Demons of doubt: Borges on Ruiz vs Joshua 2

Ron Borges
04/12/2019 10:03pm

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

As Anthony Joshua prepares to meet Andy Ruiz again, Ron Borges questions the wisdom of going straight back in against the man who in essence made him surrender...

The urge for quick revenge after a crushing defeat is primal and understandable. In boxing, it is often good business as well. But is it wise? Wisdom is generally defined as knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgement as to action; sagacity,
discernment, or insight. Considering that, is Anthony Joshua’s decision to accept an immediate rematch against the man who
knocked him down four times and essentially convinced him to quit on his feet sagacious?

One can find some examples of other heavyweights who took the same risk Joshua will face against Andy Ruiz and for whom
things worked out, so success is not without precedent. Lennox Lewis’ knockout of Hasim Rahman comes quickly to mind, as does Muhammad Ali’s immediate rematch victory over Leon Spinks, but in both cases they did not face the kind of questions Joshua must answer after that first bell echoes across the Saudi Arabian desert on Saturday.

Lewis had spent more time making a movie in Las Vegas than he had training for Rahman and then compounded that folly by
arriving late to the site in South Africa and thus not giving his body time to adjust to the differing time zones. He knew all of that was true, acknowledged it, then prepared feverishly for the rematch and destroyed Rahman.

Ali was outfought by a young kid he had given no thought to until the moment Spinks was announced as the winner. Seven months later, Ali easily won a decision against a troubled Spinks, who was so lost he forgot to bring his foul-protector cup to the arena.

Joshua’s situation isn’t comparable for many reasons but the most important is the circumstances of how the fight with Ruiz
ended and how much time a fighter needs to process the fact that he quit on his feet. It is a scar not easily mended and one that would benefit greatly from some distance being placed between it and the man who inflicted it.

“Joshua hasn’t seen anything in between to let him know anything will be different,” explained Hall of Fame trainer and master
pugilistic psychotherapist Teddy Atlas.

"The last time he was in the ring, he was on the floor and he submitted. He agreed to submit.

“Because he hasn’t fought anyone else since, he has no information telling him when he gets back in the ring again it’ll be different. He has no way of knowing if he’ll be OK.

“People will say he got knocked out but that’s part of the business. No it’s not. It’s not that simple. The shadow of what happened stays with you. He doesn’t know if he can take a punch any more. He doesn’t know how he’ll react.

“He knows what happened that night with Ruiz. I saw what he did. He quit. And why is he not going to quit again under pressure? That’s what he’s got to deal with. He’s uncertain who he is now.

"I understand the money side. I understand the business side. I understand why his promoter wants the rematch. But I don’t care about the business side. I care about the human side. And the human side is fragile.”

There are endless examples of the fragility of fighters who agreed to immediate rematches against a man who just destroyed them. Many at the sport’s highest level came to rue the day they made that impatient decision.

Eight months after Rocky Marciano won the heavyweight title from Jersey Joe Walcott with one crushing right hand to the face in the 13th round of a fight Walcott was winning by a wide margin, the new champion needed only two minutes and 25 seconds to do it again to a clearly wary former champion.

Floyd Patterson was knocked out in two minutes and six seconds of his first fight with Sonny Liston and then forced an immediate rematch a year later. It took Liston only four seconds longer to stop him the second time after dropping him three times.

Shane Mosley is the poster boy for not learning from this mistake. In 2002, he was upset by Vernon Forrest at a time when Mosley was considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Six months later, he took an immediate rematch and lost to him again. Barely two years later, Mosley suffered the same fate against Winky Wright, losing back-to-back ghts over another six-month span.

More recently, David Price was being touted as potentially the next great British heavyweight until he was stunningly upset by American journeyman Tony Thompson. Price insisted on an immediate rematch, lost again and has never been the same since.

It is Atlas’ opinion, then, that the wise course for Joshua would have been for his next fight to be against not Ruiz but a clone of Ruiz without his fast hands and punching power.

Joshua needs an opponent, Atlas believes, who can help him erase not only the sting of his first professional defeat but also that memory of spitting out his mouthpiece and walking away from what had become an avalanche of punches and self-doubt.

