The heavyweight division got what it needed on Saturday night. Not an undisputed champion, that supposed guarantor of clarity and cultural relevance for a fractured, niche sport. And not a new champion either, though we were indeed gifted one. No, what the heavyweight division needed was an upset, an invigorating dose of the unexpected to delay if not derail the glamor division’s journey to irrelevance.
In the third round of this unified title fight, Andy “Destroyer” Ruiz ate a left hook from Anthony Joshua and spilled across the canvas in Madison Square Garden. The crowd, saturated with Joshua’s British supporters, roared its approval as their fighter appeared on the verge of doing to Ruiz what he’d done to all but one opponent in becoming the long-standing heir to a dusty, empty heavyweight throne. Undaunted, Ruiz recovered and met Joshua’s finishing salvo with a left hook that took enough of the champion’s daylights to make the remaining rounds academic. Four rounds later, Joshua stood woozily in the corner, having crawled to his feet for the fourth and final time, and watched referee Michael Griffin wave off the fight, dispersing with that gesture much of Joshua’s mystique in the process.
There has always been something regal about Joshua; a purple streak that went beyond his herculean dimensions, beyond the polish, beyond the grooming that long ago began preparing him to be not just a professional boxer but the heavyweight champion of the world. You could see it in the composure he showed knocking out Wladimir Klitschko, but even more so in his tempered reaction to that victory. He was only nineteen fights into his career then; the moment called for jubilation. And yet as he turned from the vanquished Klitschko barely a smile registered on his face. There was much to appreciate about a fighter who met his destiny with such assuredness. He seemed then a handsome, hulking inevitability.
But nothing is guaranteed for Joshua now, so now we find out who he is. Is he a better version of his countryman Frank Bruno? A physical specimen good enough to pick up some hardware but too psychologically fragile to persist at the top? Or is he closer to Lennox Lewis, an Olympic gold medalist who could be chinned but who never abandoned his malice despite the risk it introduced; whose multiple title reigns were a testament to his talent, yes, but also his ability to rebuild?
A change in his corner shouldn’t be ruled out as the brain trust behind “A. J.” works to rationalize Saturday and repair their man. No vested party could watch Ruiz shellac him and not recognize the flaws in Joshua’s construction. If the now former champion indeed evokes his rematch clause—as a fighter should, though wisdom might counsel otherwise—he will need to be better or Ruiz will again make a mockery of him.
And he can be better. While he’ll be furiously written off for at least a few more days, Joshua remains one of the best heavyweights in the world and, while he’s been trending away from his most destructive self, he remains a frightening proposition. Ruiz, short, quick, composed, and well-coached, may have the wrong style for him, but there is no other heavyweight like Ruiz.
Joshua would do well to better exploit his reach in the rematch and, if he must carry all of that rippling muscle, the least he could do with it is hold more effectively when hurt. Mind you, if improving Joshua means fashioning him into a new version of Wladimir Klitschko, something the friendly referees on his native soil will certainly facilitate, let his end come soon. The division belongs not in its ruler’s embrace, but under his shoe. Joshua is a power-punching giant, may he comport himself like one or move on.
The idea that confronts you time and again as you progress through Donald McRae’s phenomenal Dark Trade is this: the fighters will bring you back. The violence is addicting, and no explanation is needed for anyone who would read this column. But its harsh reality—one of lurking catastrophe and bloody outlay—provides troublesome moments for even the most sanguinary aficionado. The business itself, nefarious enough to be comical if it did not torpedo so many lives, is an ever-present offense. But the fighters? The fighters are undeniable. (And it is a sad commentary on our sport that so many of those who cover it look down rather than up at their subject.)
Ruiz, a fighter above all else, is now one of the undeniable—because in his defining moment he refused to be denied. The urge to romanticize Ruiz’s victory is as strong as his achievement is implausible. While his peers found reasons out of a Joshua fight, reasons to decline the opportunity a prizefighter is supposed to dedicate his career to securing, Ruiz asked for the chance to change his future. As a champion should, he crawled off the ample seat of his trunks to bring about that change—a replacement opponent replacing a champion. And how can you not appreciate a fighter who made time in the post-fight press conference to say “Mom, I love you. We don’t have to struggle no more thanks to God!”, to escape, if only long enough to deliver that sweetness, the script of predictable and perfunctory cliché into which such rituals devolve.
The night belonged to Ruiz; the year might, too. The heavyweight division, however, remains unclaimed, and if it is going to remain so, may all the obstructionist parties experience their own dose of the unexpected.