This, of course, is the most obvious one. Ruiz is nobody’s idea of what a professional athlete should look like, least of all a heavyweight champion. But there are some guys who are in better shape than their appearance would indicate and there are guys who are comfortable at weights that are considered obese. CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, Tony Gwynn and Charles Barkley have excelled in their chosen sports despite ranging between chubby and downright fat. In boxing, Buster Mathis Sr., Tony Tubbs, Tony Ayala and James Toney in his post-middleweight period come to mind. It’s obvious now that Ruiz belongs on that list.
Even when they come wrapped in armor like Joshua did Saturday night, everyone’s raw materials are the same. Punches hurt muscular guys as much as non-muscular guys. Witness the body shot Ruiz landed in the sixth round that drew a visible reaction from Joshua and probably hastened his end in the following round.
That guy, clearly, was Ruiz. He was hit with the hardest punch of the fight, the Joshua left hook that dropped him early in the third round. That looked like the beginning of the end, and it was — for Joshua. At that point in the fight, Ruiz realized he had to take some chances to win and instead of backing up and waiting to be KO’d, he went forward into the danger zone. And guess what? It worked. As Ruiz had said at the final news conference, no one had pressured Joshua before and clearly, he didn’t like it. Conversely, after Joshua was stung by Ruiz’s punches, he became even more cautious and self-protective. He was not willing to pay the price it would have required to win the fight.
This was another point Ruiz made to me in a private conversation a few days before the fight, and in fact I knew it to be true. Long-armed fighters like Joshua need to create some distance in order for their punches to be effective. Muhammad Ali, Tommy Hearns and Alexis Arguello all had trouble with opponents who crowded them and smothered their punches. In the Ruiz fight, it became obvious that Joshua had no clue how to fight on the inside or tie up an opponent who slipped inside his jab. This is why reach measurement is the most overrated and poorly understood statistic in boxing.
From the moment Ruiz signed for the fight, he was a winner, fighting with house money. His reputation could not be sullied by a loss, even a bad one, since no one expected him to win. But it could be incredibly burnished by a solid effort, which it was clear in speaking to him before the fight, and to those who had worked with him before, he was determined to give. And after Joshua inexplicably fought the first two rounds passively and even timidly, Ruiz’s confidence that he could actually win the fight grew to the point that Joshua could no longer keep it in check. An opponent like that is extremely dangerous. I only wish I had given that more credence before I made my fight pick.
Whether for money, fame, respect or just blood, hunger is what motivates fighters, and in the days leading up to the fight, Joshua looked anything but hungry. He had already achieved wealth and fame, and was respected by many in boxing, myself included, as worthy of being considered the equal of WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder.
But In retrospect, when all things become crystal clear, it seemed obvious that Joshua loved living the life of a heavyweight champion — he was surrounded by a sizable entourage of black-shirted, earpiece-and-shades outfitted muscle men at last Tuesday’s open workout — but it’s not so clear that he actually wanted to put the work in to earn it. Although he looked to be in razor-sharp shape physically, when the opening bell rang it appeared he was not mentally ready to fight. There was no urgency in his approach and no killer instinct when it appeared he had Ruiz in serious trouble after the third round knockdown. And although I don’t believe he quit, his post-fight demeanor seemed almost like relief.
This is a lesson I have tried to teach my own children and it is one Ruiz clearly internalized, because it would have been easy for him to size up the unbeaten, 6-6, 245 fat-free pounds of Joshua and assumed he was about to get his head handed to him. But it seems now that Ruiz has the true mentality of a fighter, one that refuses to countenance the idea of a loss and one that never worries about what the other guy might do to him, only what he plans to do to the other guy. And within that mentality, it is safe to assume that Ruiz went in believing that if he did what he was capable of doing, he would win the fight. It is the same mentality that carried Evander Holyfield through dozens of life-and-death battles and allowed Joe Frazier to walk through fire to win his first epic bout with Ali.
Back in February, I had a long talk with Joshua in which he expressed his excitement about fighting in Madison Square Garden and his desire to cement his legacy among the greats who had fought in its ring. He was surprisingly conversant in the history of the place, speaking about Ali and Frazier, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong, among others, and sounded as if he truly wanted to give an impressive performance in his U.S. debut. Instead, he gave a non-effort his career may never recover from.
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Then again, when he was asked on fight week if he was looking to match Wilder’s sensational one-punch KO of Dominic Breazeale two weeks before, he said no, not at all.
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