As Anthony Joshua reeled in his left hand, familiarity swept over him. The previous seven minutes of action, and indeed the moments preceding the opening bell, had seen the heavyweight champion of the world looking somewhat out of place. Joshua looked, if not vacant, then perhaps distracted, perhaps bemused by the, to him, unknown surroundings of central New York City.
And so when he brought that left glove back to himself, having just sent 19 stone of fighter to the floor via a sweeping hook, Joshua was transported to where he had been many times before. Standing tall, middle of the ring, looking down upon a vanquished opponent.
Before Saturday evening’s duel at Madison Square Garden, Joshua had flattened 21 of the 22 men who had faced him in a professional ring. As Andy Ruiz Jr crumbled to the canvas for the first time in his career, he looked a certainty to be just another notch on the ringpost. Here was a man many felt had no business being in the same sport as Joshua, never mind the same ring.
Yet while Joshua walked to a neutral corner, no doubt assuming his work was almost done, Ruiz was righting himself. Up at five, ready to go again at eight, he had been hit but not excessively hurt, his facial expression as he landed on the ground being one of frustration rather than fear.
Had Joshua seen that then perhaps history would not have been made. As he was expected to, as he is known to do, the man from Hertfordshire strode forward with the finish on his mind and unloaded his fists. An enormous right came barrelling forward, connecting with Ruiz’s chin like a battering ram. Yet where other fortresses have fallen, Ruiz now stayed upright, rolling the punch ever so slightly, getting on the inside and weathering the storm.
Joshua, not heeding the signs, came again, and in doing so played his part in changing both his and Ruiz’s lives, if not forever then at least for the immediate future. Stomping in with another right cross, this time Ruiz saw it coming, slipped away and fired off two left hooks of his own. The first didn’t quite do the trick but the second turned their worlds upside down. Joshua, caught high on the temple, lurched, his legs disconnected from his brain, teetering like a giraffe on stilts. Ruiz followed up, an overhand right blocked by Joshua’s left glove, but the latter’s trajectory was set. As Ruiz sent a flurry of hands his way, Britain’s world champion took residence on the mat.
He was up at eight but where Ruiz had been merely frustrated, Joshua was grimacing. If he’d seemed distant earlier, now the look in his eyes suggested he could have been back at home in London. With 90 seconds of the round to go Ruiz did what Wladimir Klitschko could not in a sixth round two years past and swarmed the champion. Joshua stumbled and staggered before Ruiz cornered him, literally, throwing punches in abundance and, by the end of the assault, Joshua was down again, on his knees and padding his way along the ring’s edge like a wounded lion.
He made it out of the round, and the next three after it, but it was there that Anthony Joshua’s reign as world champion ended. That third round not only detached him from his senses but extracted his soul. By the end, which came in the seventh after another two knockdowns, Joshua could not even take advantage of a ludicrously long count afforded him by referee Mike Griffin. In the corner, arms on the ropes and mouthguard spat out in the vain hope of buying himself time, Joshua could not convincingly comprehend what was asked of him and could not have carried it out in any case. Across from him, Ruiz leapt with glee.
It is not quite Mike Tyson v Buster Douglas but it is a huge shock nevertheless. Few have ever held Joshua in particularly lofty regard when setting him against the heavyweights of yesteryear but there was a decent consensus that he was the best the current generation has to offer, and definitely in the top three. What is certain is that no one gave Ruiz much of a shot whatsoever, instead choosing to ridicule the man of Mexican descent for his, shall we say, less than trim physique. Ruiz does not look like a professional athlete, and when set against the mountainous muscularity of Joshua the juxtaposition seemed faintly ridiculous.
Sugar Ray Leonard commented afterwards that Ruiz was ‘the epitome of don’t judge a book by its cover’ and it is difficult to disagree. Much of the buildup to this fight, which Ruiz took at roughly 50 days’ notice after a smattering of other contenders baulked at the prospect, had focused upon how laughable it was that a man of his size could even think he stood a chance against a wrecking ball from North London. No one is laughing now, least of all Joshua and Eddie Hearn, whose decision to take his fighter to America could hardly have ended more disastrously.
What follows now for Joshua largely rests in his own hands. He can go away and brood, or he can reignite the fire and return stronger. Floyd Mayweather’s obsession with not losing has clouded the views of many such that they see defeat as ruinous to a boxer’s career, but it need not always be that way. The best lost, more than once, and if Joshua needs any inspiration then he should look no further than Britain’s greatest ever heavyweight, Lennox Lewis, a man pummelled by not one but two unfancied Americans, seven years apart. Lewis ultimately redeemed himself against both Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman and, if Hearn is to be believed, a rematch clause should afford Joshua the opportunity to do the same against Ruiz, perhaps as soon as November.
