#Boxing, Boxing

The Legend of the Garden Continues

Hall of famer, Marvin Hagler, once said, “It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5am when you’ve been sleeping in silk pajamas (sic)”. Amongst the many theories abounding after Anthony Joshua’s shock defeat to Andy Ruis Jr. last Saturday night, this one may ring most true.  Entourages 20 deep and luxury apartments in Dubai sound great but at some the hunger must wane, the ruthless desire must dim just a little.

In any event, after the massive upset in the vaunted main hall in Madison Square Garden, heavyweight boxing is back to its equilibrium state of chaotic uncertainty. Ruiz Jr, a man you would quite frankly never mistake for an athlete, destroyed an over-confident Joshua to throw the division into disarray and, more importantly, secure his family’s future.

Usually, on nights like this, the champion is caught by an unexpected haymaker – think Hasim Rahman over Lennox Lewis – a one-off punch that cements the underdog’s status in the annals of shock victories. However, Ruiz Jr, whose physique had made him the easy butt of jokes throughout fight week, regrouped after a third-round knock-down to pummel Joshua into submission and shock not just the Garden but the entire sporting world.

Ruiz Jr had the now deposed champion down on four separate occasions, the first of those in the third round being particularly devastating, and the question marks over Joshua’s defence and jaw that have abound since his wild victory over Wladimir Klitschko in 2016 resurfaced.

Boxing, and particularly the heavyweight division, has the ability to frustrate and thrill in equal measure, often simultaneously. The events of the last few months have been no different. Joshua had been slated to make his American debut against Jarrell ‘Big Baby’ Miller, the latter a loud-mouthed, New Yorker who seemed a perfect fit for Joshua.  However, Miller, a 22 stone behemoth, whose stamina somehow endured into the later rounds was found guilty of balls out doping – perhaps in a nod to late 90s Tour de France –  failing tests for HGH, GW1516 and EPO, costing himself millions in the process and leaving Matchroom, DAZN and Eddie Hearn with a huge void to fill.

While it may be hard to believe now, it turns out that Jarrell Miller took all the drugs.

Apparently a $5,000,000.00 purse was placed on the table but the uptake was slow, with the tricky Cuban, Luis Ortiz, reportedly rejecting more money that has ever been placed before him. Enter Ruiz, who made his desire to fight Joshua known to Eddie Hearn via a message on Instagram.  Ruiz had only last fought in April – notably against Alexander Dimitrenko, a perfect tune-up for Anthony Joshua – and was out of camp for only six weeks before returning to work with Manny Robles. Even with this, the experts gave the Mexican American little chance.

Mike Costello and Steve Bunce of the BBC Five Live Boxing Podcast had noted the surprising hand speed of the challenger during last week’s workouts, allied to the fact that Ruiz’ only defeat had come by split decision at the hands of New Zealander, Joseph Parker, two years ago in Auckland. No one viewed Ruiz, to borrow from boxing vernacular, as a bum but he also was barely cracking the major division’s top ten.

Joshua had not been slow to speak of his plans for 2020 when interviewed midweek, not least when his arch-nemesis, Deontay Wilder, had been quick to announce his own rematch with Ortiz and then the much anticipated super-fight with Tyson Fury in February 2020. While it is unquestioned that Joshua allowed his attention to slip just slightly – that’s all that’s required when gigantic men are swinging for you – rumours have swirled about in the fight’s aftermath of the Briton’s preparation to the fight, with some suggesting that he was sparked in sparring less than a fortnight before fight night.

For those who love boxing, the mythos and conjecture form a large part of the post-fight synopsis, and rumours will swirl around until such time as Joshua gloves up and fights again. Until then, questions of a flu, the now infamous sty in the eye, alleged anxiety attacks and a perceived gun shyness will be prevalent.

What is unquestionable is that the tables have turned drastically on Joshua and the braggadocio Hearn in the last six months. Fresh off his stoppage of the tricky but aging Russian, Alexander Povetkin in September, Joshua was issued what appeared to be a legitimate offer – reputed to be worth north of $35,000,000.00 – to face Deontay Wilder in a unification bout for the four recognised heavyweight titles. While Matchroom and Premier Boxing Champions/Al Haymon, Wilder’s promoter, are equally flexible with the truth, it does seem that team Joshua were happy to milk the sold out stadiums in the UK, while basking in the glory of the defeat of the 40 year-old, Klitschko.

When Wilder and Fury sprang their surprise date in L.A. last December, the sense was that Hearn and Joshua had been caught unaware, this time by the wily, Frank Warren. That fight provided one of the best final rounds in heavyweight boxing history and it seemed the big three – Fury, Wilder and Joshua – would engage in a de facto round robin for the next 18 months.

