It no longer matters what happened in New York in June during a night and fight that left the boxing landscape in turmoil and Anthony Joshua looking at the canvas as he ducked his head in a forlorn mix of prayer and loss.
It no longer really matters that the roly-poly, fat, smiling and joking Andy Ruiz found the correct punches to end Joshua’s reign as world champion; after the fight the Mexican started to spend money like it was a race, his old life gone forever. A life can change with one punch, it happens in our rings, as both have sensibly said this week.
That was then and this is now, and the international fight caravan has pitched its tents in the desert scrub on the outskirts of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. They are here for nothing more complicated than a fight between two desperate men in one ring, a fight to the bitter end for a variety of the costume jewellery that the archaic sanctioning bodies deliver to title fights. This fight is about repeat, revenge, redemption, take your pick, but certainly not a fake diamond belt or four.
On Friday, in a green space outside a downtown hotel, and wedged between two roads protected by permanently positioned armoured cars, Joshua came to the scales, stripped and weighed 16 stone thirteen pounds, which is ten pounds lighter than he was in June. It was a weight he predicted and a clear sign of Joshua’s intent to move. It is his lightest for five years.
Ruiz, meanwhile, tipped the scales at a staggering 20 stone and three pounds, a weight that was met with bewilderment. It is one stone and one pound heavier than he was for the first fight.
“I can’t believe that,” said Eddie Hearn, the show’s promoter. “What does it mean? Has he trained? Has he just bulked up before getting on the scales. Is he kidding us?”
Ruiz makes no apologies for his bulges, no apologies for looking like he does and anybody that has seen him fight knows that once the bell sounds he makes that bulge, that moveable feast of a fat covering, flow with a smoothness that is half magical. Ruiz was lighter last time and it was thought that his weight would not be a factor in this fight: In the first fight, let’s be honest, Ruiz was the fat Mexican and that means a new nickname is needed. “That’s just what I weigh,” he said, like a man without a care in the world.
On Saturday night in Diriyah, Joshua must find the skills he lost during the first fight, must regain control of a ring he too easily surrendered once Ruiz moved closer and let his short arms flow in blurs of punches. That fight ended in the seventh round, Joshua was over four times, spilling and tumbling in odd angles to the canvas, and still all three judges awarded him three of the completed six rounds. It was an odd massacre to witness in many ways - it looked at one point like Ruiz, having dropped Joshua twice in the third, had let it slip away by the end of the fifth. It was a great fight.
Joshua has stopped trying to bench press “houses” and moved back Rocky-style to embrace the simple truths of the sweet science; he is moving more, not wasting movement, adjusting his head with care, his hands are up, he is feinting with shots, shifting feet, picking punches - he is training the old way, putting the hours in at a boxing gym and listening to boxing people. “It’s back to the Seventies for this fight - real fighters, men that knew their trade,” he said out here. The short, rough start of an Afro is a homage to some brutal heavies - the men he likes - from that glorious epoch.
It is hard for Joshua to appear normal when he is so heavily branded, such a sought after body for endorsements, but in real conversations the tough kid, the boy with the troubled history, the young man with the tag on his ankle, who devoted his life to change through the sport that offered him permanent salvation, is still there beating strong. I have been shocked by the Joshua in Saudi - it’s the old Joshua, the edgy, hungry one. It’s the one I wanted to see emerge even under the excesses and glitz that come with a fight like this in a land of super riches like this.
Ruiz has not changed one single bit and anybody tricked by the purchase of a luxury car or two, his effortless self-effacing honesty, solid girth, extra poundage and happiness is in danger of dismissing him once again. Ruiz fights like he is poor, like his next meal is dependent on victory and he likes it that way; this time, hopefully, nobody in the Joshua business will be fooled. Please, don’t gasp when they remove their robes to fight at 9pm on Saturday night - Ruiz has heard that too many times before and knows it gives him an edge.
In New York we saw the best of Ruiz, setting traps, having the element of surprise and pouncing when Joshua was staggered. Joshua needs to take the danger from the fight and that requires more than simply using a long jab, keeping his hands high and moving his feet - that is a simple triangle and it will not be enough. Incidentally, I have rejected any of the juicy gossip about Joshua being knocked cold in sparring.
In Diriyah Joshua has to be a better fighter, use guile, let his right hand crash through Ruiz’s guard with power, not leave his punches there, concentrate and fight like he is the boss. There is a nasty thin line between the two types of boxing confidence: In New York it was all bad perception and overconfidence - here it must be total confidence in his ability. Joshua seems to have that belief this time and that will be enough. Ruiz will have his brave heart tested and might have to be rescued.