 kg and now looks the part of a superbly muscled heavyweight.

So we can expect that instead of mistakenly trying to outbox Usyk, who is arguably the most skilled boxer on the planet, Joshua will try to knock him out, a complete reversal of the previous meeting.

Joshua aims to emulate Muhammad Ali and become a three-time world champion. Another defeat would most likely signal the end of his ring career.

I am torn between wanting him to win as a fellow Brit, but equally, I would be delighted to see Usyk's arm raised again because of what he is fighting for.

In the end, I think the outcome of this fight will be decided as much by the feet as the fists.

Usyk has a great movement that would earn him a starring role at the Bolshoi - not that he welcomes any reference to things Russian.

I believe those dancing feet will carry him to victory by a stoppage around the tenth round.

A punch on the jaw for Joshua means one in the eye for Putin.