WHEN long-time HBO analyst Larry Merchant first set eyes on Andy Ruiz Jnr, the current WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight champion, it was anything but love at first sight.
They were in Macau, it was 2013, and Ruiz, six years from shocking Anthony Joshua and the world, was for now all fast hands, potential and excess skin. He was pummelling fellow Americans like Joe Hanks and Tor Hamer with ease but still seemed a long way from challenging the world’s best heavyweights.
That year Merchant, now 88, saw the round, boyish face and the big belly, then the hand speed and skills. He was shocked by his frame, but impressed by his game, and left China hoping Ruiz would one day knuckle down.
“I first saw Ruiz on some undercards on Bob Arum’s shows in Macau,” Merchant told Boxing News. “I saw him a couple of times and thought, Gee, he has such good fast hands, I wish he wasn’t a fat slob. If you don’t show that you care, why should other people show that they care?
“I thought he had a shot at Joshua, but I would not have bet any money on it. It’s like when (Floyd) Mayweather fought (Manny) Pacquiao and I was being asked about it. I said I have to pick Mayweather and I hope I’m wrong.”
Six years after Merchant assessed him in Macau, Ruiz took Joshua’s best in Madison Square Garden, New York, then rocked him to his very foundations with a left hook in round three. Four rounds after that, the fight was over and Ruiz, the unlikeliest of heavyweight champions, had secured the unlikeliest of heavyweight upsets.
The nature of the upset perfectly sets up the pair’s rematch in Saudi Arabia on December 7 and has many struggling to pick a winner. Six months ago, Joshua had his moments. He even dropped Ruiz before being dropped himself. Yet, despite this fleeting success, it appeared to be Ruiz who was in the ascendency, Ruiz who was faster, Ruiz who hit harder, and Ruiz, crucially, who seemed full of self-belief.
“It’s an interesting question. I don’t know,” said Merchant when asked to take sides. “Let’s see what Joshua has here. I was as excited about Joshua as the most ardent fan in Britain. He looked like and sounded like and presented himself as we would hope a heavyweight champion would be. But it wouldn’t shock me if Ruiz has a style that is hard for him to solve. I’m curious to see what he comes up with.
“Maybe there was a letdown before that fight for all the reasons we know about. Ruiz was a backup fighter who didn’t look like a fighter. He looked like an opponent.”
Loved for his ability to cut through the bluster and get to the heart of the matter, Merchant has sampled his share of great heavyweights, good heavyweights and awful ones, too. He has been ringside for some of the best heavyweight fights in history, including the 1971 classic between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and for others he would rather forget.
But today’s scene, he believes, is as good as fans of the heavyweight division have had it for some time.
“I like what’s going on,” said Larry, who retired from HBO duties in 2013. “The heavyweight division hasn’t had this kind of a lineup since the early nineties of (Evander) Holyfield and (Mike) Tyson and (Lennox) Lewis. I think that for the average fan having a fleet of good heavyweights and wanting to see matches and rematches and so on, it’s great.
“Between that fight (Ruiz vs. Joshua II) and the (Tyson) Fury and (Deontay) Wilder rematch (next February), it doesn’t get too much better than that. We haven’t had much better than that for a long while. I’ll take it and hope the current competition between promoters and television networks doesn’t delay it until they’re all old men.
“Having the four guys they have on top now means that for several years there’s going to be some speculation, hindsight, and hopefully we’ll have one or two memorable fights.
“It’s a great thing for boxing when the big men are good and they fight each other. This is another era when boxing gets everybody to notice it and they can’t get rid of it, no matter how much they want to.”