The thrill and anticipation for these fights was frustratingly pierced by ESPN’s move to sign Fury to an exclusive US deal separating him, in a broadcasting context, from Joshua (DAZN) and Wilder (Showtime/Fox). With Fury now in the money, Joshua in possession of three belts and Wilder’s promoters loathe to give up the remaining belt, it felt as if boxing fans would be held hostage to three ridiculously rewarding and divergent financial arrangements.

However, due to fate and the unforeseen intervention of stupidity, drugs and Ruiz’ earnest appeal to Hearn, the division has been flushed wide open once more. And, more importantly, in a twist of fate that no one could have anticipated, Haymon’s PBC signed Ruiz to their stable a mere matter of months ago. PBC has gone from protecting one belt to now possessing all four. Ordinarily, possession is nine tenths of the law, however, in boxing possession is the only show in town.

Joshua may be the most marketable face in boxing – you’ve definitely seen him smiling at you from a bus stop or billboard over the last two years – but if he doesn’t win the rematch with Ruiz later this winter, then the opportunities will dry up almost instantly, unless Haymon and Warren decide otherwise.

In the wake of the drama in the Garden, it has become evident that America is alive to boxing for the first time in years. Sure, Floyd Mayweather’s fights were popular events but there was little of the mystique and the obscure, raw magic that surrounded the sport in the middle of the 20th century. Hard core fans always cared, predominantly the Central American community, but casual fans – the ones who can really effect pay-per-view numbers – are intrigued again.

Even if you are a Joshua fan, there’s something eminently appealing in seeing the quietly-spoken, endearing underdog prevailing over a corporate darling who had arrived on US soil to announce himself to the masses. Ruiz says he has been bullied since he was six over his weight, though you suspect plenty of his tormentors have received the appropriate justice in the years since. More to the point, Ruiz is now at the top table with Fury and Wilder, while Joshua must regroup and prepare for his rematch with Ruiz – announced for November or December – in the knowledge that his career is at a major crossroads.

The suggestion was that Joshua would take Ruiz to the UK but the already unconvinced US crowd will become even more sceptical if Joshua decides to take his ball home after one tough night in boxing’s most revered venue.

Money can surely no longer be an issue, so, if Joshua still wants to create the legacy he has spoken of, he must do so in Vegas or Los Angeles this winter. Steve Bunce thinks the fight will take place in Los Angeles and if Joshua really is the banger he says he is, this shouldn’t be a problem.

While a mega fight between two undefeated champions would have done incredible numbers, the fans will come in droves to see Joshua versus either Fury or Wilder in 2020, not to mention the Ruiz rematch later this year. And, while this sounds incredible, an undefeated record is no prerequisite for greatness. Ali, Foreman, Hopkins, De la Hoya, Pacquiao – all unquestioned hall-of famers with multiple defeats on their resume.

HBO and Sky Sports are as guilty as anyone of promoting the much lauded undefeated versus undefeated contests but the problem is most fighters will enjoy countless easy victories on the way to a 30-0 record. Thus, you get a vacuum where the two or three best in the division circle each other for years until a generally unsatisfactory showdown takes place long after the public’s appetite has piqued.

The 60s, 70s and 80s were a bloodbath, where it would have been quite literally impossible to escape with respect, money and an unbeaten record.

A recurring theme as discussed recently by Kris Mannix and Max Kellerman is that boxers and fans want two different things. Boxers want to make as much as money as possible while, understandably, putting themselves through as little punishment as possible. Fans, however, want the best fights, and for the majority of fans, the best fights are brawls. It’s easy for fight fans to forget that the boxers ultimately want to get out of there in tact mentally and physical and avoiding the best fighters is conducive to this.

The promoters and broadcasters have to deal with the double edged sword they create when lionising their undefeated fighters. Fury v Wilder is theoretically the best fight out there as neither man has tasted defeat but the next instalment of Joshua v Ruiz is, in many ways, more compelling. Ruiz is about to walk away with €20 million plus – and will be subject to patronising platitudes for the next five months. Should he win again, though, he cements his place at the top of the division. Meanwhile, Joshua, who has worked so hard to create the persona of a carefree destroyer now must ignore all his fly by night, celebrity pals, knuckle down with Rob McCracken and reintroduce his brutal side.

Fans had become irked at the reticence of Matchroom to make the Wilder fight. Now, faced with adversity for the first time in years, Joshua can endear himself to the boxing, and general sporting, public by coming back against Ruiz and then potentially putting himself in line for a contest against the winner of Fury-Wilder II.

It’s virtually impossible to chart the course of something so volatile as the heavyweight division. Only weeks ago, conversations on the division were fraught with frustration and irritation. However in the space of seven dynamic rounds, the powerful hands of Andy Ruiz Jr – the most unlikely king of the giants – have suddenly filled the next 12 months with infinite promise.

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