Just whom did Joshua shock?

Me.

But probably not the majority of mainstream commentators – and certainly not the bookies, who had Anthony Joshua the odds-on favourite at 4/9 (-225) to defeat Andy Ruiz Jnr in the lead up to their rematch on 7 December last year in Saudi Arabia.

The predictions this time around were hardly uniform. There’d been a shift in opinion since Ruiz won the first fight at Madison Square Garden, and it was profound. A big chunk of the boxing establishment was now leaning toward the man whom six months earlier they’d written off as a fat, pasty, baby-faced, fringe contender. Many in the commentariat, including many other pro boxers, were confident that Ruiz would – or at least could – repeat his dominant performance.

The shift in opinion was just and reasonable. Although it’s axiomatic in boxing that every boxer in every fight has a “puncher’s chance”, Ruiz’s victory over Joshua was pretty obviously not a fluke. There was no lucky punch. As I pointed out in the aftermath of the first fight, the blueprint for slaying the British giant had been hiding in plain sight for years. Ruiz saw it, studied it, and applied it to utterly devastating effect. He demolished Joshua because he was the superior boxer.

I wasn’t shocked by Ruiz in the first fight. I’d been anticipating that someone like him would take out Joshua sooner or later. I must confess, however, that I was shocked by Joshua in the second fight. The limitations  and vulnerabilities he’d shown not only against Ruiz, but also against several earlier opponents, made me doubt – and very seriously so – whether he had the boxing IQ to reform himself. Credit where credit is due: Joshua did reform himself, and the rest is history.

So what were the mainstream commentators thinking? The most insightful and prescient of them all was George Foreman.

The prophecy of Big George

A day or two before the Clash on the Dunes, Foreman gave an interview about the rematch to Gareth Davies (the respected boxing reporter for the UK’s otherwise deplorable Telegraph rag) in which he was right about, well, everything.

I dare you to tell him he was wrong

Foreman began the interview by reflecting on the only deposed heavyweight champions to do what Joshua intended to do and regain the title in an immediate rematch: Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, and Lennox Lewis.

According to Foreman, Patterson’s only hope in his rematch against Ingemar Johansson was to catch the Swede with his trademark gazelle hook. But Patterson was a rather limited fighter. Joshua, observed Foreman, had many more options available to him owing to his height, reach, and punching power.

Foreman then set out two general strategies for Joshua, modelling them on the divergent approaches taken by Ali and Lewis.

The Ali strategy, which The Greatest implemented perfectly against Leon Spinks in 1978, was to go into the rematch intending to jab, circle, and clinch one’s way back to the title on points. The Lewis strategy, which The Lion implemented perfectly against Hasim Rahman in 2001, was to go in with the intention of fully knocking out the usurper.

Given the precariousness of the British giant’s chin – which Ruiz exposed for all the world to see in 2019, but which had been increasingly evident at least since the Klitschko fight in 2017 – it was obvious which of the two strategies would best suit Joshua in Saudi Arabia. As Foreman said:

“If it were me, I would look to the Ali-Spinks rematch, and follow it to a T. Don’t worry about people booing you. Walk him around the ring. Wait for the referee to say break. Step behind the referee, and do it all again, for 12 rounds.

“That’s what I would do. Not much moving, just jab, jab, jab. If things get out of hand, control your man and wait for the ref to step in. Every now and then land a right hand to keep the crowd excited, but don’t go deep into exchanges because Ruiz has already proven he can drop him.”

Such was the strategy Foreman recommended to Joshua. Big George was confident in prophesying that Joshua would actually follow it:

“He’s going to go out there and box. If there’s going to be a knockout, it’ll be when he decides he has three minutes left and this guy can’t reach him. I believe he’ll win that fight in 12 rounds… He can win this fight round after round.”

And so Joshua did – to a ‘T’.

Decisive yet uncompelling

Joshua’s victory over Ruiz was decisive. It was just as decisive as Ali’s victory over Spinks, if not more so.

We might never know the finer details of Joshua’s camp. But what is certain is that at some point he and trainer Rob McCracken committed themselves to the Ali strategy. For all anyone knows, they never explicitly called it that, or even once thought about the Ali-Spinks rematch. Nevertheless, ex post facto, we know that they chose the Ali strategy and practised it in camp. Foreman seemed to know it all beforehand.

