Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Ruiz-Joshua II: Preview and Prediction

Andy Ruiz's shocking seventh-round knockout of heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua has been the defining moment of boxing in 2019. A late-replacement opponent, Ruiz got off the canvas in the third round and won a battle of left hooks later in the frame to turn the tide in the fight. He would drop Joshua four times over the course of the match to become an improbable heavyweight champion. Ruiz had never lacked skills, but his portly shape, inconsistent punch output, and short reach left him with limited ways to win the fight. However, Joshua's over-aggressiveness after scoring his knockdown in the third provided Ruiz with the opening he needed to let his fast hands work their magic. 

Ruiz's victory over Joshua was more than a well-timed left hook. Despite facing few world-level opponents in his professional career, he was the fighter who appeared to be more seasoned in the ring. He didn't punch himself out in the third round trying to finish Joshua, a mistake that many fighters would have made. He realized that it would take more, and he kept enough in the tank to remain fresh and vibrant. In the fifth and six rounds he expertly worked Joshua's body to deplete him further. After hurting Joshua again in the seventh, Ruiz didn't smother his own work on the inside. His shots were purposefully placed and landed with maximum impact. Yes, Joshua had played into Ruiz's hands earlier in the fight (more on this later), but there was nothing flukish about Ruiz's victory; it was well earned. The better man won on the night. 


Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

Ruiz (33-1, 22 KOs) and Joshua (22-1, 21 KOs) meet for the rematch on Saturday at the Diriyah Arena in Saudi Arabia. Despite Ruiz's conclusive victory in June, he remains the betting underdog heading into the fight. When considering how the rematch might play out, there are a number of factors to consider, so let's jump right in: 

Perhaps Ruiz's biggest advantage in the first fight was the element of surprise. Joshua was originally supposed to face Jarrell "Big Baby" Miller, a hulking heavyweight who frequently weighs in at over 300 lbs., but whose chief skill is volume punching. Miller is two inches taller and has a four-inch longer reach than Ruiz. And although these dimensions don't scream out as massively different, the two fighters succeed in vastly divergent manners. Miller swarms opponents with volume and physicality. Few heavyweights can keep up with his pace of 80-100 punches a round. Ruiz on the other hand is far more economical with his punch output and relies on his quick counters at close range to cause damage. In short, these were two significantly different opponents. 

It's safe to say that Ruiz doesn't look the part. His body jiggles in the ring. When not in close range he has few weapons. Although he's good on his feet, no one would confuse him for a top-class athlete. But if Ruiz gets an opponent in his wheelhouse he has a plethora of ways to score. Accustomed to fighting taller opponents, Ruiz has become adept at throwing every punch in his arsenal to the body. He's also fluid with combinations, wonderfully mixing in shots to the body and head. In addition he has excellent timing and accuracy. If there's an opening in close quarters, he'll find it. 

After the first two knockdowns in June Joshua's trainer, Rob McCracken, implored his fighter not to trade hooks with Ruiz. And ultimately what did Joshua in during the seventh was an exchange where he refused to follow his trainer's guidance. In another battle of left hooks, Ruiz won, and Joshua sustained further damage; he wouldn't make it to the end of the round. 

In the aftermath of the defeat, there was a clamor from many boxing outposts for Joshua to dump McCracken and select a new head trainer. Many believed that Joshua was underprepared for Ruiz and didn't seem mentally switched on for the fight. How much of that criticism should be leveled at McCracken is up for debate. 

I believe that McCracken is one of the best in the business. He did a wonderful job as Carl Froch's cornerman, featuring great game plans in fights against Lucian Bute and the rematch against Mikkel Kessler. He also made crucial in-fight adjustments that led to Froch getting come-from-behind wins, such as in the Jermain Taylor and George Groves fights. Froch's ability to come back certainly speaks to the fighter's skill set, self-belief and ability to implement needed changes, but it also illustrates McCracken's clear-headedness during big moments, especially when things don't go his way with the initial fight plan. 

McCracken has worked with Joshua since his amateur days and if anyone deserves credit in addition to the fighter for his development into a multi-dimensional heavyweight force, it is McCracken. However, it's certainly worth pointing out that relationships can grow stale or lose effectiveness over time. So the first big decision heading into the rematch is whether Joshua was right to keep McCracken for the rematch. 

Although there are rare exceptions, when fighters ignore their coaches' wishes and start to freelance in the ring that's not usually a good indication of the health of the boxer/trainer partnership. I believe that McCracken was giving Joshua sound advice in the corner during the Ruiz fight, but Joshua ultimately went in his own direction. He either didn't fully believe in McCracken's commands or he wasn't lucid enough to process them – and let's not discount that possibility. 

