By Thomas Gerbasi
This is not the story I expected to write. It’s not better, not worse, just different.
If everything went according to plan last weekend, Anthony Joshua would have successfully defended his collection of heavyweight championship belts against Andy Ruiz Jr. in spectacular fashion, becoming a star in the United States in the process, and the next step would be a SuperFight with either Deontay Wilder or Tyson Fury sometime in 2020.
That would have been the good part for Team Joshua. For me, the good part would have been telling the story of a unique portion of Joshua’s training where the usual blood, sweat and tears of a typical “champ camp” were replaced by technology, science and the reality that those in the ring are as elite athletically as any of their sporting peers.
Such a reality would be a big deal for boxing, because Joshua had the type of crossover potential that could make the sport even bigger in the coming years. And there was no reason why any of those plans would be altered in Madison Square Garden.
Ruiz was a late replacement for Jarrell Miller. He was too short. He had lost his previous crack at the crown against Joseph Parker. And in the “no filter” world of boxing, no one shied away from pointing out that at 268 pounds, Ruiz was the anti-Joshua. It’s the knock on Ruiz ever since he turned pro and, to his credit, he never ducked questions about his weight, which hit 297 ½ pounds when he made his debut against Miguel Salvador Ramirez in 2009.
“They’ve been doing that all my life to this day, and that’s all they talk about,” Ruiz told me in 2014. “They don’t talk about how I fight; all they talk about is my weight.”
At the time, Ruiz was coming off a minor upset over Tor Hamer, and he continued to pile up the wins while a member of the Top Rank stable. Ultimately, he would split with Top Rank, split with trainer Jeff Grmoja and split with another trainer in Abel Sanchez. Too many splits are never a good thing, and though the wins would keep coming (even after the majority decision loss to Parker in 2016), Ruiz, now with PBC and trainer Manny Robles, wasn’t expected to trouble Joshua.
That was the general consensus among the Under Armour team on fight week and on fight night. A few years into their deal with Joshua, Under Armour upped the ante with the 29-year-old, and as invested as they were in the heavyweight champ before, it took on a new look after Joshua visited Portland, home to UA’s Human Performance Center.
“AJ saw it and he was intrigued,” said Paul Winsper, UA’s Vice President of Athlete Performance. “He's a very inquisitive young man and he started asking a lot of big questions. And then we got back with his boxing manager, Freddie (Cunningham), and Freddie reached out to say, is there any chance we can come back and do what they called a re-calibration camp. So before AJ went into his main six-week block of camp, how could we test, screen, assess and get all the data we need to do this? So he came back out for ten days and we measured everything.”
Everything might be an understatement.
“We measured how he moved, his speed, his strength, his power,” said Winsper. “We measured his vision - so contrast sensitivity, depth perception, visual endurance. We measured his brain speed, athletic intelligence. And it's not simple reaction time. We really are measuring his brain processing speed. And we created a full profile of the athlete.”
It’s a far cry from the idea that an endorsement deal means a check and getting some gear to wear. But Joshua and his team were all in when it came to optimizing his performance in 2019 and beyond.
“When we first met AJ, one thing that really stuck in my mind was that he was looking at prolonging his career and staying at the top for the next ten years, and treating his body as if he's 39 and not 29,” said Mike Watts, UA’s Senior Manager of Athlete Performance. “So we got really deep in all the data that we collected to really understand this athlete.”
One thing readily apparent was that Joshua had power, as if his 21 knockouts in 22 pro wins didn’t make that abundantly clear.
“He (Joshua) had the highest power we have ever recorded in any athlete and not by three or four percent,” said Winsper. “By almost 35 percent. So this guy's producing wattage and power that we've never seen before. So, for example, Mike and I can produce maybe 800 watts; this guy's producing over 2200 watts from a static push. The guy's an incredible athlete.”
