THERE are myriad differences between New York and Riyadh. The former is laced with boxing history and, should you wish to find them, irresistible scenes of hedonism and debauchery. But with the highs come the lows: It’s grubby and cluttered and hectic while nearly every corner of the city is scattered with homeless people asking for money. The latter, meanwhile, is new to both boxing and tourism so is severely lacking in focal points for the fight fanatic to visit. Yet it’s astonishingly clean and welcoming and a far cry from that terrifying location we were warned about (where one wrong move could result in your head being chopped off).
Perhaps the most striking difference, at the time of writing at least, is the demeanour of Anthony Joshua. Back in June, several floors up in a Manhattan hotel, Joshua was borderline dismissive as he sat down with the media six days before Andy Ruiz Jr turned him and the boxing world upside down with a ferocious display. So ferocious and dominant was the Mexican – making “AJ” look more mechanical and basic than ever before – that I was completely convinced he would win the return.
On this pre-fight Monday, though, Joshua seemed acutely aware of what he must do to restore order. He was gracious with the press in a way he hasn’t been for a while. That’s not to say he’s ever been rude, but certainly since he defeated Wladimir Klitschko in 2017 Joshua increasingly seemed to find sitting with the media something of a chore. It undoubtedly is to a certain degree yet Joshua, back in the role of challenger for the first time in three-and-a-half years, displayed a renewed hunger and eagerness to improve. He knows that he started to believe his own hype. He even admitted, as he looked back on his mindset going into fight one, he had got to the point – after being at the top for so long and treated accordingly – that he had nothing left to learn. It was a recipe for disaster.
Even so, it’s still hard to shake the feeling that Ruiz will always be wrong for Joshua. In the same way that Vernon Forrest was all wrong for Shane Mosley and, in turn, Ricardo Mayorga was all wrong for Forrest. But what I started to consider after listening to the battle cries of both fighters is that wrongs can become rights, especially when truly special fighters are orchestrating the change. Ken Norton was wrong for Muhammad Ali yet Ali found a way to win the immediate rematch. Jersey Joe Walcott had the beating of Joe Louis (and was the victim of some heinous scoring in fight one) yet the “Brown Bomber” delivered the punches to knock out Walcott in the return. Willie Pep managed to get past his worst nightmare, Sandy Saddler, in their rematch. I could go on, but it certainly raises another question – is Joshua really the special fighter we once thought he was? Because if he’s not, there is no other conclusion to draw than Ruiz beats him again.
Here in Saudi, Ruiz does not exactly look like a man ready to give up the riches he worked so hard to achieve. In fact, while Joshua of December is a contrasting figure to Joshua of June, Andy Ruiz is almost identical. He seems to have retained the same carefree confidence he took into the first fight. The respect for Joshua, at least outwardly, also remains. There have been inevitable concerns that the riches would go to his head – and his belly. Though the bling was wrapped around his neck, hands and wrists, he seems somehow broader and sturdier. But what we don’t yet know, what we can’t possibly know, is how being the champion has changed him as a fighter. Because it must have changed him – either for better or worse. It always does.
New York and Riyadh – more specifically nearby Diriyah, where the fight will take place – are indeed worlds apart but the locations are mere sub plots in this engrossing story. Ultimately it comes down to two fighters in a boxing ring. What defines this fight, and indeed this rivalry, will be what happens within it.