More than thirty years have passed since the last heyday of the jiggly heavyweight. In the 1980s, when boxing mirrored the “Greed is Good” era with dollar bills wafting in the air like shredded junk bonds used as confetti, chubby big men were everywhere, as if to emphasize the free-floating excess of the times. Tim Witherspoon, Greg Page, James Broad, Tony Tubbs, and David Bey were only some of the lardy luminaries. By the 1990s only Michael Moorer and jolly George Foreman had some success. Since then, tubbies have done little worth mentioning—except generate punchlines for politically-incorrect jokes (think Buster Mathis Jr., Butterbean, and, have mercy, Wolfgramm). In a last-minute switch, Andy Ruiz Jr. looks to change all that when he faces unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Saturday night. Or something like that.
While the blockbuster purse guaranteed by facing Joshua was not enough to tempt a few heavyweight wallflowers, Ruiz seems to understand the ultimate goal of prizefighting: participation in a momentous event with a commensurate paycheck for the risk. For years this was the organizing principle of a blood sport, but the upside-down world of contemporary boxing has managed to subvert even the basics. (Of course, this statement applies only to above-board transactions. What happens under the table is another story altogether.)
It would take another decade of FS1 undercard slots for Ruiz, 32-1 (21), to accrue as many dollar signs as he will for a single (likely painful) evening with Joshua, whose standing as the number-one moneyman in the heavyweight division is undisputed, even if his status as the best fighter is debatable. With Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury haranguing Joshua at every turn, his oft-repeated claim to be “leading the pack” rings hollow with every reiteration.
In some ways, Ruiz is a throwback to the Haymon Outsourcing Program (HOP) of a few years ago, when the PBC, burning through the Waddell & Reed war chest faster than Mike Tyson splurged away one fortune after another, served up select second-tier talent as longshot sacrifices to headliners on HBO. Occasionally, Al Haymon would seemingly offer the services of fighters in shrewdly calculated moves to undercut a Golden Boy lawsuit. Only Oscar De La Hoya could sue a company for monopolistic practices while maintaining business ties and earning millions of dollars with the aid of the defendant. Because De La Hoya was unable to resist using PBC afterthoughts Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Amir Khan as fodder for Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, he undermined, with the requisite amount of foolishness, his case.
Interestingly enough, Joshua has already dispatched two previous HOP fighters with ease: Dominic Breazeale and Charles Martin. Add Andy “Destroyer” Ruiz to that short list. A late substitute for Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, Ruiz, Imperial, California, will cash the biggest check of his career with the HOP seal of approval. Indeed, the PBC website makes no mention at all of Ruiz challenging for three-quarters of the heavyweight championship of the world, an unusual oversight for what is essentially a propaganda outlet.
Although Ruiz has faced slightly better competition than Miller, he is a promotional downgrade for Matchroom and DAZN. A local fighter with the gift of gab and an unusual backstory, Miller was a natural foil for Joshua and good PR material for his New York City debut. Unfortunately, Miller was a walking chem lab, and his multiple PEDs failures tobogganed him out of millions of dollars. Worse, the switcheroo means Joshua will be facing his second late substitute in four starts. With only two fights a year, Joshua cannot afford to regress in competition just as his biggest threats line the horizon.
To a certain paradoxical extent, his success has retarded his momentum: Joshua, 22-0 (21), is such a moneymaking machine in the United Kingdom that his fights have become logistical challenges. The planning stages for mega-events slated for oversized soccer stadiums, as well as for PPV in England and streaming on DAZN in the US, require both careful coordination and a fixed timetable.
In the seemingly never-ending battle of hot takes, RTs, and memes, Joshua has found himself lagging behind his heavyweight peers since late 2018, when Wilder and Fury agreed to terms in an eyeblink, making a mockery—temporarily, of course—of protracted, HTML-based negotiations. Fury and Wilder went on to fight to a memorable (if completely overrated) draw on pay-per-view, in the only pairing, thus far, of the reluctant heavyweight triumvirate. Then Wilder followed up his most notable performance with a gif-worthy first-round KO of Dominic Breazeale on Showtime two weeks ago.
If Joshua is extended by Ruiz, he will lose further ground in the marketing wars. (Not that it matters: the only roadblocks to fights among Joshua, Wilder, and Fury are avarice and short-sightedness, the usual boxing foibles.) This matchup became a publicity mishap the moment it was announced. The contrast between the pudgy, baby-faced Ruiz (given to photo-ops with Snickers bars as props) and the strapping Joshua—who looks like he stepped out of the pages of a Marvel comic—makes for what political consultants would call “bad optics.”
Where Dominic Breazeale is almost artless in the ring, however, Ruiz, who was a solid amateur more than a decade ago, has shown that he has a certain amount of know-how between the ropes. Ruiz keeps a high guard, blocks and parries well, throws punches in combination, and works his jab to both the body and the head. His best weapon remains a snappy left hook, but Ruiz often leans in, off-balance, to throw it, leaving him vulnerable to counters and uppercuts in close.
At six foot six, and 240–250 pounds, Joshua, Watford, Hertfordshire, UK, has every physical advantage over the six-foot-two Ruiz, whose stubby arms afford him only a reported seventy-four-inch reach, negligible for a heavyweight. In addition, limited mobility means Ruiz will not be side-stepping, backpedaling, or gliding away from an onrushing Joshua. That means that Ruiz will be vulnerable while in firing range.
If Ruiz views Joshua as somewhat robotic, he will also take note that “A. J.” is no longer the seek-and-destroy machine of his pre-unified-champion zenith. Since stopping Wladimir Klitschko in a 2017 donnybrook, Joshua has adopted a more cautious approach in the ring. Wins over Carlos Takam, Joseph Parker, and Alexander Povetkin lacked the violent spark that marked (bruises, welts, cuts, etc.) his stoppages of Dillian Whyte and Klitschko. But if Joshua feels like having a shootout, then Ruiz might be the perfect target. Unlike some second-tier big men, Ruiz has little of the firepower usually associated with heavyweights. His twenty-one knockouts (in thirty-two wins) have materialized primarily because of how limited his opposition has been.
What matters after Ruiz is stopped on Saturday night—in what should be considered an off-the-board mismatch—is the immediate future of “The Heavyweight Triangle.” All signs point to Deontay Wilder facing Luis Ortiz in a rematch in September, and with Tyson Fury now locked-in to ESPN, Joshua will have to wait until at least 2020 to pursue his stated goal of being undisputed champion. Even he seems perplexed about the current state of the heavyweight scene. In an interview with The Telegraph, Joshua addressed the mysterious $50 million offer from Team Wilder last year that seems on par with the Alien Autopsy or the Patterson–Gimlin film. “He turned down double the amount to fight me, and that was a real offer from a broadcaster,” Joshua said. “That wasn’t an email from Wilder, it was a real contract offer from a broadcaster offering Wilder the chance to fight on DAZN. A contract offering him a chance to fight on his own, one warm-up, and then me. And he could have fought me straightaway if he wanted, there was that option. It’s baffling why he didn’t take it after all the talk.”
These claims are open to interpretation, of course, and the 24/7 spin cycle of sporting partisans have made sure that they are. But one thing Joshua said is irrefutable: “How much more money has to be on the table? Broadcasters run boxing. But we have had this situation before when fighters were with different broadcasters and still managed to fight.”
In a typical boxing SNAFU, the top three heavyweights in the world will have faced, over the span of two months, the almost-comical trio of Dominic Breazeale, Andy Ruiz, and Tom Schwarz. The big picture, alas, gets smaller and smaller with every passing farce.