Yet the feeling that Joshua will be forever changed seems almost inescapable. He has been hurt before, against Dillian Whyte, and indeed Klitschko felled him with a shot that would have withered an elephant, but never before has he looked so vulnerable for so long, so uncomfortable in his surroundings. Perhaps it was the Garden, intimidating like no other venue can, perhaps it was just an off night, because anyone can have one of those, no matter what we might like to believe, but as Ruiz rejoiced and Joshua was swamped by his team and the ringside doctor, it was hard not to wonder about the long-term damage this night may do.
Afterwards, Joshua was gracious in defeat, affording Ruiz his moment and smiling through it all. That has drawn derision in some quarters and, in truth, it was perplexing to see a man who has just had three world titles wrenched from him smiling and posing for photos with his conqueror. Yet how Joshua chooses to deal with defeat is his business and, in fairness, had he reacted in the opposite fashion then derision would have met him anyway. On Saturday night he was the loser and losers rarely come in for much praise.
None of which should take away from Ruiz’s performance. Afforded no chance, a 25-to-1 outsider, the new world champion was excellent, roughing up Joshua and affording him scarcely a moment to breathe. After all the pre-fight talk about their differing body shapes, it was almost comical to see Ruiz flurrying around his opponent, while Joshua heaved and gasped and grunted. Andy Ruiz Jr may not look like a world class athlete but he certainly acted like one when it mattered.
Some have suggested that he does not possess much of a punch but that seems oxymoronic when we consider he is a heavyweight boxer. No matter who you are, if you have 19 stone of weight behind your left fist and you catch somebody on the temple, it’s going to hurt. Ruiz may not possess the detonators that reside at the end of Deontay Wilder’s long arms but in this division there’s no such thing as a light puncher. Joshua will have suspected that anyway but, having tumbled to the floor four times in less than 20 minutes, three more than the rest of his career combined, he will know it for certain.
And what now for the division itself? Wilder’s remarkable draw with Tyson Fury back in December had us salivating at the prospect of a momentous 2019. The announcement of three underwhelming fights — this one, Wilder’s recent blowout victory over Dominic Breazeale and Fury’s imminent meeting with the unheard of Tom Schwarz — knocked the wind firmly from the heavyweight sails and once more called into question the sanity of the sport. Ruiz’s victory has injected life into the old dog again though and, wherever he and Joshua go from here, it will be fascinating to see how things unfold.
Certainly, Joshua’s aura, if there ever was such a thing, has been dealt a heavy blow. He has long been known as hittable but he made up for it with power and a knack for finishing rivalled only by Wilder, a foe most agree is decidedly less well-grounded in the finer arts of the game. Now, having seen Ruiz roll with some heavy shots and fire back even heavier ones of his own, more will fancy their chances against a man who for long periods was built up as the most fearsome prospect in the division.
Wilder sought to rain on Joshua’s parade by announcing his next two fights prior to Saturday evening, both of them rematches. Should the current WBC champion get past Luis Ortiz again then a renewal of acquaintances with Fury awaits, likely in the early stages of 2020. Fury should make short work of Schwarz in a fortnight’s time and, if he does, it is hard not to feel that Joshua has gone from being the centre of gravity in heavyweight boxing to playing the role of an outsider looking in.
He will push for the Ruiz rematch, in England, and it would be foolish even now to suggest he cannot come back from this. For all he has been hyped, perhaps a little too far beyond his capabilities, few saw Saturday coming and he is unlikely to be so off-kilter again. That is not to say Ruiz had a fortunate night — he didn’t, he was superb and deserves all the riches which will now surely flow his way — but it seems likely that their next tussle will be a rather closer affair.
Whether that comes to pass is unlikely to be known for a little while yet. Such is the way of boxing that even when granted an opportunity to capitalise on momentum and wider interest, which Andy Ruiz Jr has created in spades, promoters and fighters alike usually find a way to shoot themselves in the foot.
It should be hoped that they don’t this time around. Just as Joshua can go one of two ways, so can Ruiz. When Douglas wrecked Tyson back in 1990 he embarked on another wrecking spree, but this time the target was himself. His reign as heavyweight champion lasted just eight months before Evander Holyfield wiped him out inside three rounds. Ruiz was unfavoured and laughed off before this latest upset but it would be a surprise if he goes the same way.
Eyes will now turn to Fury’s date with Schwarz in Las Vegas on June 15th. The Englishman is expected to come through the challenge easily before going after that WBC belt of Wilder’s once more. But if the events of Saturday evening have told us anything, it is that nothing is a certainty in boxing. And definitely not when you’re a heavyweight.