IF I’d told my friends at the start of the year that, come Christmas time, a rematch being staged in Saudi Arabia featuring Andy Ruiz Jr would be the most anticipated event on the boxing calendar, they’d have phoned my wife, told her to come quick, and instructed the barman not to serve me another drop.
But here we are about to enter this bizarre reality where underdogs are top dogs and the planet’s most enticing bout is being staged in one of the least enticing fight locations upon it. As the rest of the world readies itself for the season to be jolly, that time of merriment and goodwill, unlikely challenger Anthony Joshua and even unlikelier champion Ruiz Jr will soberly unwrap their reputations and lay them bare in the Middle East. And it’s not only reputations and legacies that are on the line inside a purpose-built arena in Diriyah: Three heavyweight titles are up for grabs and, topping the fighters’ Christmas lists, pole position in the richest division in boxing.
Should the vanquished be Ruiz, as the bookies expect, then it will likely be a case of as you were before this astonishing tale began. A mere blot on the landscape, some valuable lessons banked, and Joshua jumping back into the sticky quagmire of sanctioning body commitments and negotiations with Deontay Wilder and/or Tyson Fury. But if it’s the Brit who loses again – a highly plausible scenario – then the division might take a very different turn indeed. For that reason, the neutral may find a repeat victory the favourable outcome because, thanks to Ruiz’s links with Wilder’s all-conquering advisor Al Haymon, a unification showdown for all the marbles would be markedly easier to make for him than for the Matchroom-promoted Joshua. That’s right, Andy Ruiz Jr, the same Andy Ruiz Jr who not so long ago was being ditched by trainers and promoters for being undisciplined, might only be a few punches away from becoming undisputed.
The same Andy Ruiz Jr who this time last year was calling out Jarrell Miller after labouring to a forgettable 10-round points win over Kevin Johnson. The same roly-poly Andy Ruiz Jnr, don’t forget, who many of you were laughing at when he removed his shirt at the weigh-in, almost banged his head on Joshua’s heaving pectorals, before looking up into his eyes and smiling like a dog wags his tail. Even now, even after witnessing Ruiz then bare his teeth and savage Joshua in New York, exposing predictions of greatness for the Brit with every bite, his current position atop sport seems like something from the land of make believe.
The truth of the situation, though, is what Joshua must face up to if he’s going to gain revenge. On June 1, inside a packed Madison Square Garden, Ruiz got up from a heavy knockdown in round three, and left hooked the WBA, WBO and IBF champion’s temple with all his might. What followed that startling pivotal moment was a harrowing thrashing which saw him hit the mat four times. It was no fluke, no punch from the gods, no case of good or bad luck. Ruiz saw his opening and he capitilised, over and over again. Joshua was initially punished for carelessness, for strolling in with his chin high and his hands low and for presuming he was about to finish off the plucky little fat man. Though he survived until the seventh he could not redress the balance. Ruiz was too good and too fast and too accurate to let him. For Joshua to win the return, the faults that led to his downfall must disappear. Or, at the very least, be protected.
It’s a huge ask, particularly so soon after the first fight. For further context, Floyd Patterson (when he revenged Ingemar Johansson in 1960), Muhammad Ali (beating Leon Spinks in 1978), and Lennox Lewis (teaching Hasim Rahman a lesson in 2001) are the only deposed heavyweight champions who won immediate rematches. Fighters like Jersey Joe Walcott, Patterson (in his second reign), Mike Weaver, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield all failed to put the record straight in instant returns. Other notable former champions, like Bob Fitzsimmons, Jack Dempsey and Ezzard Charles, could not win sequels even after taking bouts in the interim. Further noteworthy heavyweight cases to study: Joe Louis spectacularly beating old conqueror Max Schmeling in 1938 and Wladimir Klitschko levelling the score with Lamon Brewster in 2007 came after the upset losers of the first fight took their time building up to the second. For Joshua, though, he’s being thrown straight back into the deep end while still dripping wet.
