This past Saturday I tuned into the fight card at Madison Square Garden on DAZN (which was uncharacteristically functional). There were a couple of very decent undercards, with Ireland’s Katie Taylor struggling against a very tough opponent, and coming away with what was probably a gift decision. Then, Callum Smith did what everyone expected to poor Hassan N’dam, who will likely retire after the loss.
Smith is, for whatever reason, considered a potential opponent for Alvarez. While Alvarez did take a fight and win a title at 168 over Rocky Fielding, and by knockout no less, Smith is a large, talented super middleweight, at 6-foot-3 with a 78″ reach. That’s a 7-inch height advantage and an 8-inch reach advantage. Rocky Fielding was a big guy but probably nowhere near as talented or as physically challenging as Smith. The win over Jacobs, a large middleweight, was a real accomplishment for Alvarez (who started as a welterweight) but is no indicator that Alvarez should be jumping across divisions when he has plenty of marketable opposition in his own. That said, the suggestion did provide my fellow spectator and I with some good conversation. It would be a hell of a fight for Canelo.
Gearing up for the main event, my friend and I ordered Chinese food, expecting the fight to be wrapping up by the time it arrived 45 minutes later. The biggest mass of muscle in boxing, Anthony Joshua, at 6-foot-6 and about 250 pounds, was taking on the relatively unknown Andy Ruiz Jr., who stood 6-foot-2, 260 pounds with nothing like his opponent’s chiseled physique. It was a temporary distraction from the biggest fights to be made with fellow champions Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, but if the fight was entertaining, then the distraction could be forgiven.
If Joshua were inexperienced or incompetent the physical disparity between the two fighters could be discounted, but in this case, the result was certain. Ruiz looked to be the most out-of-shape professional fighter I had ever seen, including Butterbean. Having won his most challenging matches with a practiced holding-and-hitting technique, Joshua hadn’t inspired any loyalty in us, but we were excited to see another knockout. And we expected it to be brutal. Ruiz acted incredibly confident coming into the fight, completely unconcerned, but that wasn’t surprising. Most opponents for top heavyweights behave that way until they get into the ring and their attitude makes an abrupt shift (see David Haye).
So much of boxing is subjective and amorphous, but certain aspects are immutable. Everybody can get hit, nobody’s perfect. Even more certain, though–as fundamental as any element of the sport–is that the stronger, more skilled, smarter fighter always wins. If the opponent is superior in any one of those areas, the fighter has to compensate. Conditioning and size are two of those cut-and-dried areas. In the amateurs, no matter what your corner tells you and no matter how hard you’ve trained–if the bell rings and the guy across the ring has a couple inches of muscle and a couple inches of reach on you–you’re gonna be concerned. It stands to reason, then, that a top-tier athlete who defeated the best of the previous decade would be an overwhelming force against a small, out of shape nobody. Hence, anticipation was low.
The fight began and the food arrived. We were ahead of schedule, and thought we might be cleaning up by the time Joshua got his knockout, but we were already satisfied with the quality of the card. The knockout, we hoped, would prove as satisfying as the General Tso’s we had just consumed. With fights like these, the majority of the excitement often comes from speculation about the winner’s next bout, so we were already talking Fury and Wilder and the winner of the big three when the first knockdown came in the third round.
It was a hell of a combo–a quick right uppercut (he only held a little) and a vicious left hook not so different from the punches that felled the great Klitschko–that put Ruiz where we expected to see him all night. Ruiz popped right back up and looked steadier on his feet than he should have been, but Joshua closed in with aggressive combinations. Ruiz threw competent counterpunches that seemed to push Joshua back, but surely the next flush punch would settle the dispute. Except the next flush shots all came from Ruiz, who fired back through a tidal pool of flab, rippling out in waves of power that first buckled the leviathan’s knees and then sent him sprawling.
