TWELVE months ago in New York, there was only one fight that mattered. And it wasn’t the one we were all there to see. When Andy Ruiz Jnr got up in round three, everyone waited for him to fall again. Journalists put their fingertips to their keyboards, applied the final touches to their ringside reports and declared Anthony Joshua’s New York debut a triumph. Are you watching, Deontay Wilder? But Wilder, like the rest of us, was not paying attention. He declined the invitation to be ringside and instead informed the world, in the days leading up to Joshua-Ruiz, that he would be fighting old rivals Luis Ortiz and Tyson Fury in his next two bouts. What would surely have been the highest grossing fight in boxing history could wait. But of course it couldn’t. It was already too late.
Ruiz Jnr steadied himself. He weathered the follow-up onslaught and countered his careless attacker with a history-jolting hook that shattered the equilibrium. Suddenly Joshua was in more trouble trying to keep his balance than Ruiz had been while losing his.
Declan Taylor, on deadline duty for The Independent, was sitting to my right and grabbed my arm in shock. ‘F**king hell, Joshua is going to lose,’ he said. The unbeaten champion was socked right and left and hit the mat. Thick fog descended on Joshua. He plundered through on concussed instincts until the seventh round when the fight was stopped. A new champ, a monumental shock and the heavyweight division had been turned upside down.
Even today – just one year later – the events that took place inside Madison Square Garden seem as preposterous as they did back then. So much has changed since that moment when Ruiz regained his footing that it’s pure fantasy, like recalling scenes from a film, to venture back.
Not only to the fight, which stunned everyone in attendance, but the scenes that surrounded it. The bustling and claustrophobic Manhattan streets and the high fives and hugs in nearby Jimmy’s Corner the night before. Only one year ago and not a face mask in sight.
We all know about the conspiracy theories regarding Joshua’s loss. He’d been knocked out in sparring the week before. He suffered an anxiety attack in the ring beforehand. Anyone shouting about those theories in the aftermath had kept quiet in the build-up. For all the clues that were dropped and there were plenty – Joshua’s mysterious bruise underneath his eye, his carefree attitude and Ruiz’s quiet but obvious confidence – not a word was uttered from the media, not even a whisper, about the Englishman potentially losing the fight. All they were talking about was the fight that really mattered.
Wilder scoffed at Joshua. I could see it coming, take that you bum, no surprise he ran from me. I’m a killer, I’m the hardest-hitting heavyweight in history, no man can stand up to these fists. Drunk on invincibility, Wilder then lost the first six rounds of his rematch with Ortiz before setting his feet and clobbering the Cuban in the seventh. Praise was heaped on Wilder’s shoulders for the fight-ending rocket with the long and stuttering lift-off all but ignored.
Joshua, meanwhile, regrouped. In Saudi Arabia he prodded and probed and boxed the perfect fight. Ruiz, both the fighter and the champion, was cruelly exposed over 12 one-sided rounds.
On to a raucous Las Vegas, another familiar landscape that now seems so alien, and one man who had been watching carefully. Tyson Fury told everyone he was going to knock out Wilder. He’d seen enough in the 12 rounds they shared in 2018 and everything that had happened since to know he had the beating of the American. What followed was among the most impressive thrashings in heavyweight history. Sin City went wild. The good old days. Just four months ago. Before the world changed in a heartbeat.
Again we’re left with two men and one fight that matters. More by luck than judgement, through twists and turns, it’s bigger and better than the one we had before. But the time we once had in abundance has gone. When boxing returns, the gambling on it happening must stop.