The most common criticism aimed at “AJ” is the issue of taking punches. And not just taking them but being unable to avoid them. The question marks surrounding his durability will now likely remain for the remainder of his career, irrespective of what happens on Saturday night (December 7). No amount of training will improve his ability to withstand a shot, it’s true. However, Ruiz’s punching power is worthy of deeper investigation.
Fans and observers argued that Joshua’s loss cannot be written off as a one-punch knockout in the same way that, say, Lennox Lewis’ defeats to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman can. Indeed, Joshua took punch after punch and could not muster any significant reply nor, tellingly, keep Ruiz off him. Yet it’s also true that while one punch became many, it was only one punch that turned out the lights. While other fighters may have taken their naps lying down after taking such a whack, Joshua instead sleepwalked through the next four sessions, bumping into things and tripping up as he went. So, with that in mind, it is fair to say that just one punch ruined him that night, even if plenty followed to rubberstamp the defeat. No, it was not a freak event or a lucky punch, but to suddenly write off Joshua as ‘chinny’ might be being unfair, particularly when one recalls he’s emerged from crises against Dillian Whyte, Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin.
The difference between Ruiz and each of Whyte, Klitschko and Povetkin, though, is also crucial in the analysis. Ruiz, unlike the other three, has intelligent feet and ludicrously fast hands for a heavyweight. When one shot lands he doesn’t take his time landing another. Not only that, he’s been schooled in the art of fighting from a very young age. His Mexican heritage shines through in his style. That bullish but educated approach play appears to be all wrong for a stand-up-tall-and-straight puncher like Joshua. Ruiz can get close, slip punches, jab and bang the body while scoring round the side and over the top. It is easy to envision Ruiz closing the distance early in the bout and raining pain all over Joshua once again.
That’s if Ruiz really is the orchestrator of terror that we’re being led to believe he is. Only after huge upsets can fighters’ reputations soar and plummet so dramatically. Think about it – Ruiz looked sensational against Joshua, but he had never looked nearly as impressive before. Because if he had looked like a Mexican Mike Tyson throughout his career, him train-wrecking Joshua wouldn’t have been anything like the shock it was. Ruiz was unquestionably a good fighter but are we now to believe he was also the division’s best-kept secret despite us witnessing him in action numerous times prior? For example, in his only previous visit to world class, he might have been unfortunate to not get the decision against Joseph Parker in 2016 but nobody who witnessed that bout called Ruiz a champion in the making.
We can and should apply the same logic to Joshua. Those who now call him a bad fighter because of his only defeat must have missed him beating Whyte, Klitschko, Povetkin, Parker, Dominic Breazeale and Carlos Takam. Those who now declare the Watford man a raw novice must have been away when news of his Olympic gold medal dominated the media. In the same way that Ruiz did not wake up as Mike Tyson on June 1, Joshua did not suddenly become Andrew Flintoff, either.
Far from a Tyson-Flintoff mismatch, Ruiz-Joshua II is actually one of the toughest fights in recent memory to predict. Also worth noting at this point that much of that unpredictability is down to what can only be a presumption: That Anthony Joshua had the mother of all bad days at the office in June. Because if it was anyone other than a fighter who has been heavily hyped since day one taking the kind of beating he endured in New York, the only logical conclusion to come to when calling the rematch would be more of the same. It’s true, when a boxer is stopped like that in fight one, they’re nearly always stopped even quicker in fight two.
However, while we can’t yet be sure that the Englishman simply had an off-night, we can be sure that he was over-confident, distracted by endless talk of Wilder and too concerned with scoring an impressive knockout on his US debut. Consciously or not, he was also lulled into a false sense of security by Ruiz’s physical appearance and his jolly demeanour during fight week. That disrespect showed in the ring, long before the challenger dropped a truth bomb in round three. This time, Joshua knows exactly what to expect whereas Ruiz – it can be argued – does not. If we saw something approaching the best of Ruiz in June we most certainly didn’t see anything like that from Joshua. Even Anthony’s harshest critics would have to agree with that.
