Here's 'the little fat kid' who is stepping up to challenge heavyweight champ Anthony Joshua

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Wallace Matthews
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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 19: Andy Ruiz Jr. poses on the scale during his official weigh-in ahead of his heavyweight bout against Alexander Dimitrenko at Sheraton Gateway Hotel on April 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)
Andy Ruiz Jr. will challenge Anthony Joshua on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. (Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Nearly 30 years ago, the late, great fight trainer Gil Clancy was eyeing the rotund, 41-year-old body of George Foreman, who was “training’’ to fight Gerry Cooney, Clancy’s heavyweight, the following night.

“If Foreman wins this fight, it will set back boxing training 100 years,’’ Clancy told me.

Foreman, of course, pummelled a finely trained Cooney into submission in two rounds, went on to win the heavyweight title four years later, and boxing training survived.

Nearly three decades later, Rob McCracken, who trains Anthony Joshua, might be tempted to say the same thing about Andy Ruiz Jr.

Ruiz, who challenges Joshua for his four versions of the heavyweight title Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, is no one’s idea of an enviable physical specimen. Listed at 6-foot-2, but closer to 5-11, Ruiz has weighed as much as 297 ½ pounds, his weight for his pro debut 10 years ago, and is likely to come in at a comparatively svelte 260 or so against Joshua.

His body is undefined, his arms short, his legs stubby. If there are abs somewhere in his midsection, they are buried deeper than spent nuclear fuel rods. Standing next to the buff 6-6, 245-pound Joshua, Ruiz is likely to look like the clown half of an “Abbott & Costello” tribute act.

But, as one boxing matchmaker, who likes Ruiz as a fighter and a person, told me on Wednesday, “The only time he will embarrass himself is when he takes his robe off.’’

And as far as Ruiz is concerned, not even then.

Rather than apologize for his build, Ruiz has chosen to wear it. He’s not about to wear slimming black or vertical stripes in an attempt to camouflage his girth, and when he and Joshua are called to the center of the ring, he won’t be sucking in his gut.

In fact, one of his fondest hopes is that a victory over Joshua – which would rival, on a much smaller scale, Buster Douglas’ upset of Mike Tyson – will land him an endorsement deal with Snickers, his candy bar of choice.

And while he once was stung by the fat-shaming taunts of other kids, Ruiz now cheerfully refers to himself as “the little fat kid.’’

It is a most unlikely nickname for a most unlikely challenger for the heavyweight title, but very little about Andy Ruiz’s life has followed a traditional path. For one thing, he is of Mexican heritage, and while that nation has a proud boxing tradition, most of the great Mexican fighters have been in lower weight classes, men like Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya and Ruben Olivares.

For another, Ruiz was virtually forced into the ring by his dad, Andy Sr., when he was 6, and although he didn’t much care for it – Ruiz Jr. was so oversized he often had to fight teenagers, and, he said, even grown men – he stuck with it long enough to compete for a spot on the Mexican Olympic team as a 19-year-old.

And just for good measure, unlike most short, squat heavyweights – think Joe Frazier, Rocky Marciano and yes, Tyson – Ruiz is more boxer than puncher, which seems to put him at an even greater disadvantage against the rangy, technically proficient Joshua.

Where Ruiz’s tale veers back into conventionality is the role boxing played in straightening out what could have been a crooked life arc.

“Boxing saved my life,’’ Ruiz said. “I was like a little gangster when I was young. I shaved my head bald and was hanging around with the wrong cliques. I don’t want to say the things I used to do. But there was something about boxing that made me want to go back and back. Boxing kept me away from getting in major trouble.’’

Now, Ruiz is a pleasant young man with a decent professional record – 31-2 with 21 KOs – who fate tapped on the shoulder when Joshua’s original opponent, Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, was disqualified from the bout after failing several drug tests in April.

New York , United States - 30 May 2019; Anthony Joshua, left, and Andy Ruiz Jr following a press conference, at the Beacon Theater on Broadway, ahead of their World Heavyweight title fight, on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, in New York, USA. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Anthony Joshua, left, and Andy Ruiz Jr following a news conference, at the Beacon Theater on Broadway, ahead of their heavyweight title fight, on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. (Getty Images)

And it’s not like he was the first choice; two other, more prominent heavyweights, Luis Ortiz and Adam Kownacki, turned down offers to fight Joshua as Miller’s replacement.

Ruiz, who had just stopped Alexander Dimitrenko on April 20 when the Joshua camp got down to him, jumped at the chance.

“My dream is to be at this stage right now and to make history and become the first Mexican heavyweight champion of the world,’’ Ruiz said.

The oddsmakers say fat chance; online betting sites have Joshua a prohibitive favorite, at odds of 20-1 and higher.

Yet a matchmaker who used Ruiz in several of his early fights provided the following scouting report: “He has a good skill set, good chin, fast hands, can box. Comes to rumble but not a slugger. Embarrass himself? Far from it.’’

Still, Ruiz’s best chance to pull off an upset seems to lie in the possibility that Joshua, who is unbeaten in 22 fights with 21 KOs including an impressive off-the-deck KO of Wladimir Klitschko, is looking past him to a megafight against Deontay Wilder, who owns the remaining heavyweight belt.

“I’m not going to lie, everybody says I have to really focus on [Saturday] but you can’t not look at the bigger picture,’’ said Joshua, who is making his U.S. debut after fighting exclusively in the U.K. before crowds as large as 90,000. “I’m sure he is, too. I’m not looking past him but I don’t put blinkers on to see the potential if I beat this guy, what’s out there for me.’’

Ruiz can lean on their common opponent, Joseph Parker, who narrowly beat him in 2016 and was convincingly outpointed by Joshua two years later. Also, Ruiz believes that Joshua has an especially difficult time fighting opponents who are significantly shorter than him, and will seek to make himself an even smaller, and busier, target than Joshua is accustomed to fighting.

“I have to just let my hands go, man, have fun and do what I do best,’’ Ruiz said. “I think with my speed and movement and pressure, all that is going to come together. He’s never fought anyone that pressures him, you know? I don’t know how he fights going backwards. We just need to stick to the game plan and I think I can score an upset here.’’

And in the process, coin a new slogan for the Snickers bar: Breakfast of Champions.

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