Sunday, December 8, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Ruiz-Joshua 2

Survive and advance. 

You hear this term during the annual NCAA college basketball tournament, and it applies to a favored team facing a tough style matchup or a scrappy underdog. When in this situation it is no longer about dominating, looking good or style points; it's only about getting the win, by whatever means necessary. 

Despite his portly physique and short reach, Andy Ruiz presents a difficult style matchup for Anthony Joshua. Although Joshua has the traditional heavyweight boxing build and more offensive weapons, Ruiz has faster hands and is far more successful fighting on the inside. In June Joshua found out the hard way how imposing Ruiz could be when the fight is on his terms – Joshua was floored four times and knocked out in the seventh round. 

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

After his loss in June, Joshua was encouraged by many in the sport to fire his trainer, Rob McCracken, but he ignored those calls and stuck with his coach. This decision was a tacit admission from Joshua that he himself accepted blame for the Ruiz defeat. 

Joshua's performance on Saturday demonstrated an understanding of his mistakes from the first fight. And the rematch looked completely different in the ring. Sticking to the outside of the ring, commanding the action with his jab and using his legs, he boxed his way to a wide decision victory (118-110, 118-110, 119-109), regaining his heavyweight titles. In fact, he did far more than survive. He was only hit with a handful of big shots all fight. 

To win as comprehensively as he did, Joshua had to check his ego at the door. Even though Joshua had 21 knockouts in his 22 victories, he realized that boxing Ruiz at a distance would allow for his best chance of winning. The rematch for AJ wasn't about fireworks, settling scores, beating Ruiz at his own game, machismo, or galvanizing his fans in the crowd. His victory depended on intelligence, humility and maturity; admittedly, these attributes aren't necessarily boxing's sexiest things, but they are practical nonetheless. 

Joshua's victory on Saturday should not be dismissed as merely jab-and-move; it was considerably more. He landed several hard right hands and lead left hooks. Perhaps even more importantly, when they did exchange, he wisely stepped out of range to reset the action. There were no attempts at five- or six-punch combinations. At most it was one or two shots, and that was more than enough. 

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

This isn't to say Joshua fought a perfect fight on Saturday. He made some mistakes. Joshua got away with a few left hooks that left him completely out of position. In addition, he exhibited a poor ability to clinch. Numerous times he attempted to clinch, yet Ruiz was successful in getting off a chopping right hand or a left hook. This is a technique issue, and Joshua has not mastered it. (Perhaps Joshua should talk to his friend Wlad Klitschko about clinching. He could render an opponent completely inoperable during a tie-up.) In these moments Joshua was lucky that he wasn't rabbit punched more or hit with a well-placed equilibrium shot behind his ear. Luckily for Joshua, he will have an opportunity to improve in this area for subsequent fights.

At the age of 30 and now with 24 professional bouts, Joshua has realized that some fighters can take your best shots. In addition, firepower is a two-way street. The more chances you give an opponent, the more opportunities for him to land his own punches. Overall, 2019 has been an education for Joshua. He has lost his sheen of invincibility, but he has gained invaluable knowledge about championship boxing. 

Joshua is now in the phase of his career where his Ring IQ will be vital to defeating top-caliber opposition. He's been dropped by multiple opponents (Klitschko, Ruiz) and badly stung in other fights (Whyte and Povetkin) where he didn't hit the canvas. His recuperation powers aren't great, and if his chin isn't yet a liability, it's certainly not a strength. Joshua needs to be intelligent with his pressure and power shots moving forward. However, he now knows that he has multiple ways to beat a top opponent, and that should give him confidence if he needs to go to a Plan B. 

As for Andy Ruiz, we've seen the good and bad from him in 2019. No boxing fan will forget his epic upset of Joshua in June. The image of him jumping up and down in the ring after the victory is what boxing dreams are made of. I'm sure more than a few hardened boxing observers got choked up during his post-fight interview when he said "Mom, we don't have to struggle anymore." He's a likable guy and easy to root for. 

But you can also see why Top Rank let him go. They were tired of seeing Ruiz sleepwalk through fights. Too often he was out-of-shape and underprepared. He lacked the professionalism required of top-level fighters. 

Ruiz didn't do himself any favors for Saturday's rematch. He delayed training camp. He was out living the life. He came into the fight 15 pounds heavier than he did in June. I'm sure he knew that Joshua would try to outbox him from distance, but he didn't seem mentally or physically ready for that type of fight.

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

Andy must now decide what he wants out of boxing. All told, he's made over $15 million from his two fights this year. That's more than 99% of fighters will ever earn. Andy's a success story. He made it. He's why young fighters work so hard in the gym. No matter what they look like they could one day be champion of the world.  

But boxing is unforgiving. Skimping on training camps and preparation time catches up with any fighter, irrespective of skill level. There will always be an opponent hungrier, wanting what you have, trying to make a name off of you.

A focused and prepared Ruiz remains formidable in the heavyweight division. There are numerous fighters in the top-ten that he could potentially beat. However, an apathetic Ruiz is ripe for the picking. At only 30 years of age, he certainly has time for another run, but for many fighters boxing is only a means to an end. And from the outside it doesn't seem as if Ruiz has an ongoing love affair with the sport.  

Al Haymon and the PBC will provide Ruiz with opportunities to regain his titles, but any future success will depend on his dedication to the sport. He no longer will have the element of surprise. Top fighters will know how to beat him and it will be up to him to cut the ring off and force his type of fight. 

Regardless of whether Ruiz has another consequential victory, he has imprinted his name in boxing lore.  Should he hang up the spurs in the near future, boxing enthusiasts will always wonder what he could have accomplished if he fought at something resembling his optimal weight. But let's also not dismiss what he did at 268 lbs. to an era-defining heavyweight. His win over Joshua was no fluke; Andy could really fight. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
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