Anthony Joshua’s U.S. debut was supposed to be a coronation of sorts. A win over Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller in his U.S. debut on June 1 at Madison Square Garden in New York would in a way have made him the king of boxing.
He’d already owned three of the four major heavyweight titles and was regularly drawing crowds in excess of 60,000 in the United Kingdom. If he retained his IBF-WBA-WBO heavyweight title belts vs. Miller and managed to draw a massive crowd on U.S. soil in the process, he would have had just about all the leverage in potential future fights with WBC champion Deontay Wilder and lineal champion Tyson Fury.
Miller, though, was yanked from the bout after failing multiple drug tests, and Andy Ruiz Jr., a pudgy but swift-handed boxer, was tabbed to take his place. Though next to no one within the sport was picking Ruiz to upset Joshua — Joshua was as high as a +2200 favorite over Ruiz — many industry insiders felt Ruiz would provide Joshua a sterner test than Miller.
His win stands alongside Buster Douglas’ 1990 knockout of Mike Tyson; Oliver McCall’s 1994 second-round TKO of Lennox Lewis; Max Schmeling’s 1936 KO of Joe Louis in a non-title fight; Muhammad Ali’s “Rope-a-Dope” TKO of George Foreman in 1974; and Hasim Rahman’s fifth-round knockout of Lewis in 2001 as the biggest in heavyweight history.
There were four defining moments in those 19 minutes and 27 seconds of action at Madison Square Garden that led to Ruiz’s victory. Whether he’ll be able to repeat them on Saturday, when they rematch for the title in Saudi Arabia, will go a long way toward deciding how the rematch will play out. Ruiz-Joshua 2 is expected to begin at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT on Saturday.
Ruiz shows he came to win by controlling distance vs. Joshua
Ruiz’s victory was solidified by controlling the distance from the earliest moments of the fight; forcing Joshua to retreat most of the night; punching back aggressively whenever Joshua punched; and landing a left hook behind the ear as Joshua was going for the finish in the third round after having earlier dumped Ruiz.
“Everybody is talking about how he was exposed and all of this, but if he’d have finished Ruiz after knocking him down, everybody would have been saying, ‘Great job!,’” Joshua promoter Eddie Hearn said. “He was seconds away, maybe a punch away, from a knockout victory of his own and everyone saying great job to him. But in heavyweight boxing, things can change like that.”
Joshua won each of the first two rounds on all three judges’ scorecards in June, but Ruiz established in the opening seconds of the bout that he was there to win, and not just collect a payday.
Joshua has four inches of height and eight inches of reach on Ruiz, and has a jab that in and of itself can be a power punch. But Ruiz quickly controlled the distance, getting to a point where he didn’t totally nullify Joshua’s jab but was able to land his own shots.
Ruiz forces Joshua to retreat from opening bell
He also had Joshua backtracking most of the night. Even in the rounds Joshua won, Ruiz was pushing forward, making the fight and Joshua was moving away. Joshua is a physical specimen and when he sets his feet and throws, he’s as big of a puncher as there is in the sport.
But Ruiz from the early moments pushed Joshua back and in the process did two things: He took some of the sting from Joshua’s punches, and he was able to touch Joshua himself. Joshua knew early that he couldn’t afford to be careless because Ruiz, who has fast hands despite his flabby physical appearance, was throwing hard back at him.
In explaining his defeat, Joshua told Yahoo Sports that he didn’t want to make excuses. For some reason, though, he said, “I didn’t have the same tenacity and energy I always have.”
About 50 seconds into the fight, Ruiz forced Joshua to the ropes. He landed a straight right and then a grazing left hook. Joshua quickly spun off the ropes and danced away because he’d felt Ruiz’s power and didn’t want to be trapped on the ropes with Ruiz firing at him.
That was a critical sequence, even though neither punch did a lot of damage. It gave Ruiz confidence that the things he’d been successful with against other fighters would work against Joshua, as well. It also provided notice to Joshua that Ruiz was a threat who couldn’t easily be dismissed or discouraged.
Ruiz lands killer left hook in Round 3 vs. Joshua
But the turning point in the fight came in the third round. Joshua knocked Ruiz down and Ruiz, much like Douglas in his stunning victory over Tyson in Tokyo in 1990, took a second to compose himself before getting back into the fight.
Joshua is one of the division’s best finishers and he quickly moved in for the kill. Ruiz seemed clear-headed and went right back to what he’d been doing. He paid for it, dearly, when Joshua landed an almost perfect right cross. It landed on the chin and was one of the hardest punches he’d landed in the fight.
Ruiz, though, barely moved. Joshua fired a hook and an uppercut. Ruiz ducked underneath the left hook, yet another sign that he was clear-headed despite the shots he had taken. Seconds after going under that hook, Ruiz fired a left hook of his own.
This is the punch that, for all intents and purposes, won Ruiz the heavyweight championship. It landed 1:04 into the third round, just above Joshua’s right ear. Joshua staggered back, clearly hurt.
Joshua put his hands up in a turtle guard and Ruiz pounced. Joshua blocked the first couple of punches, but Ruiz dropped him with a chopping right hand. The fight was never the same. Joshua won rounds after that, but wasn’t nearly the threat he’d been before.
Hearn told Yahoo Sports he wasn’t making too much of the result of the first fight because of the hook in the third that Ruiz landed.
“He was badly concussed,” Hearn said of Joshua. “He took a shot on top of the ear and he never really recovered. Couple that with the fact that he wasn’t expecting a war; couple that with the fact that he probably wasn’t overly motivated subconsciously and you have the result you saw.”
Ruiz’s aggressiveness pays off with heavyweight title
But Ruiz insists that his style is anathema to Joshua and he fought the way he needed to in order to win. He said he believes he surprised Joshua with the way he fought and caused him issues because he said he thinks Joshua figured him to fight more of a big man’s fight.
Ruiz’s athleticism and patience were critical, though, as he laid the seeds for the upset early by not showing intimidation and landing hard punches of his own regularly.
“I don’t think he’s ever fought a short guy that pressures, and is pretty slick,” Ruiz said. “I felt like I was boxing him around even though I was the shorter guy. I was counter-punching him. When he would throw, I would throw back with more punches.
“He saw something that he's never seen before. People said before, who would you rather fight: Joshua, Deontay Wilder or Tyson Fury? I always said Joshua because of his style. Styles make fights. His style was perfect for me to become the unified heavyweight champion.”
Joshua is noticeably slimmer than he was in the first fight but he said it was just a matter of working for six months for the bout rather than the three months he’d trained for the first one.
The pressure, though, is on him to respond because Ruiz exposed Joshua’s weaknesses. Joshua needs to adjust lest he finds himself on the short end of the stick again.
“He’s a patient and talented guy and he’s a powerful puncher,” Joshua said. “He’s a good boxer and a smart counter puncher. I give him all the credit. But what happened last time is in the past. I’m coming to win and to regain my titles and that’s all I am thinking about. I’ve done what I had to do to get those belts back.”
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