SURELY Andy Ruiz Jr can’t get away with his harmless little boy act for much longer.
It worked a treat in New York when he merrily followed Anthony Joshua around before the then-heavyweight king lent him some belts to play with. Three days later – after lulling Joshua into an entirely false sense of security – Ruiz went ballistic and beat the bejesus out of the champion to score one of the unlikeliest victories in boxing’s long history.
Today, at the final press conference in Saudi Arabia ahead of their rematch, Ruiz again resembled a kid who was being allowed to stay up late on a school night. He grinned a lot. He acted all polite. But it was Ruiz’s attire – a New York Knicks vest – that hinted something a little more sinister might be at play.
The WBA, IBF and WBO champion would later admit that the replica shirt he was wearing was “a bit of fun” designed to remind Joshua of the city where the little boy turned nasty. While watching Ruiz smiling and laughing this week, it becomes a little tricky – despite witnessing him demolish Joshua six months ago – to envision him turning into that destroyer again. But it’s far from the ludicrous stretch of rational thinking that it was. Particularly as it becomes apparent that everything Andy Ruiz Jr does during these days before battle is designed to unsettle his opponent’s focus.
The two went face to face for the cameras but not before the former champion reciprocated the current champion’s smile. Joshua, after looking down at the mischievous little fella who was stretching his neck to look back at him, then ended the exchange with a fist bump.
There has been something exceptionally surreal about this rivalry from the start. That feeling heightened when the rematch was confirmed to take place in Saudi Arabia. It increased again today.
Approximately 200 yards from the 15,000-seater stadium, that has been constructed in seven weeks to stage one of the most eagerly awaited of all heavyweight showdowns, stands a tall wooden tower. Once inside it’s a little rickety underfoot but visually impressive nonetheless.
Imagine walking onto the set of The Shining and the lobby area to the Overlook Hotel (where Jack Nicholson’s character finally lost his marbles in front of a typewriter) but with windows from floor to ceiling. Then cross it with some new-fangled art deco home that gets rave reviews on Grand Designs for its innovative use of space and you might get the idea.
On the upper floor of the split-level hospitality area is where the two fighters, their teams, the promoters and copious amounts of media gathered today to witness the latest instalment of the Joshua-Ruiz story. It all began six months ago when Andy Ruiz Jr entered Joshua’s reality, first as a harmless challenger who came in at six weeks’ notice and then as his unlikely conqueror who savagely stole it all.
“It’s interesting to be on this side of the table,” Joshua said about rediscovering what it feels like to be challenger. “Even when you are a champion, Andy as a respected heavyweight will know that now, you always have to have that challenger’s mindset. That’s the reality. I had those belts around my waist and now I’m back to my 16th fight when I first challenged [Charles Martin in 2016] for my first title. I am hungry and focused and determined to get those belts back.
“I have always had that focus but not always the time to reflect,” Joshua continued. “Everything came quickly. European championships, world championships, British titles, world titles, boom, boom, boom. Even when I look at the poster over there [of Saturday’s event] I have fought [Eric] Molina, [Alexander] Povetkin, Ruiz, Dillian [Whyte], Mahammadrasul Majidov, I’ve sparred with Tom Little, I’ve sparred with Mariusz Wach. I’ve been around the block in this game in a short space of time. I really have to understand that I’m definitely experienced.
“From reflection [since the loss to Ruiz] in my own time I realise that me and Andy are very different.”
They are indeed different in so many ways.
As Joshua then spoke about going back to his Finchley amateur club to rediscover his drive and determination and about having no fear, Ruiz – not out of view but without any eyes on him – stopped smiling, blew out his cheeks and looked at the world championship belts that were propped up in front of him. It was as if in that moment he grew a little tired of listening to his rival. Tired too – perhaps – of playing the nice guy when all he wants to do is get in the ring and show everyone again who is worthy of such attention.
“I don’t want these beautiful belts to go away,” he said with just a hint of menace. “Remember I’ve been doing this since I was six, it’s finally paying off, and no way I’m going let these belts go. I’m going to die trying and do anything that’s possible to get that victory. It’s been a long journey, long roller coaster in my life, and no way I’m going to let these go on December 7. Let the best man win.”
If the little boy with the chubby cheeks and the infectious grin becomes that man again – as many educated observers are starting to believe – we should all hail the champion.
Not only as a very good fighter, but also a master in the art of mind games.