“Look, if you have a Wall Street guy, a guy making big financial moves, and he wakes up one day and he’s gone broke and lost everything, the big house, the big cars, how confident do you think he’s going to be with his next investment?” Atlas said. “You
think he’s going to go into his next deal with the same confidence? No he’s not! It’s the same with a fighter.

“The last time Joshua was in the ring, he got beaten up and knocked down and he quit. He doesn’t know if he’s all right any more. He needs something to tell him he’s OK. I’d put him in with a guy who throws wide punches like Ruiz but who can’t punch. I’d look for someone who does everything the same as Ruiz but who Joshua can survive. That’s how you start to face that demon.”

That demon is self-doubt. No matter how great a fighter may be, at some point he has to contend with this. He must face his fear of loss, or embarrassment, or both. It is human nature. Fighters are not immune.

But Joshua has a steeper mountain to climb, because he knows deep inside what Atlas thinks his own words lately reveal. He knows he isn’t quite sure he alone is enough, any more, to answer the questions Ruiz may ask of him.

During a three-city tour to Saudi Arabia, New York and London, Joshua (22-1, 21 KOs) discussed his first loss. When he did, Atlas didn’t like what he heard.

“It’s life, isn’t it?’’ Joshua said. “As annoying as it was I lost the fight, there was something in my life that went wrong. Something went wrong along the way that led to that, so I’ll make these changes.

“[There’s] little demons we all face but we fight and we kick and we push them off our shoulders and we come back again. The angels will be with me this time around.”

Asked what he thought of the likelihood of angels arriving in Joshua’s corner come 7 December, Atlas saw no halos surrounding
Joshua. He saw only warning signs.

“He’s not looking to face what he has to face,” Atlas said. “He’s looking for help. You’ve got to pick your ass up off the floor. Angels won’t do it. You do it.

“What that’s telling me is he’s looking for help other than where it is. Inside himself. Somebody should read him that Bible passage: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ God ain’t sending him any angels. You better be counting on more than that.”

What some found shocking about the ending against Ruiz was that Joshua got up from a far more devastating knockdown against Wladimir Klitschko and went on to stop the long-time champion two years earlier to claim the unified title.

Yet when he found himself in a similar circumstance against Ruiz, he seemed to get up with less conviction. Although he pulled himself up three more times, Joshua took a knee on the final knockdown, spat out his mouthpiece, then rose and turned his back and walked away from the referee after taking a furtive glance towards his corner.

As he stood in a neutral corner leaning against the turnbuckle, Joshua at first seemed to say he wanted to continue but soon made it obvious to referee Michael Griffin that he did not. How, one may wonder, did he go from Braveheart pulling himself off the floor to flatten Klitschko to, as promoter Don King would put it, “a willing co-conspirator in his own demise”?

“When he fought Klitschko, he showed resolve,” Atlas said. “He got off the floor. He fought back. Why? Because he hadn’t made 70, 80, 90 million pounds already. He hadn’t gotten to that safe place where winning don’t mean as much. He found a reason to get up.

“He couldn’t find a reason to go on against Ruiz. Ruiz asked Joshua the same question Klitschko did. This time, he didn’t have an answer. So why should he believe he’ll have a better answer this time without having faced a few guys and begun to believe he can be solid again in those areas? Believe he can feel safe again? He’s got no reason to feel that way in this fight. Which is why I wouldn’t have taken it.”

Atlas is not alone in his concerns about an immediate rematch with the portly, 29-year-old Ruiz (33-1, 22 KOs). Former two-time heavyweight champion George Foreman, who knows a thing or two about comebacks, agrees.

“I’d let sleeping dogs lie,” Foreman said recently. “You don’t want to fight that guy any more because you don’t know what you did wrong. You go right back and you’re going to do the same thing. You’re going to make the same mistakes.”

Foreman went on to explain “there’s a process of grieving after a loss like that” and he should know. Ali upset Foreman in Zaire on a sweltering 1974 night when Foreman, like Joshua, was a heavy favourite. His grief over that loss took more than a decade to process before he returned from a 10-year retirement to become the oldest man ever to win the heavyweight title.

Joshua has had no such time to process not only the technical side of why he lost but more importantly the mental side of why he responded as he did under extreme duress. How does he handle the consequences of the choices he made that night?

