LIKE all surprise endings there were clues along the way. But such was the preposterous conclusion they pointed to – that roly-poly no-hoper Andy Ruiz Jr would defeat the all-conquering Anthony Joshua – most chose to ignore them. Not least the king himself, flown out to America with a crown on his head to show the world how commanding he was and how ferocious he could be. The king who then opened the doors to his castle and his arms to the enemy.
Joshua allowed Ruiz to make himself at home, to put his feet up and even try on his finest gold. The champion appeared so convinced that the cuddly Ruiz posed no threat in the days before battle – seemingly doing his best to make fight week a memorable experience for the poor little fella before knocking him out – that he failed to notice the challenger’s hunger to become a champion himself.
Joshua surrendering his IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles in New York’s Madison Square Garden, via truly thrilling seventh round stoppage, must rank as one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. But if you watch it all again, and study the events of the preceding week, then the signs, as they so often do with hindsight, become clear.
There was no suggestion in the aftermath that Joshua had taken his challenger lightly during his 16-week training camp. Before he left the UK for Miami, where he endured the final month of his preparation ahead of his professional debut on American soil, Joshua spoke with the British media about the risk posed by the fighter who had stepped in at six weeks’ notice to replace the disgraced drug cheat Jarrell Miller. “AJ” had seen the videos of Ruiz, he had seen the fast hands and the aggressive, all-action style. He knew, at least back then, how dangerous Ruiz might turn out to be.
That all seemed to change on the Monday before the fight. On the 15th floor of a Manhattan hotel, Andy Ruiz bounced onto the sun-soaked balcony and into the hearts of all who were there. Joshua saw his challenger in the flesh for the first time and any semblance of fear gave way to good feeling. Advertised as 6ft 2ins, Ruiz looked markedly shorter as he looked up to 6ft 6ins Joshua with an adoring grin that did not leave his face until the opening bell. His perfectly round head sat above his perfectly round body, and so cartoonesque his appearance, and so loveable his manner, it was impossible to imagine him winning the fight.
That feeling only grew as the week progressed despite the clues to the contrary mounting up. Ruiz made no secret of his game-plan, to stifle the best of Joshua with sharp counters, to attack the body and go for broke with looping hooks when in close. Before Joshua spent longer endorsing products during the open workouts than actually working out, Ruiz huffed and puffed himself into a sweat while exhibiting the punches and approach that four days later would blow the champion’s house down. Nobody paid any attention.
Instead, at the final press conference at New York’s Beacon Theater on Thursday, the media gathered round Anthony Joshua and asked him only about Deontay Wilder, so uninspired were they by the real challenge that was just two days away. Retaining focus on Ruiz, whether Joshua cares to admit or not, would have been difficult. Never before has he been encouraged to let his mind wander so far from the task at hand.
As Joshua and Ruiz fielded the final questions on the stage and posed for photographs, the champion broke all the rules of sporting psychology and walked up to his rival, warmly shook his hand and handed him all of his championship belts, even following behind him to give him more when Ruiz accepted only two. Still Ruiz smiled, still he told everyone what was going to happen, still everyone ignored him.
More clues could be found dotted around New York, on billboards and shops and taxis which displayed Joshua adorning all manner of products. Time is money, yet time spent focusing purely on boxing will be required if he’s to regain the status he once had.
But perhaps the biggest clues of all about what lay ahead had come long before any of this. Though he had admirably come through crises against Dillian Whyte, Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin, further examination of those moments should tell us that Joshua – still only six years a professional – was never quite the invincible man many presumed him to be. There are flaws in his game; a failure to get the most from his jab, some carelessness in close and an inability to smother when in trouble. There were question marks about his stamina and punch resistance. He’d gotten away with it all in the past, perhaps because he’d been under fire from single blows and not kitchen sinks, but in Manhattan, Ruiz threw everything he had and then some to expose him. Indeed, if those previous wobbles were thorns in Joshua’s side then Ruiz would soon be the knife to his throat.
Because he recognised the clues. Self-deprecating outside the ring, and all-fighter within, Ruiz knew exactly how to win. Intelligent and well educated in the game, he came into this gushing with confidence and on the back of a long career that began when he was just seven years old. With the help of his accomplished coach Manny Robles, he understood what was required to bring down the mighty favourite. Lulling Joshua into a false sense of security in the days leading up to the contest may or may not have been part of the masterplan but, without question, it allowed a ball that was already rolling to gather pace, sprouting swarming hooks and uppercuts along the way, until it clattered into Joshua and sent him sprawling to the canvas a mind-boggling four times.
Joshua entered the ring altogether cooler than how he would leave it. He leant in his own corner with his legs crossed, adjusted his shorts so every piece of his six-pack was on display and juggled a gumshield in his mouth as he awaited the first bell. That he would be standing in the same corner just 25 minutes later, listless and not responding to the referee’s instructions, was simply unthinkable.