One significant opportunity that Ruiz will have in the rematch is Joshua's relatively poor powers of recuperation. While Joshua was able to recover in his thrilling fight against Wladimir Klitschko in 2017, he needed several rounds after getting dropped in the sixth to get back on solid footing. Furthermore, once Joshua was hurt in the third round against Ruiz, he never made a full recovery. If Ruiz can hurt Joshua again in the rematch, he will have several rounds to get the stoppage. This can be a huge factor for a fighter like Ruiz, who doesn't possess true one-punch knockout power. 

The ultimate key for Joshua in the rematch will be to avoid getting hurt, and this will be a tough proposition. Ruiz will be live all 12 rounds inching his way forward, looking to capitalize on mistakes and openings, and trying to get the knockout. And if I didn't see Joshua accomplish a similar task earlier in his career, I would say that beating Ruiz would be too much for him to handle. However, Joshua fought such a fight in 2018 against Joseph Parker, a boxer with similar dimensions to Ruiz. In that bout Joshua controlled much of the action with jabs and right hands from the outside. When Parker made his way forward, Joshua mostly tied up instead of engaging on the inside. It was a poor fight to watch, but ultimately it resulted in a comfortable Joshua victory. 

Joshua's Parker fight presents the blueprint for how he can beat Ruiz, but this will require a disciplined effort, and he has to dispose of the notion of trying to look spectacular. (Many pundits have pointed to Joshua's desire to make a big statement in his American debut for his over-eagerness in the third round – rushing in for the stoppage win and misjudging Ruiz's comportment in the ring.)

I think it's fair to say that Joshua lacked some degree of respect for Ruiz in the first fight and I highly doubt he will fall into that trap in the rematch. Part of the reason why Joshua was able to win with such relative ease against Parker was his healthy respect for the opponent. Parker was a fellow titlist (beating Ruiz, by the way, to earn his belt) and possessed imposing dimensions on the inside. Against Parker, Joshua remained cautious and patiently put rounds in the bank. 

In preparing for the rematch Ruiz will need to do more than wait for a perfect opportunity to land a game-changing counter punch. He and trainer Manny Robles will have to assume that Joshua and McCracken will try to take away Ruiz's counter left hook. Thus, Ruiz will have to offer some additional dimensions to win the fight. 

I believe that the key for Ruiz will be the double jab to the body; that probably will be his best way to get inside. Joshua will respect those shots enough to defend them. Should Ruiz be effective with the double jab, that will open up additional opportunities for his power shots. If he's successful look for the following combinations: double jab to the body/overhand right to the head and double jab to the body/overhand right to the head/left hook to the head. 

Ruiz will need to patiently set up these combinations and he can't worry about losing rounds early in the fight. He must stick with the jab. And if Joshua keeps his defense tight, then Ruiz has to proceed to hitting the body. The double jab to the body/straight right hand to the body will work too. His main focus should be working the body with enough regularity to get Joshua to lose his defensive shape. That will be essential in causing further damage. 

For Joshua to win he will need more than jabs from the outside. Ruiz will eventually find his way through the jab if that's all there is. He'll eat them and keep coming. Joshua must fire his right hand with maximum impact at points. And if Ruiz starts inching a little too close, single right uppercuts will work as well. The point is one power shot, a good one, and get out of the pocket. Don't get into prolonged exchanges. Turn Ruiz, step away and reset the action. Make Ruiz try to win when on the move, where he can't plant his feet. 

The pick is Joshua by unanimous decision, but this fight will be fraught for AJ from bell to bell. Ruiz will be setting traps throughout the bout and Joshua will need to be physically and mentally sharp all match. I believe that Joshua knows how to win this type of fight. And I'm banking on that the destruction caused by Ruiz in June will be enough for Joshua to follow McCracken's game plan to a T. 

However, if there are moments of freelancing from Joshua, if he switches off at points in the fight, if he starts to let machismo get the better of him, then Ruiz will have his opportunities to win the fight. Let's say that Joshua wins eight or nine rounds and survives a couple of shaky moments. In the end it won't be a convincing victory, but in this particular matchup, style points don't matter for Joshua. The win is everything for him at this stage of his career. And if he stays on his feet and controls the outside, that should be enough to raise his hands at the end of the fight. It won't be inspiring stuff, but sometimes pragmatism is the answer.

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. 
Email: saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com.
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