ANDY RUIZ JR is still every inch the underdog he’s always been. You don’t have to squint to imagine him as the chubby yet energetic six-year-old who was bundled off to the boxing gym by his father.
He was boomeranged around the ring for two weeks before he started to find his feet. At the age of seven he had his first amateur fight. Because he weighed significantly more than any kids of the same age, the young Mexican American had to take on a 12-year-old. It was no surprise when he lost.
Twenty-two years later he challenges the unbeaten Anthony Joshua for the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles inside New York’s Madison Square Garden. No one expects him to win this one, either. In fact, the notion that he will is preposterous. That’s the way Ruiz likes it.
“When I was a six,” he recalls, “I was a hyperactive kid, always breaking things and getting into trouble. My dad thought I had too much energy, so he took me to the gym to let off some steam. In my first two weeks I got beat up and told my dad I wanted to quit but he told me to stick at it and promised I would be able to beat them up eventually.
“By the time I was 10, I was fighting men and I was beating them,” Ruiz continues. “Having those experiences as a kid and taking those punches along the way has helped to get me here.
“My experiences from between the ages of six and 29 will mean Anthony Joshua faces a completely different ball game when he gets in the ring with me. I don’t think Joshua has ever boxed anyone like me. I might not look the part, but I throw combinations and I’ll do everything to win.
“I think everyone is underestimating me and I hope he is too. I hope he thinks ‘I am going to beat up this chubby little kid’ but I am here to win.”
One could be forgiven for not taking Andy Ruiz Jr seriously. In truth, few are. Just two days before the fight, at the final press conference inside the elegant Beacon Theater in New York, the media gathered round Anthony Joshua and asked him lots of questions. The majority were about WBC champion, Deontay Wilder. One was about Dillian Whyte. Not one about Andy Ruiz Jr, the fighter Joshua is facing in 48 hours’ time.
Yet Ruiz doesn’t seem to mind. He’s having a great time, posing with the champion’s belts, making the most of all the attention. The huge smile that spreads over his face every time he’s asked a question and the soft voice that follows makes it hard to think of anything other than that six-year-old who stumbled into a boxing gym for the first time. It’s even easier to picture him losing a one-sided fight on Saturday night.
He’s trying to say the right things. Like he’s willing to die in the ring. We’ve heard that before, that grim promise. But in Ruiz’s case there is some substance to such claims which always seem a step too far. His friend Francisco Leal died three days after being knocked out by Raul Hirales in 2013. That tragedy came four years after super-flyweight Alejandro “Timon” Martinez, another acquaintance of Ruiz, lost his life to boxing following a bout with Juan Alberto Rosas.
“This is what I have been waiting on,” Ruiz said. “All fighters put their lives on the line, I have two friends who have died from this boxing game and it kind of scares me but I feel I was made for this. I grew up with those two guys and I felt it could happen to me and I was not sure if I was going to continue.”
Ruiz fought on and established himself as a contender, even fighting for the WBO title that Joshua now owns. In December 2016 he lost a highly contentious 12-round decision to Joseph Parker in New Zealand. In the fight he displayed the fast hands that he insists will bring victory on Saturday night, yet he failed to dominate an opponent who Joshua went on to defeat handily 15 months later.
But Ruiz’s performance against Parker proved he was world class. Many observers felt he’d done enough to win yet Ruiz, perhaps tellingly, is not here to dine out on being a nearly man. He takes no glory from that defeat.
“When I boxed Parker I trained myself,” Parker explained. “I only had a month to prepare, I was with [former coach] Abel Sanchez but he had a lot fighters at that time, around seven or eight. That’s no criticism of Abel, I learned a lot from him, but I trained myself for that fight. I should have made history that day.
“I was very tense, I had hardly done any pad work and I felt, even though I feel I won that fight, I could have done more.
“I don’t want this one going to the judges. I have to trust the judges, but they are going to favour the champion, this is an Anthony Joshua show.
“But he is going to be shocked by my style and the punches that are coming. I have been working on everything and I know how to beat him. I want to stay small, stick and move, everyone fights Joshua too far away, they give him his reach and height advantages, but I won’t.”
Following the loss to Parker, Ruiz and Sanchez parted company. He encountered problems with promoters Top Rank before switching to Al Haymon, joining forces with esteemed trainer Manny Robles and beginning a comeback in 2018. Veteran gatekeepers Devin Vargas, Kevin Johnson [above] and Alexander Dimitrenko have all been beaten but they’re not exactly ideal preparation for someone like Joshua.
Ruiz doesn’t care about that. He doesn’t care about his weight, nor about being the underdog he’s always been. He likes it that way. He just cares about shocking the world.
“I think it’s the big Mexican cojones I have, I think I am meant for this,” he says, still smiling that smile.
“Without boxing I would have probably worked with my dad in construction or been a drug dealer, because of some of the people that were around me, boxing saved my life.
“There will always be tough fights but as long as you are really motivated, that is what counts.
“The money is life-changing but I told Eddie Hearn it was never really about the money, it is about the opportunity and making history. God damn, I am ready, I am scared of no one accept God.
“I am here to build a legacy where everyone knows my name.”