Joshua got back up and assumed a defensive posture, though began firing back with powerful combinations. The third round was ending–with only ten seconds to go–Joshua was stabilizing, and the fluke of momentum had run its course, or so we thought. The defensive posture turned into what looked like an escape attempt, with every punch from Ruiz finding some part of Joshua and pushing him back noticeably. At the triple tap signifying the final ten seconds, my eyes flicked down to the corner of the screen to see the countdown fading out with only seconds to go. For the moment my eyes were away from Ruiz, he was launching a final assault as if he knew time was short. Just as the bell for the end of the round was to be rung, Joshua went down again. Shaky but coherent, Joshua the Giant righted himself and Roly-Poly Ruiz waddled back to his own corner, looking no more winded than his opponent.
Grateful to have witnessed such an outrageous twist, my friend and I exchanged high-fives and fantastical scenarios in which absurdly obese superheros took over Marvel and DC comics. When Round 4 started, we didn’t know what to expect, but we figured Ruiz would soon show his true colors. He did, but only in the sense that he continued to do what he had done in the previous three rounds. His punches were more accurate than Joshua’s (which were never all that wild) and clearly (impossibly) more effective. Joshua didn’t exactly stagger, but he was knocked off balance at least once, and consistently moved backward from the fat little Mexican in front of him.
By Round 5, Joshua seemed to be increasing his output and his accuracy. Every jab looked like it could put Ruiz through the ropes, and it seemed like Joshua’s uppercut-hook combo was just around the corner. I don’t know if that formidable combination would have ended the night for Ruiz because Joshua never threw it. Every time he tried to get aggressive, Ruiz fought like a Mexican. Most closely resembling Cris Arreola, Ruiz used the same approach seen from Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to Antonio Margarito. But for once, the Mexican–fat and with a size disadvantage–who stood to trade punches with an elite-level fighter, came out on the better side. The punches that had previously pushed Joshua back were now landing flush as Joshua swung desperately with his own shots. None seemed particularly effective, and finally, in Round 7, Ruiz put him down again. This time Joshua looked truly hurt, and not just dazed. He went down a fourth time almost immediately after, looking so helpless I actually expected the referee to call it without a count.
Joshua survived the count, barely, and got to his feet, saying he was ready. When the referee questioned him, however, Joshua’s response was less than convincing. The fight was called with minimal objections from Joshua’s corner, and the man across the ring celebrated with about the same enthusiasm any amateur fighter displays after a win. He had just won 7 heavyweight titles. The laws of physics had been violated, at least four times, it seemed.
I had to watch the fight a second time to make my brain believe my eyes when the little fat man pushed that giant monster back, made him look helpless. I don’t have any delusions that Superman will have a beer gut in the next DC franchise film, nor that Ruiz will run through the division and unify the belts. In fact, I very much expect Joshua to come back and win the rematch by unanimous decision, if not by stoppage or knockout.
In that sense, Ruiz’s miracle really was a fluke. But it’s the exception that proves the rule. Boxing is a sweet science. Just like a chemical combination, when any part of the pugilistic mixture is out of balance, you’re likely to see variation in the result. In this case, there were many things out of balance. You could point to Joshua’s overconfident approach, Ruiz’s deceptive form, or any number of other conditions as the cause for the surprising upset. Only when examined together can the threads be strung into a coherent narrative and given meaning. To reduce the fight to a single aphorism is an injustice, but if forced, it could be said that Ruiz “just wanted it more.”
As an amateur, I spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying about how big, how experienced and how strong the guy standing across the ring would be. My reach is two inches below the average for my height and I’ve never been any kind of athlete, much less a runner. I’ve gotten concussions from bigger guys and from smaller guys, but there was one thing that kept me going back to the gym to train for the next fight, as scared as I was: I wanted it more. I didn’t want it more than everybody, and I didn’t want it enough to win every fight, but I trained harder and had better results than most. There are a lot of aspiring athletes out there who have suffered similarly, and Andy Ruiz Jr. is now our Patron Saint of Redemption. He wanted it more. Never before has there been so striking an example.