June 2019 began with one of the biggest shocks of the year. Unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua lost his IBF, WBA 'Super' and WBO heavyweight titles to unheralded Mexican Andy Ruiz Jr.
The Olympic gold medallist and unbeaten heavyweight champion was knocked down four times and stopped for good in the seventh round. The portly, stand-in challenger was widely dismissed by everybody before the fight, coming in as an 11–1 underdog.
The fight is considered one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, drawing comparisons to Mike Tyson vs. Buster Douglas in 1990 and Lennox Lewis vs. Hasim Rahman in 2001. Ruiz Jr. also made history as the first ever Mexican world heavyweight champion.
On December 7, Joshua and Ruiz will meet again, this time in Saudi Arabia, supposedly neutral ground picked by AJ's promoter Eddie Hearn, but will Joshua be able to regain his titles again? BBN investigates...
Something just wasn’t right in June
For a while now, Joshua has aimed to unify the heavyweight division fully. That means getting the WBC Champion Deontay Wilder in the ring. Unfortunately due to rival television networks and promotional deals the negotiations for that fight will be ceaslessly heading to nowhere.
Joshua didn’t want to be defending against competition like Carlos Takam or Jarrell Miller, but that’s all that was on offer. June was his US debut and an attempt to crack Americe to make the fight with Wilder unpassable, but that became a hassle for him when original opponent 'Big Baby' Miller failed three drugs test.
A shortlist of names was drawn up and the man to land the golden ticket was failed world title contender Andy Ruiz Jr, who looked more like a WWE wrestler than a heavyweight title contender.
No wonder, therefore, that Joshua has spoken of becoming disillusioned with boxing. There had been months of speculation over who his next opponent would be. He only wanted Wilder, but that wasn’t happening. He had to sit and watch the WBC Champion take on and knock out Dominic Breazeale in one round, who he’d already beaten himself prior. With a Wilder v Fury rematch on its way, Joshua was in limbo, and that didn’t help him one bit. A fighter needs a fight to look forward to.
The pressure was on to make an impact on his US debut, but if he won early on, then critics would completely dismiss the already widely dismissed Ruiz. If he went several rounds against Ruiz, he’d have been criticised for being taken far by a lesser opponent.
We now learn that he was also struggling in other ways. In a press conference this week, he revealed: “The struggle was always keeping my life in check.” Since June he has made “some drastic changes” to his life, and that can only mean a better Joshua in this December rematch.
Joshua is already the heavy odds-on favourite to regain his titles in December, generally available at 4/11 to win and get his titles back. Those seem fair boxing odds, but Joshua has to come into the rematch in a better state of mind.
It was clear to those watching the fight against Ruiz that something wasn’t quite right. He’d been joking around with Ruiz, even letting him hold the title belts. The playful respect seemed to detract from the steely focused required for the highest level of the sport.
Once he finally got into that Madison Square Garden ring, Joshua made a steady start to the contest, arguably a little less explosive than normal. Despite being bettered from the opening bell by the sharper challenger, e did something no one else had ever managed to do when the third round saw him become the first boxer to knock Ruiz down in his professional career. It looked, at that stage, that Joshua would swiftly go on to stop or knock out his opponent - the writing was on the wall.
That’s not what happened, though, far from it, in fact. Just moments later, it was Joshua who was looking up from on the floor. AJ had moved in for the kill after his success and landed a hellish straight right that spun Ruiz's head around 180 degrees, but the challenger took the punishment under duress and battled back just as hard when a shot to the temple landed on the champion and became something from which he never recovered. He was knocked down four times in total before it was finally halted in the seventh round after referee Michael Griffin had seen enough.
The rematch clause
Joshua immediately triggered the rematch clause in their fight contract, just days after the defeat. Many pundits initially suggested that Joshua needed to go back to the drawing board and have some warm-up fights before fighting Ruiz again. A lot of critical fight fans called for trainer Rob McCracken to resign from his post. The fight date for December was common knowledge, but the venue was up in the air for a long time. A return to the scene of the crime for Joshua at Madison Square Garden was an obvious choice, especially as New York's time delay was the kindest part for UK fight fans to tune in and waych and even the shortest trip for travelling fans to make who had tickets. Then Las Vegas, the boxing capital of the world was mooted, as was Cardiff and Wembley for big stadium fights, and not to forget Ruiz'z choice of Mexico to add to the mix. However, the strange decision to host the biggest fight in world boxing was settled on at Saudi Arabia. Eddie Hearn revealed the reasons for his choice of setting, stating that their vision blew him away and how it would be revolutionary for boxing and the future, but it inevitably came down to money, as always, sadly, in boxing.
Joshua is the favourite to win the rematch, especially with the home advantage, albeit in a mutual location, and revealed recently that he is fully motivated and ready to win. But remember he was knocked down four times in that first bout. Yes, Joshua looks big and strong, most do when compared with the condition Ruiz is in, but boxing is as much about brain as it is brawn.
There has been talk that Joshua should get a new trainer, but that hasn’t happened. This is a fight that he should be able to win. He knocked Ruiz down in the first contest, but his promoter Eddie Hearn says we need to get the “nasty Josh” back, the one that scored 14 knockoouts within the first three rounds in his first 14 fights. That attitude could have seen him go on to stop his opponent.
His defence isn’t the greatest in the world; it has to be improved, particularly if he does get to fight Deontay Wilder, who always scores knockdown at some point in his fights.
Joshua knows full well that if he loses this fight, it will be a long road back to title contention, let alone a fight against rivals Wilder or Tyson Fury. If he gets his focus and passion back, then those titles should be back around his waist in time for Christmas.