By the time the British giant emerged from camp, he’d made the stylistic and mental adjustments required to neutralise the blueprint for KOing him. He entered the ring with a wholly rational plan and fought an almost wholly disciplined fight in accordance with it. The plan wasn’t conducive to entertaining the fans, especially those with only a casual interest in the sport. But it was beautiful as only the sweet science can be.

Joshua’s performance was almost identical to Ali’s. He jabbed, he circled, he threw the occasional right hand, he clinched. And the points piled up and up, round after round. There were differences, of course. Joshua was more aggressive than Ali had been against Spinks, and he spent less time on the ropes. Joshua was also a superbly trained and conditioned young boxer still in his prime, whereas Ali was none of those things in 1978.

And here lies the problem.

Joshua’s victory over Ruiz was uncompelling. It was just as uncompelling as Ali’s victory over Spinks, if not more so.

Ali was a shot fighter by 1978. No one who saw him regain the title from Spinks believed that he’d go on to defend it. This is not to downplay the greatness of Ali’s achievement. If anything, the fact that Ali was shot makes his defeat of Spinks even more remarkable. He was the favourite; yet, in hindsight, it’s obvious that the old man had transcended the possible (again). But his performance didn’t send anything like an ominous message to the top contenders. The era of Ali was clearly finished. He announced his retirement in June 1979.

Joshua’s performance against Ruiz was similarly devoid of forebodings of doom for his rivals.

The Ali strategy was a sufficient, and perhaps necessary, means for him to win back the belts from Ruiz. But in availing himself of it, Joshua surely didn’t send any ominous messages to Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. If Joshua imitated Ali’s example inside the ring, Ruiz imitated that of Spinks outside it. Both Ali and Joshua jabbed, circled, and clinched their way to victory against men who simply couldn’t cope with the fame and fortune the heavyweight championship of the world brings with it. Ali did it over fifteen rounds as an old man; Joshua did it over twelve in his prime.

Spinks, on all accounts, went totally off-the-rails after his surprise victory, culminating in two weeks of drunkenness immediately preceding the rematch. He entered the ring heavier and generally unprepared. Ruiz followed the same trajectory. Already a rather fat man, he came in 15 pounds fatter for the rematch, at a massive 283 pounds. “The partying and all that stuff got the better of me,” Ruiz admitted in the post-fight press conference. “It was my mistake. I felt too confident. I should have trained harder and listened to my team and coaches.”

As the clock ticked down in the final round of the Joshua-Ruiz rematch, one of the British commentators declared that his compatriot in the ring had “silenced the doubters.” I was as shocked by that remark as I was by Joshua’s performance. For Joshua hadn’t silenced the doubters; he’d only given them something else on which to focus their doubt.

Back to bashing elderly Soviets

So what must Joshua do to silence the doubters?

At the time of writing, Joshua’s next opponent is likely to be Kubrat Pulev, the 38-year-old Bulgarian better known for his forceful kissing than his forceful punching. If Joshua bashes him like he bashed Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin, he will have well-and-truly cleaned up the elderly Soviets in the heavyweight division. That would be a distinction of a kind, and as far as I know, Joshua would be the first to achieve it.

It will not silence the doubters. 

Joshua may have the most belts around his belly, but he is currently only one of the best heavyweights in the world. The others, of course, are Fury and Wilder. Those two have already fought one another in a classic, and they’re scheduled to do so again this year. Whatever the result of the second bout between Fury and Wilder, it will set up a rubber match for the history books. Joshua has never fought either of them. 

Can there now be any doubt about what Joshua must do to silence the doubters?

Did you like this post? Share it!

Posted by ScepticalBoxer

2 comments

Great article man.

It’s interesting that there are historical precedents in boxing that, like most predictions, only become fully apparent after the fact.

I didn’t know that George Foreman predicted this fight. This strategy seems pretty bog standard for dealing with a shorter puncher – jab, clinch and throw a right if you can get away with it.

Imagine how frustrating it must have been to watch Ruiz blow his chance for enduring fame. Do you think the fight could have gone better for him with better conditioning?

Critical B&F

Hi Simon, thanks for your comment. I do think things would’ve gone better for Ruiz with better conditioning. He would’ve been able to apply more consistent pressure and eventually send something powerful through AJ’s jabbing and clinching. AJ’s chin is suspect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published