Strategic imperative: Ruiz vs Joshua 2 preview

Graham Houston
05/12/2019 8:07pm

Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The best version of Anthony Joshua can avenge his loss to Andy Ruiz Jr but, Graham Houston says, AJ needs to box a steady,
disciplined fight...

Conventional wisdom in boxing is that when a fighter stops his opponent, he will likely do so again in a rematch - probably sooner. Yet this isn’t necessarily so. Floyd Patterson famously knocked out Ingemar Johansson in their return fight after Ingo knocked him down seven times in their first meeting. Lennox Lewis made no mistakes in his rematch with Hasim Rahman. In divisions below heavyweight, fighters such as Willie Pep, Terry Norris, Chiquita Gonzalez, Dennis Andries, Rocky Graziano, Ruben Olivares and the ill-starred Benny “Kid” Paret avenged KO losses.

This leads us to the return heavyweight title fight between Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua, which takes place in Saudi Arabia on 7 December. What happened in the first meeting at Madison Square Garden was, to most observers, the shock of the year. One moment Joshua looked certain to win by KO, when he dropped Ruiz with a left hook in the third round. The next moment, Joshua walked into a left hook and his world fell apart.

Joshua has had plenty of time to reflect and rebuild. This was a crushing defeat to be sure, but Joshua never looked “right”. He seemed strangely disengaged in the corner between rounds. It didn’t even seem to worry him too much that he’d lost his titles. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Joshua will suffer a crisis in confidence after what happened at the Garden. He can always tell himself: “It just wasn’t my night. Now it’s my time.”

There’s one thing about a fighter losing an unbeaten record. It can lessen the burden of expectation. Joshua was 22-0 (21 KOs) going into the fight with Ruiz. He had been talking about fighting for legacy, so much so that he could have been accused of looking past his opponents.

Now we are in Chapter Two of Joshua’s career. Great fighters have come back from being knocked out. One defeat isn’t the end of the world. This could be a new beginning. If Joshua loses to Ruiz again, however, harsh critics will deem him to have been overrated all along.

Let’s look back for a moment at the first meeting. Joshua won the first two rounds on all three judges’ cards. He was using the jab, keeping the fight on the outside against a much shorter opponent, and seemingly in control of the situation. Yet when Joshua dropped Ruiz in the third was, perversely, when things went wrong. Ruiz fired right back, and a left hook high up on the head took away Joshua’s equilibrium.

Down twice in the third, Joshua seemed to be boxing his way back into the bout. He won the fifth round on all cards. In the sixth, though, Joshua just seemed to “go tired” as they say in the business. Ruiz was now beginning to outjab Joshua with some consistency. The seventh was a disaster - two knockdowns and all over.

If Joshua can keep his jab working, drop in the right hand, not try to do too much, too soon, and keep the fight at long range, it would seem quite possible that he could build up points and, perhaps, soften up Ruiz for a concerted barrage later in the bout.

At least Joshua now knows what to expect. Last time, he had been preparing to meet Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, a huge heavyweight with a rumbling-forward style. Ruiz, substituting for Miller, was a cuter, more compact fighter than Big Baby, with quicker hands.

It was Ruiz’ hand speed as much as anything that seemed to throw Joshua off in the first fight. It was as if he hadn’t anticipated such fast, hard shots coming back at him. Any fighter can get caught and hurt the way Joshua was in that wildly exciting third round. It is up to Joshua to stay on high alert this time and not give Ruiz any clear openings.

Also, although Ruiz scored the stoppage win in the first fight, Joshua would probably have to be considered the bigger puncher. Ruiz knows he can hurt Joshua. He also knows he, too, can be hurt. Ruiz likes to take the fight to his opponent but he surely won’t want to take too many chances.

So it’s quite likely that we will see both men boxing a careful, disciplined fight, which could suit Joshua because it will give him time to settle down and box in an ordered, methodical manner. Last time, the firefight broke out early in the bout and although Joshua got through the immediate crisis, he was vulnerable thereafter.

Ruiz is a good puncher, with 22 KOs in a 33-1 record, but he wasn’t considered a devastating type of hitter. For instance, when Ruiz lost to Joseph Parker, in his only defeat, he never at any stage had the New Zealand heavyweight in serious difficulties. That was 12-round tactical boxing match, very close on the scorecards, with Parker doing a little more, eking out some tight rounds simply by being a bit busier while Ruiz moved in without letting his hands go.

This, one feels, is the type of fight that Joshua needs to box against Ruiz, focusing on winning one round at a time and looking to keep his opponent contained rather than trying to close the show. If the chance comes to explode a big right hand or left hook, all well and good. Essentially, though, Joshua would surely be best served by making this a strategic type of fight. After all, he won the first two rounds last time. In hindsight, knocking Ruiz down so early in the proceedings was the worst thing that could have happened for Joshua.

And what of Ruiz? Winning the titles has changed the life of the affable fighter from southern California. He has been feted as the first heavyweight champion of Mexican heritage, even meeting Mexico’s president. Ruiz has been shopping for a mansion. Will winning the rematch mean as much to Ruiz as it does to Joshua? A number of heavyweight champions have lost the title in their first defence, sometimes seeming satisfied with having scaled the mountain top that one time.

We must assume, though, that it is important to Ruiz that he remains champion and that, like Joshua himself, he will enter the ring prepared to put everything on the line. There is the feeling in some quarters that what happened last time was a sort of fluke and that Ruiz simply got lucky.

This does an injustice to Ruiz. He has always been a solid, skilled professional. Ruiz’ ample girth is deceiving. He moves well for a 260lbs fighter, deceptively quick if not exactly athletic. He uses the jab to good effect, and he puts punches together expertly and in rapid-fire fashion when he gets an opponent going. Although Ruiz lost narrowly to Joseph Parker, he had basically outclassed every other opponent he’d faced up to the meeting with Joshua.

Ruiz knows what he’s doing in the ring. Even though Joshua won the first two rounds last time, Ruiz was “in” the fight and bringing pressure. If Ruiz can jab with Joshua and back him up, it might push the British fighter into going punch for punch. And last time that happened, it was Ruiz who showed the greater fortitude under fire.

Then there is the matter of Joshua’s punch resistance. Dillian Whyte wobbled him with a left hook back in 2015, and Wladimir Klitschko dropped him with a right-hand shot in their 2017 cliff-hanger. There was also an unsteady moment or two against Alexander Povetkin. Now, with big men in the ring a fighter can get rocked or dropped at almost any moment, but we’ve seen more than a hint of vulnerability in Joshua. In contrast, Ruiz had never been knocked down before meeting Joshua and had never seemed in any sort of trouble, not even against Parker.

So there is the concern, from a British perspective, that Ruiz could outlast Joshua if it comes down to a give-and-take fight. Still, the thought returns to the way Joshua boxed in the first fight and the sense that he wasn’t his real self that night. The feeling is that the best of Joshua beats the best of Ruiz and that last June we didn’t see the best of Joshua.

A more focused, sharper Joshua should be able to come through the rematch with a win, perhaps by decision, although persons
of the sporting persuasion likely won’t rush to lay the 3/1 on odds for a Joshua victory.