By Anish Parekh:
“The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road; long before I dance under those lights.” Muhammad Ali
When I was asked to give my prediction on the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz rematch, I had to hesitate. After all, prior to the initial title-fight, AJ was the overwhelming favourite to win.
Experts expected a mismatch; surely the unified champion from London would have too much for Ruiz. With a fundamentally decent skill-set combined with his fine-blend of size, power and athleticism, it was inconceivable to imagine him losing to a portly late-replacement opponent, whose almost comical appearance suggested that he seemingly lacked the dedication to succeed at the highest level.
Of course, what happened next made fools of us all. Andy Ruiz shocked the boxing world, knocking Joshua to the canvas four times before the referee finally called a halt to proceedings.
Whilst Joshua has made it his mantra to “stay humble,” he will be looking to avoid being force-fed humble pie by Ruiz once more, when they meet again on 7th December in Saudi Arabia. Many of the physical advantages that Joshua had in his favour in the lead up to the first bout remain. He is bigger, taller, superior reach and tremendous power. However, this fight is not difficult to predict based on judging the physical capabilities of the fighters, but rather, the mental state each man will carry into the ring with them.
Following the announcement of the rematch Joshua alluded that he may have lost some of the passion for boxing and in order for him to triumph, will need to rediscover it. At a young age, he has achieved so much. He has become an Olympic gold medalist, unified three of the heavyweight world title’s, fought in stadiums in front of vast crowds and become one of the most recognisable faces in the world. His loss of motivation reminds me of the famous quote by Marvelous Marvin Hagler; “It’s tough to get out of bed at 5am to do roadwork when you’ve been sleeping in silk pyjama’s.”
Boxing has always been a typically working class person’s sport. It provides an opportunity for people to go from rags to riches, as they literally fight for the betterment of their lives. Now that Joshua has stuffed millions into his bank and has assured his financial security, is there any desire to undress out of his proverbial silk pyjama’s and into his tracksuit, to train to compete in the most gruelling of sports?
On the other hand, it could be argued that money is not the sole motivator in the pursuit for success. On a sporting level, Joshua may still have ambitions to become the undisputed heavyweight champion. Perhaps the defeat to Ruiz damaged his ego and pride to such an extent that he is motivated by something more sinister – revenge. Not just against his tormentor on the night of June, 1st, but also upon all of the people that spewed spiteful abuse towards him during his lowest point.
Joshua has presented himself as a role-model and spoken in a polite and respectful manner, toeing the corporate line and veering away from controversy. Yet, a noisy segment of so-called boxing fans still reveled in his downfall.
This could be the reason why AJ has recently spoken candidly about the first fight with Ruiz – amongst other topics – in a more honest and revealing way. During his his interview with Anna Woolhouse, he was still considered and articulate but there were conspicuous flashes where he was aloof and prickly. Describing Ruiz as “not that skillful” and “lucky.” Whilst also describing former undisputed heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis as a “clown”.
He let the corporate mask that gave him a friendly and approachable appearance, slip slightly to reveal a side of him befitting of his intimidating physical stature. He sounded annoyed and maybe even disillusioned with how boxing has treated him. It could be the perfect fuel to light the fire of his passion, that he said had abandoned him.
Contrary to Joshua’s claims that Ruiz beat him “with a lucky punch” that was “sent by the God’s.” In reality he was comprehensively battered and beaten, out-thought and out-fought. Will this play on AJ’s mind when he faces Ruiz in the rematch? How will he react the moment that Ruiz lands with a flush right hand and rushes to pour on more punishment? Could the psychological damage cause him to freeze in the moment for fear of further humiliation? If his mind unravels, the physical advantages he enjoys will be non-factors and another public shellacking would be sure to ensue.
This was unlike the single-punch knockouts suffered by Lennox Lewis. Instead, it had a greater resemblance to the beating endured by the legendary Joe Louis at the hands of Max Schmeling.
Louis went 24-0 with 20 KO’s before running into Schmeling, who saw flaws in ‘The Brown Bomber’ and duly exploited them by knocking him out in the 12th round of their first contest.
By the time of their rematch two years later, Louis made the correct technical adjustment’s and displayed the type of fortitude required to beat his German foe at a politically charged rematch, staged on the cusp of World War 2.
The mental-strength demonstrated by Louis to blast out his former conqueror in just one round was spectacular and is an example of the exceptional resolve required by Joshua if he is overcome Andy Ruiz in their rematch. It hasn’t been done many times in the history of the heavyweights but Joshua can take some inspiration from one of the greatest of all time, if he harbours a desire to be a great, himself.
An equally interesting question is how has glory from the first bout affected Ruiz’ motivation? Before his chance to challenge for the world title’s, he was fighting for $30,000 purses. Now suddenly, he is rich enough to live a lavish and comfortable lifestyle himself – silk pyjama’s included. Will he still retain the type of appetite for victory that he has for Snickers bars? Or is he satisfied with his sudden glut of success and all the riches that come with it.
It is far simpler to make predictions for initial contests, where the physical attributes and skills of each combatant would be assessed to select a winner. However, the second encounter will depend far more on the intangible and complex nature of each fighters state of mind. Although the body can be hardened and technique’s can be tweaked, the mind can be unpredictable and a moment of hesitation, fear or lack of will can undo all the hard-work that came before it.
The cloudy view into a fighters psyche is what makes it so challenging to provide a clear and confident prediction to this intriguing rematch. But is exactly what makes this heavyweight clash an unmissable and compelling event, worthy of boxing’s most glamorous division.