Heavyweight title rematch won't be in the U.K., but is that really a win for Andy Ruiz Jr.?

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

A little more than two months after he scored one of the most unlikely knockouts in heavyweight history, Andy Ruiz Jr. scored another victory on Friday. Whether putting his rematch with Anthony Joshua in Dirayah, Saudi Arabia, instead of in Cardiff, Wales, on Dec. 7, is a win for him remains to be seen, but Ruiz sees it that way.

After Dillian Whyte failed a drug test before his July 20 bout in London with Oscar Rivas and was still allowed to fight, Ruiz made up his mind that he’d have to gird for a battle if promoter Eddie Hearn insisted on putting the rematch in the United Kingdom, where Joshua lives and is hugely popular.

Ruiz gave Hearn and Joshua the right to choose when and where the rematch would be when he signed to fight Joshua in the first place. When Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller failed several drug tests and pulled out of his scheduled June 1 bout in New York against Joshua, Ruiz sent Hearn a private message on Instagram asking for the bout.

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When he was offered it, he had to agree to a rematch clause in the event he won that gave Hearn/Joshua the right to put it on when and where they chose. If Ruiz declined, he would have been in violation of his contract.

Hearn let him off the hook. He bypassed the opportunity to put the bout in Wales and accepted a massive offer from a group in Saudi Arabia to put the fight in Dirayah.

On the surface, it was a victory for Ruiz, but was it really a win?

In theory, it shouldn’t matter where the fight is held. It’s up to the two boxers and what they bring on a particular day that should decide the outcome. In practice, though, it matters significantly. Boxing history has proven this repeatedly.

Make no mistake, though, this promotion is a home bout for Joshua, even though Dirayah is about a six-and-a-half-hour plane ride from London. Hearn was pitching British fans on the trip during a brief news conference on Monday, and those who purchase a ticket to the event will automatically receive a 30-day visa for travel into the kingdom.

Had the fight been held in Las Vegas, where it would have done around a $30 million gate and maximized the subscription-selling potential for DAZN, scores of Ruiz fans would have descended upon the city to support their man. British fans travel well and so it would have been a carnival-like atmosphere with large and vocal fans of both boxers in town.

It’s not difficult to imagine that the bout would have sold more than 50,000 closed-circuit tickets in and around the Strip.

The overwhelming majority of those Ruiz fans won’t make the trek to Saudi Arabia, while the size of the British contingent will be determined by how many seats are made available for actual boxing fans and not kept for government officials, sponsors and VIPs.

Andy Ruiz Jr. punches Anthony Joshua during the third round of their heavyweight title boxing match June 1, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Andy Ruiz Jr. punches Anthony Joshua during the third round of their heavyweight title boxing match June 1, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Significantly, the same officials who would have worked the fight if it were in Wales will do it in Saudi Arabia.

To win, Ruiz will have to be better because it figures that Joshua will be better. Joshua seemed to sleepwalk through their first bout and never fully recovered from the first knockdown in the third round.

But Joshua made several comments last week during an interview with Adam Smith on Sky Sports that make one wonder about his mental state. He mentioned that he has to rediscover his passion for the sport.

He also said he’s questioned his ability since the loss.

“One hundred percent,” Joshua replied when Smith asked if he questioned how good he is. “After I lost, I said, ‘Man, am I good enough?’”

He went on to talk about improving his fitness and increasing his skill level. He said, “I’m only a product of what I’m taught in the gym and I want to add to what I have, so when I go to fight Ruiz in the rematch, he’s going to assume that was the best Anthony Joshua in the ring. I think I fought the best Ruiz in the ring that night. But when I come for that rematch, he’s going to be dealing with a completely different beast.”

There was a similar upset in 2001, when Lennox Lewis finished filming a movie and traveled to South Africa to defend his heavyweight title against Hasim Rahman. Rahman was a massive underdog, just like Ruiz, and he scored a shocking upset by stopping Lewis.

Lewis, though, was clearly a special talent and he responded the way you’d expect one of the all-time greats to respond. He seemed certain and confident heading into the rematch and then he dominated Rahman before stopping him in the fourth round.

Now, Ruiz is not Rahman, and it doesn’t seem like Joshua is anywhere near Lewis, who was both technically skilled and mentally strong.

Ruiz has to prove he’s more than Rahman, a one-hit wonder who had talent but never could harness it fully other than on that one magical night.

It shows the power of the heavyweight title, though, how many major opportunities he got after it. He lost to Lewis in a rematch, then was beaten in a non-title fight by Evander Holyfield. After a draw with David Tua, he lost a decision to John Ruiz in a bout for the interim WBA (who else?) title. A draw against James Toney landed Rahman a crack at the WBC belt, but he was stopped by Oleg Maskaev.

As he was on the downside of his career, he was basically cannon fodder for Wladimir Klitschko and was knocked out in his last title bout.

Ruiz has to prove he’s no Rahman. It’s a safe bet that Joshua won’t prove to be another Lewis, because he’s not nearly as gifted, as fluent in boxing and doesn’t have anywhere near Lewis’ mental resolve. That doesn’t mean, however, that Joshua won’t be able to raise his game enough to reclaim the belt.

Despite the abominable business decision to put the fight in Saudi Arabia and thereby ignore the kingdom’s repeated human rights abuses, the match itself is fascinating and could go in many different directions.

Each man has much to do before Dec. 7.

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