Will Anthony Joshua be a star in U.S.? Heavyweight champ's debut in America will be telling

Yahoo Sports
British boxer Anthony Joshua laughs prior to a media session on May 1, 2019. He'll face Andy Ruiz Jr. in New York on Saturday. (AP)
British boxer Anthony Joshua laughs prior to a media session on May 1, 2019. He'll face Andy Ruiz Jr. in New York on Saturday. (AP)

NEW YORK — As British invasions go, the arrival of Anthony Joshua on this side of the Atlantic has been somewhat less earthshaking than that of John, Paul, George and Ringo 55 years ago.

The man who holds four of the five world heavyweight title belts, and in the UK has attracted the largest heavyweight crowds since Jack Dempsey drew 120,000 to Boyle’s Thirty Acres nearly 100 years ago, drew a couple of hundred people to an open workout in lower Manhattan to try to drum up interest in his U.S. debut Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

But much of the crowd seemed to be on one fight-connected payroll or another —many of the shirts carried the logos of the BBC and Sky Sports, William Hill Bookmakers and DAZN, the streaming service that will carry the fight live to its subscribers — or wore the all-black livery of Joshua’s sizable entourage of muscled and earpieced young men.

They mobbed Joshua, cheered when he turned his smartphone in their direction, and beseeched him to sign everything from T-shirts to ball caps to handkerchiefs.

Among the New Yorkers wandering through the atrium of the downtown shopping mall, however, the interest seemed decidedly less fervent.

“Why are all these people here?,’’ a young woman asked her two companions as they glanced curiously at the ring that had been set up near the windows overlooking the Hudson River. “What are they doing?’’

A man who was watching with what seemed like bemused indifference was asked if he knew the identity of the large man who was the object of all the tumult.

“The heavyweight champion of England, I think,’’ he said. “I don’t know his name.’’

And a longtime British boxing writer, one who had covered the worldwide three-ring circus known as Mike Tyson 30-odd years ago, was asked what the reception to Joshua has been in the streets of Manhattan since his arrival on Sunday.

“Nothing,’’ the man said. “People stare at him because of how big he is, and they seem to now he’s an athlete or something, but no one is shouting out his name or anything.’’

Officially, Joshua is here to defend his WBA, WBO, IBF and WBO belts against Andy Ruiz Jr., a match considered so non-competitive that at least one online betting site is listing Joshua as a 35-to-1 favorite.

But the real reason the fight is being held in the Garden, the site of some of the greatest heavyweight title fights in history, is to gauge the viability of Anthony Joshua as an international attraction.

While his fights have drawn upward of 90,000 to London’s Wembley Stadium, Joshua has yet to prove he can draw outside the U.K. And that is a major sticking point to the fight boxing fans really want to see, a showdown with Deontay Wilder of the U.S., holder of the remaining belt.

“It’s rather frustrating,’’ said Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter. “The Wilder people have made it clear they want to take two more fights before they fight us. That means a year or so away. In the meantime, someone might lose.’’

It’s virtually unthinkable Joshua could lose to Ruiz, a squat, 5-foot-10, 250-pounder who might be the least-likely looking heavyweight title contender since “Two Ton” Tony Galento challenged Joe Louis in 1939. But unlike Ruiz, Galento could punch a little — he shocked the Yankee Stadium crowd by dropping Louis in the third round — before being cut to ribbons and stopped in the fourth.

Ruiz is not a fearsome puncher — he has 21 KOs in 32 victories — and relies more on hand speed and boxing ability to win his fights. That seems like a recipe for disaster against Joshua, a chiseled 6-foot-6, 245-pounder who is as technically proficient as Wilder is raw and untutored.

Ruiz’s one hope seems to lie in the fact that he and Joshua have a common opponent — Joseph Parker of New Zealand, who briefly held the WBO title — and both went the distance with him. But while Ruiz scrapped well enough to earn a draw on one of the three scorecards, losing narrowly on the other two, Joshua handily outpointed Parker in his second title defense in March 2018, winning 10 of the 12 rounds on all three cards.

British boxer Anthony Joshua poses for photographers ahead of his fight against Andy Ruiz Jr. (AP)
British boxer Anthony Joshua poses for photographers ahead of his fight against Andy Ruiz Jr. (AP)

Ruiz only got the fight when Joshua’s original opponent, Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller of Brooklyn, was disqualified after failing not one, not two, but three drug tests, and after two other prospective opponents, Luis Ortiz and Adam Kownacki, turned down the fight.

Asked what qualifications Ruiz possessed for a challenge to Joshua, a man connected to the promotion said, “He said yes.’’

It portends the Ruiz bout as less a fight than a showcase for Joshua, as both athlete and attraction.

Which is not to say there is no pressure on Joshua Saturday night. In addition to wanting to demonstrate his ability to sell tickets on this side of the Atlantic — and to attract subscribers to DAZN, which charges approximately $10 a month but does not release subscriber numbers — Joshua no doubt will be trying to match, if not outdo, Wilder’s sensational one-punch knockout of Dominic Breazale two weeks ago at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Joshua, who has been criticized as “robotic’’ and lacking in the animal passion that oozes out of Wilder, is said to be frustrated by the caution of his trainer, Robert McCracken, who counsels him not to take chances in the ring.

“That’s what I want to do!,’’ Joshua told a BBC commentator after Wilder’s victory. “But they won’t let me.’’

According to Hearn, some 7,000 Brits are expected to travel to New York for the fight. With the exception of about 800 tickets, the remainder of the approximately 20,000 seats, Hearn says, are sold.

But as of Tuesday, the MSG website had more than 2,000 tickets available at prices ranging from $131 to $3,500. And that does not include the number of tickets that might be in the possession of secondary-market sellers such as StubHub.

Whether it is the quality of the opposition, the relative anonymity of Joshua on this side of the pond, or the traditional reluctance of U.S. fight crowds to warm up to foreign-born fighters — Manny Pacquiao being the notable exception — Joshua’s U.S. debut seems to be far from the hottest ticket in town.

Still, the British media was doing its best to stir up a frenzy over Joshua, only the second Englishman — Lennox Lewis is the other — to have won the heavyweight title since the Marquess of Queensberry invented the modern fight game in 1867.

No fewer than five TV crews broadcast live from the “workouts,’’ which consisted of little more than a few minutes of rope-skipping, shadowboxing and mitt work by the main eventers and some of the undercard fighters.

“There is destiny in this room!” thundered a Sky TV commentator into his microphone.

In the ring, Joshua spent more time waving at friends, taking selfies with fans and face-timing a live interview for his Instagram page than actually training.

“At this point in his training, AJ’s workouts are mostly visual events,’’ a member of his camp told me.

As likely will be the fight. At its best, boxing is a two-act of equally matched performers desperately trying to outdo one another.

Joshua-Ruiz will be more of a one-man show, performed before a curious nation wondering what the fuss is all about.

More from Yahoo Sports:

What to Read Next