“When you are the heavyweight champion of the world it’s not like you have just lost a fight, you have actually lost a part of yourself,” Foreman told the Daily Telegraph. “You have got to find it again. You cannot be in a rush. Go back and start over.”

The best place to do that, Atlas and Foreman believe, is not in an immediate rematch with Ruiz for the IBF, IBO, WBA and WBO titles Ruiz took from Joshua. The new champion feels the same way but he’s happy to accommodate Joshua. And why wouldn’t he?

Ruiz initially refused to fight in Saudi Arabia, then leveraged Joshua’s anxiousness into what is believed to be a 50 per cent increase from his originally agreed purse. Once that was done, Ruiz was soon standing next to Joshua with all those belts in front of him, reminders of some of what Joshua had lost. But the greater loss is the loss of that piece of himself Joshua left back on the floor in Madison Square Garden on 1 June.

“Joshua has to find out again what he is and what he is not,” Atlas said. “The best place to do that is not against the guy who just made you doubt yourself. Foreman’s right about grieving. You’ve got to find out what you’ve lost and how you’re going to deal with that.”

When Foreman knocked out Atlas’ fighter, then heavyweight champion Michael Moorer, they did not seek a rematch. Instead, Atlas took Moorer to train in one of the dankest, hardest parts of Jersey City before a comeback fight against Melvin Foster. Moorer carried his own gym bag. He stayed in a hotel four stars short of a star. The idea was to remind him, in the starkest way, of all that he’d lost. No more fancy training camps in Palm Springs.

There are consequences for losing and no easy road to overcoming the dark shadow defeat casts. Two fights later, Moorer had
reclaimed the IBF version of the title by winning a split decision over Axel Schulz in Germany. Thus the process of demon eradication was completed.

Joshua, or at least those around him, are charting a shorter path but a more dangerous one. What Joshua now has to wonder, when he is alone with his thoughts and fears, is what did Andy Ruiz prove about him?

“A lot of people have been saying it was a lucky shot,” Ruiz said during the press tour for the rematch. “Anthony said it was a ‘shot from the gods’ and I agree - it was a shot from the gods because I have been praying and wishing for that opportunity for a long time. There were some things I could have done better but I was controlling the whole fight [except when he was knocked
down midway through the third round].

“That was my first time getting dropped but I got up. It should be scary for him to know that. [True, but what is scarier is that he knows Ruiz then dropped him twice later in that round and twice more in the seventh before the fight was stopped]. I’m a warrior. I take shots. I give shots back. As long as we stay disciplined, we’re going to have the same result.”

Then Ruiz dug the mind game’s shiv in a little deeper after someone asked if he thought Joshua quit in their first fight. “Did he quit in New York?” Ruiz said. “Well, let’s just say I don’t think he wanted to continue. Now that we’ve come face to face again I see his eyes are focused and all that, but deep inside we don’t know what he’s really thinking. Are there doubts in his mind? We all have doubts. But it’s our choice to overcome them.

“I respect Anthony as a boxer, as a man, for all he’s achieved. But his problem is that his style is perfect for me. He doesn’t have the movement to get away from me and my combinations.”

Time will tell about that. On fight night, Joshua will again be the betting favourite and much of the boxing world will have looked at the tattoo-covered Mexican-American with the champions’ belts and pot belly and believe those titles will soon change hands again.

Teddy Atlas will look instead at Anthony Joshua, and wonder. Knowing what Joshua has already said about the darkest night of his boxing life, he’ll wonder how long the shadows of doubt are that he’ll carry with him into a fight against the man who put them there.

“Must do better,” Joshua said at one stop on the media tour. “Must do better. If I fight the same fight again. I might get the same result. If I fight a different fight, I can get a different result. But there isn’t time to change completely and that wouldn’t be wise anyway. I’m not going to change my character after one defeat. I am who I am. We will face a big problem if I do lose the rematch but I’ll go on. Even if I lose my next 10 fights, I would come back to win the 11th.”

Anthony Joshua’s words, like the whole idea of an immediate rematch with Andy Ruiz, trouble Atlas. “The way he reacted, it was like the loss didn’t matter,” Atlas said. “That’s the problem. That was the difference. When he fought Klitschko, it did matter. He got up. It didn’t matter once it got hard against Ruiz. Is he ready to face that again? No, he’s not.”