Joshua is acting like a challenger again. Gone is the bristly cockiness that blighted him last time. Ruiz, too, is different. While many claim he only had six weeks to prepare for the first fight, he spent three months in the gym training to beat Alexander Dimitrenko before briskly re-entering camp after he was named as drug cheat Jarrell Miller’s replacement to face AJ. That’s not to say he hasn’t trained as hard this time but it’s impossible not to speculate that now he’s champion and rich beyond his wildest dreams, he enters the return with the same outlook. The evidence for a different outcome, then, is just as strong as the potential for the same.
The truth, that Joshua was overrated and Ruiz is not quite as good as he looked, might lie somewhere in between. Irrespective, as a contest and as a puzzle, it’s poised, it’s fascinating and it’s hard to solve.
But when making a prediction, it’s hard to ignore this: Even when fighting all too casually in the opening rounds of their first fight, Joshua found a way to engineer a left hook that floored Ruiz. There were also moments in the second round, when he used his strength to dictate, which highlight that Joshua could boss Ruiz over 12. Say what you like about Joshua’s collapse after he took that left hook up high, but such a punch from Ruiz did not appear to be forthcoming until the favourite grew too confident.
The flipside (and in this matchup there’s always a flipside): If it’s hard to ignore flashes of evidence from Part I that show Joshua can win Part II, it’s frankly impossible to brush off the explosive truths of Ruiz’s greater infighting that set up one of the biggest upsets in history. Joshua will need to be more compact defensively, more savvy with his attacks and get Ruiz’s respect early; attempting to stay on his toes will only lead to disaster for Joshua. He seems to know all of this, too; in the centre of Riyadh on the Monday before battle at a media dinner, Joshua was saying all the right things and was notably more relaxed and aware of the threat that lies ahead than he was on the Monday before their New York collision.
Much has been made of the location. All talk that Saudi Arabia could become the new Las Vegas seems a stretch all things considered but, at this juncture, the long-term future of boxing in Saudi is a debate for another time. More worthy of discussion now is which fighter’s short-term future will it affect the most? The time difference – three hours ahead of the UK, 11 hours ahead of California – will be more of a disruption to the champion than the challenger (for those watching in the UK on Sky Sports Box Office, by the way, expect ringwalks around 8.45pm). We don’t yet know what the atmosphere will be like, but we can estimate it will be quite different to what Joshua has experienced as a professional. There will not be thousands of drunken fans chanting his name, there will not be that energy that has fed Joshua so effectively in the past. But neither will there be the weight of expectancy and pressure.
To say he’s born again might be being a little dramatic, but here in Saudi Arabia, Joshua cuts the figure of a man who is clutching his own destiny in his hands. No stone that could be unturned has been left unturned. No expense has been spared. His preparation, we’re told, has been exceptional and the distractions that seeped into the build-up to the first fight have been locked away. His media commitments have been reduced. Gone are the product endorsements he was forced to perform every five minutes. Joshua, after believing he knew all there was to know, has gone back to school.
If history favours And Ruiz when looking at rematches, it doesn’t when examining the fates of heavyweight upset winners
Ruiz has been knuckling down too. In a different way to his challenger, the champion will want to prove people wrong. That will bring its own pressure. Ruiz entered the opening contest buoyed by a sense of having nothing whatsoever to lose. The stress from dealing with the opposite sensation will unquestionably be keenly felt. And if history favours Ruiz when looking at rematches, it doesn’t when examining the fates of heavyweight upset winners. James J. Braddock, Leon Spinks and James “Buster” Douglas all fell at the first hurdle following unlikely triumphs. Only very special boxers (like Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield) built on surprise victories to become established champions.
It may all come down to a mental battle. The feeling here is that Joshua, galvanised rather than weakened by the humiliation of losing to Ruiz, and with his studious streak reinvigorated, will enter this contest confident, composed, and immeasurably more switched on. He will know, unlike every outing he’s had since he defeated Klitschko in 2017, he is entering the most important fight of his life.
With that in mind, expect Joshua to box to orders in the early going, hold his position in centre ring and hurt Ruiz more than once. He may threaten to unravel during the middle rounds when he almost inevitably tires. Yet this time, he can regain his composure to win a deserved decision in a bout that lacks the intense drama of the first fight but is impossible to turn away from nonetheless.