The dynamics of this weekend’s heavyweight title bout between WBA-IBF-WBO world champion Andy Ruiz, 33-1 (22), and the man he won the titles from via seventh-round TKO, Anthony Joshua, 22-1 (21), make it one of the hardest fights to handicap in recent memory. These dynamics involve the business of boxing plus Joshua’s mental state and in-ring strategy. In addition to that, there are several critical questions that need to be answered such as the following: Did Joshua look past Ruiz the last time? Does Joshua have a suspect chin? Does Ruiz have his number, or is Joshua a special fighter? And last, how much did getting stopped shake Joshua’s confidence?
The first time they met Joshua was the overwhelming favorite at minus $3,300; this time he’s minus $350. And, betting numbers aside, there’s more business in play here. Forget about the Xs and Os for a moment: if Joshua loses to Ruiz again, especially if it’s by stoppage, there’s a clear case that close to a billion dollars of revenue could be lost—coming from fights featuring a redeemed Joshua versus WBC champ Deontay Wilder, lineal champ Tyson Fury, and contenders like Dillian Whyte, Oleksandr Usyk, Daniel Dubois, and others. An impressive win by Joshua and all that was on the table before June 1 is back on, which would re-ignite a heavyweight division that has nevertheless gained traction in 2019. Yes, in some ways boxing needs Joshua to win. And doing so handily would be an added bonus.
Since he beat Wladimir Klitschko in April 2017, Joshua hasn’t looked the same; rather, he’s fought as if he has something to protect instead of something to prove. In addition, questions about his chin after Klitschko dropped him have escalated after Ruiz dropped him four times and stopped him. Joshua said he was in a fog after the first knockdown and fought concussed the rest of the way, which is reminiscent of what Joe Louis said when he lost to Max Schmeling in their first fight. So we are looking at one of two things: (1) Joshua’s chin is so bad he’s never going to be the fighter people thought he would be, or (2) Joshua was indeed concussed as he tried to knock out Ruiz and he never recovered. If the latter is true, this fight could be like Louis‒Schmeling I, in which Joe fought most of the first fight while concussed. If so, Joshua will knock Ruiz out and it’s back to business-as-usual.
The counterargument to that is this: Joshua is forever damaged from the stoppage defeat to Ruiz. However, Lennox Lewis wasn’t after he was knocked out in his first fights with Oliver McCall in 1994 and Hasim Rahman in 2001. Lewis avenged both losses by knockout. The difference, though, is that Lewis got iced by a single shot by McCall and Rahman; and Lewis’s knowing that that could happen to anyone helped him to overcome and rationalize what happened. Joshua, on the other hand, was dropped four times, was continually beaten to the punch, and was hurt almost every time Ruiz caught him or grazed him hard. Joshua’s degree of difficulty, therefore, is much higher than Lewis’s when Joshua faces his conqueror.
The leftover effect of Joshua’s loss is that if he hasn’t totally blocked out the last fight out of his mind, he could be a 250-pound Sergey Kovalev facing Canelo Alvarez last month. This means that Joshua may go into the fight looking to play a little tag-and-rough-touch, and refusing to engage Ruiz, fearing another knockout—while at the same time hoping to run out the clock and stealing a decision and then never going near Ruiz again. That will, however, be much harder for Joshua to do than it was for Kovalev. And that’s because Ruiz is a natural aggressor-attacker and won’t back off unless you give him a reason to (Unlike Canelo, the counterpuncher who waits for the perfect counter or mistake to seize on to end the fight.) There’s no way Joshua can bluff Ruiz from coming after him the way Kovalev bluffed Canelo for most of their fight. If Ruiz smells trepidation from Joshua—if Joshua shows it—Ruiz will pick up the pace and cause a panicked Joshua to trade out of fear and desperation. Most people forget Ruiz is the more experienced fighter and more relaxed in the ring. What’s more, he’s capable of turning it on and going to the head and body, mixing overhand rights and winging hooks.
The problem with Joshua trying get past Ruiz the way Kovalev tried to do against Alvarez is this: his brand won’t be restored and Deontay Wilder will still be viewed as the alpha dog of the division. But if he can poleaxe Ruiz the way Lewis did Rahman in the rematch, Joshua has bragging rights again and will surely say—if in fact that happens—that he’s a greater fighter because of losing to Ruiz and his best days are ahead. That said, the pressure on Joshua to win, and to do so impressively, is monumental.
Can Joshua reverse things this time and will Ruiz be the same hungry fighter that Buster Douglas was before he fought Mike Tyson? Or will he be complacent like Douglas was in his first defense against Evander Holyfield? It’s been reported Ruiz will be lighter this time, which may or may not be a good thing. And there are reports and social media posts indicating that Ruiz is spending money extravagantly, which may reveal a lack of seriousness. Maybe Ruiz is too sure of himself, believing that he made Joshua quit in the last fight, and that he only needs to show up and growl this time to get the win. Either way, it’s something to keep in mind.
Recently former two-time heavyweight champ George Foreman suggested that for Joshua to beat Ruiz this time he must adopt the style Muhammad Ali used when he took the title back from Leon Spinks. And that’s circle, jab, clinch, push him off, and do it again. And once Spinks caught on, Ali changed it up and picked spots to flurry and trade, and then shut him down by wrapping him up. The problem with that is this: Joshua doesn’t have Ali’s legs and can’t fight on the move nearly as well as even an eroded Ali did. So fighting Ruiz as a mover-boxer is completely off the table for Joshua; it’s just not who he is. And if he were foolish enough to do so, Ruiz would relish that and literally run Joshua out of the ring fully aware that Joshua can’t punch with authority when picking up his feet (while being vulnerable for Ruiz’s looping punches in the process).