The electric atmosphere failed to stir the fighters during the opening two rounds though Ruiz, who came up to Joshua’s collar bone, scored with jabs in close. But a stiff right and left from Joshua made it feel like only a matter of time before the bobbing and weaving Ruiz would position his head for one of Joshua’s signature slugs.
And so it proved. A swift right hand wobbled Ruiz in the third before a wicked left hook sent him to the mat. It was a brutal punch, one tidily crafted, yet the California-born challenger scrambled to his feet with his senses intact. Joshua, enlivened by the opportunity to truly impress, prepared to put his little buddy out of his misery.
“That was my first time on the canvas [in my career] and I was like, ‘what the hell just happened’,” Ruiz said. “But I had to get him back, I had to return the favour. That was my Mexican spirit coming through. I was waiting for him to open up. He hits really hard, man. But I thought he opened up so much I could counter him.”
Open up Joshua did, carelessly and without an ounce of respect for his opponent. Ruiz sent a left hook screwing into the favourite’s temple. His legs wobbled on impact, before a quartet of blows, finished by two powerful right hands, took them from under him. Kneeling on the canvas, eyes glazed, Joshua manufactured a self-conscious smile the polar opposite of the one Ruiz had been parading all week. Almost in unison, the sell-out crowd of 20,201, which included a hearty and vociferous portion of Brits, felt their bottom jaws drop. Members of the media grabbed each other’s arms as profanities instinctively fell from their mouths. It was a stunning change of direction, an unforgettable and pivotal moment from which Joshua never truly recovered.
The Briton, unable to clear his head or the danger, was on the canvas again from further lefts and rights. With his rise even less convincing the second time, Joshua was fortunate that the referee allowed him plenty of time to recover before the bell came to his rescue. Or perhaps not. If Joshua had been stopped there and then, maybe now we would be contributing his defeat solely to one lucky punch, one minor lapse in concentration. But no, what followed stripped Joshua of everything, removed all trace of invincibility and leaves him, such was the mental and physical thrashing, requiring a significant rebuild to remain in the class to which he is accustomed.
Round four was quiet, Ruiz briefly jumped on Joshua in the opening moments before deciding to wait for the opportunity to counter. The champion scored with a big left hand in the fifth, but Ruiz was expertly banging to the body, slowly but surely draining the last reserves from the fading champion.
Joshua’s behaviour in the sixth was telling. Exhausted, he beckoned Ruiz on. The challenger obliged, digging in another of those sapping right hands downstairs before switching up with a left. His feet were nimble and his mind sharp whereas Joshua, unable to establish any distance, looked to be on the brink when the bell sounded. On his stool, and not for the first time in the bout, Joshua admitted to his trainer Robert McCracken that he was lost and confused, that he had no idea what to do. The advice that came back was designed to steady his fighter’s mind, to get him to focus on the basics. It was too late.
A right hook restarted the end early in the seventh. Joshua again failed to hold, his own muscles stealing the bounce from his legs as a series of blows forced him to the floor. He found his feet again, even finding the space to score with a jarring jab, but Ruiz was undeterred and caught him high on the head to send Joshua down for the fourth and final time.
After spitting out his mouthpiece, Joshua hauled his gigantic frame upright once more and found comfort of sorts in the corner. He did not put his hands up, despite referee Mike Griffin’s instruction to do so, preferring instead to rest his weary bones on the ropes. There he waited for the inevitable rescue, and so it came at 1-27 of round seven with Joshua concussed and beaten and in no position to defend himself, let alone rescue the crown that had long toppled from his head. Ruiz – after one of the finest performances in modern history – leapt into the air, cushions of skin juddering all over him in a sight to make beer-bellied everymen the world over rejoice as the musclebound Englishman briefly grumbled at the stoppage.
“I will not blame the referee,” Joshua later said. “I will not blame anyone else. If I wanted to carry on, I should have made it clear I wanted to carry on, I should have let him touch my gloves.
“I’m still focused, it’s a minor setback,” he continued. “I still have the same objectives to improve as a fighter. My mission is now to get those belts back ASAP. It could happen here in New York, it could happen in the UK, but there will be a rematch.
“I’ve got no excuses, I have to take it on the chin. Losing isn’t what we like, but losing is what we learn from. Wherever the rematch happens, it’s a boxing ring and I am now focused on revenge.”
Joshua was beyond classy in the aftermath, perhaps too much. One wonders if the desire remains. If after several years of superstardom, of employing more and more people to surround him, he can embrace the hardest and loneliest game like he once did. Such comebacks are difficult in this brutal all-consuming trade and Joshua – in the weeks that follow – will know deep inside if he has what it takes to get back up. The clues and the signs will be there, just like they always are.
The Verdict New world order is formed on unforgettable night