The strategy for Joshua winning this time isn’t hard to figure out but it’s a difficult one to execute against an opponent who will more or less see it. In an ideal scenario, Johsua goes at Ruiz behind a stern jab and nails him with big right hands. And if he lands first with big shots and doesn’t back straight out with his head and chin in the air, it’s possible a determined Joshua beats Ruiz down before he can get going. But that’s a risky proposition if he’s unsure of himself and needs rounds to build his confidence.
On paper Joshua has the height and reach advantage and is the bigger puncher; but Ruiz is more aggressive, fights more instinctively in letting his hands go, and believes he has the better chin (and nothing that happened last time convinces him any differently). In fact, he got off the canvas and fought better after being down. In most cases a big right hand, Joshua’s best punch, will trump a left hook, Ruiz’s money punch. And that’s because of the right hand being a weapon from outside and, when caught at the end of it, the fighter looking to land the hook is stymied. However, once inside, the fighter with the good hook and uppercut has the advantage. In order for Joshua to be at his best, he can’t allow Ruiz to get inside or stay there drawing him into trading hooks and uppercuts. He must disrupt Ruiz’s aggression and tempo so he never gets any momentum. And if Ruiz does get inside, clinching will be paramount because Ruiz can get off with his looping round punches, and that’s why Joshua must lock up one of Ruiz’s arms inside so he can’t get anything on his shots—hindering his access to roll from one side to the other finding a hole in Joshua’s guard.
Keeping it simple and direct will prevent Joshua from overthinking, which he tends to do. On top of that, it’ll lessen the advantage Ruiz has in hand speed. Ruiz only knows how to come forward and believes his power and chin combined with his quick hands at mid-range and inside will get the job done. If he’s not having success with what has always worked, he’s not likely to change it up mid-fight. Nor will he look to draw Joshua into him thus moving back looking to counter Joshua who may push the fight and over-commit if he senses Joshua’s fighting with confidence.
Joshua needs to commit to straight lefts and rights, and cannot hesitate once he sees the window he wants. He must try to make Ruiz pay for his aggression the way Bernard Hopkins made Felix Trindad pay for his. But that’ll be harder for Joshua because Trinidad jabbed his way in and was comfortable inching in instead of blasting in the way that Ruiz will try to do as the fight progresses. Sure he’ll look to use his jab to prod and probe, but he can’t shake Joshua overselling his jab. Also, it’s important for Joshua to send a message early that I don’t fear you and there’s a price to pay in coming after me, but Joshua can’t fight careless or reckless under stress.
Ruiz has less changing or plotting to do. Aggression and pressure is something no fighter wants to deal with, especially if you have heavy hands like Ruiz. Having gotten up from a beautiful left hook from Joshua has Ruiz believing he can’t be hurt by Joshua, and a one-for-one trade-off in order to crowd Joshua works in his favor. Having hurt Joshua last time, Ruiz believes if he catches or even grazes him well again, the result will be the same—and that should make him more formidable this time. That’s why it’s imperative that Ruiz makes Joshua remember their last fight as soon as possible. Because it’s safe to assume if Ruiz shakes or wobbles Joshua again, Joshua will think oh no here we go again; and once that happens the fight will likely end soon after that.
The thing that will make Ruiz so tough to beat is this: he’s coming to fight and is confident Joshua is coming to survive and box. Ruiz is certain he has the style to beat Joshua and shake off anything he might try to do. That’s a great mindset to have going into a big fight: the total belief that opponent fears you; that he doesn’t want to trade; that he can’t box as well; that he isn’t as fast, tough, or confident. If Joshua can overcome that, he’s a remarkable fighter and he may be back on track to becoming the star that some saw him as before June 1.
Because Joshua was hurt by Ruiz and had no answer for him last time, it’s hard to forget that and hard to pick him to win the rematch. It’s even harder to conclude that it was just a one-night thing for Ruiz to hurt Joshua and cause him to come undone, even if he wasn’t in great shape. The psychological damage caused by that probably can’t be cured through great conditioning on Joshua’s part. Ruiz hurt him with both lefts and rights in the first fight and they’ll be thrown with more confidence and conviction this time.
For Joshua to win the rematch, he has to fight the perfect fight. That means punching smartly inside Ruiz’s round punches and, at the right time, not allowing Ruiz to drag him into a street fight. He also can’t go straight back when pulling out and must not tighten up or overthink when the heat is on. Because at some point Ruiz is going to ask Joshua the same questions he had no answer for the last time. And based on that it’s hard to envision Joshua having all the answers he needs this time.
Despite Joshua being the favorite again, it’s difficult to see him as the actual favorite. Unless he’s one of those rare fighters that needed a loss—like Joe Louis did—to become an all-time great, and those fighters are rare. A spectacular win by Joshua would be great for boxing and not just for the heavyweight division. Ruiz is likable but has no juice and isn’t a big draw. Sometimes the universe aligns and boxing gets the result it needs. But based on their last fight, and if Ruiz is in shape and ready, it looks like a bridge too far for Joshua to cross completely and if he does it’ll say a lot about him. Ruiz by stoppage.