You can tell that by looking at him. And technology backs him up. On the other side of the ring, Ruiz didn’t get that same respect. Not everyone looks like Anthony Joshua. In fact, most don’t. But one look at Ruiz in the ring and there are all the traits you want to see in a boxer. He’s fast, he has power and cardio, he’s technically sound and he has a high Fight IQ. It made him a live underdog last Saturday night, even if the oddsmakers didn’t agree.
Ruiz was the classic B-side, the foil for Joshua’s U.S. debut, expected to make him look good. He would show up to fight, make it interesting for a few rounds, then get sent to defeat like the rest. The billboard on Houston Street in Manhattan was of Joshua. The giant Hugo Boss ad on the side of Madison Square Garden featured Joshua. It was all AJ all the time, with most pre-fight queries focusing on Wilder and Fury, not Ruiz. Yet despite all these distractions, he appeared to be ready to go in the lead-up to the fight.
He was respectful of Ruiz and of his craft. He weighed in at 247 ¾ pounds, he took care of his media obligations but didn’t go overboard.
“He's not here for a brand,” said Attica Jaques, UA’s Head of Global Brand Management, last Thursday at the company’s Rush Performance Lab pop-up. “He's here for the sport and we have to respect that.”
Of course, after the fact, the rumors swirl when it comes to what happened on fight night and in training camp. Joshua was allegedly knocked out in sparring, he allegedly wanted to pull out of the fight, and he allegedly had a panic attack in the locker room.
That’s a lot of “allegedly” about a fighter who had no excuses when the fight was over, choosing instead to be a class act and give Ruiz his moment as the better man on June 1, 2019.
It’s why everyone from UA I spoke to on and off the record had nothing but glowing things to say about the Brit, and it was clear that they were rooting for him not as a client, but as someone they had gotten to know and like.
“You start to understand so much more about what drives them, what it means to be the best,” said Jaques. “They give up their lives to invest in this because it's that important to them, and that's one of the things all of our athletes have in common and, for sure, Anthony Joshua too.”
But this is boxing.
Watts was well aware of this. The Nottingham native now makes his home in Portland, but as Katie Taylor and Delfine Persoon battled it out and Callum Smith made a statement in his win over Hassan N’Dam, the topic of conversation moved everywhere from Frank Bruno and Carl Froch to the battles between Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn. In other words, while confident that Joshua was going to get the job done and move on to bigger and better things, Watts knew what could happen when two men put on gloves and meet in the middle of the ring.
Yet at that point of the night in the heart of New York City, the hay was in the barn. There was nothing left to do but fight. And by all accounts, Joshua had that part down.
“He's said already that he normally comes out of camp and into the fight feeling fatigued,” said Winsper. “Most boxers do because the trainers tell them they need to get the rounds, the running, the base. And often, the athletes are coming in feeling a little bit lethargic and a little bit tired and they're trying to get themselves out of a hole to go and fight. But AJ said this one feels so fresh and so ready. Again, it's a testament to AJ, but also his team for embracing this and allowing us to get involved and help.”
The beauty of boxing is that no one can help you when the bell rings. No trainers, no coaches, no sparring partners, no oddsmakers. Joshua had a chance to live up to his hype and answer Deontay Wilder’s blistering knockout of Dominic Breazeale before a packed house in the Mecca of boxing. Ruiz had a chance to shut all the doubters up while making history as the first boxer of Mexican descent to win the world heavyweight championship. And though the fight arrived on short notice, that goal of representing his people was always there.
Back in 2014, I asked him what winning the title for Mexico would be like.
“It will be really nuts,” said Ruiz. “I would make history and I would do a lot for a lot of people. I’m sure it will also be shocking for all the people who are hating on Andy Ruiz.”
That kind of motivation is hard to beat, and Ruiz brought it with him into the ring, displaying immediately that he didn’t simply show up for a paycheck.
Yet in round three, everything appeared to be going according to plan for Team Joshua when the Watford native put Ruiz on the deck with a flush left hook. Joshua moved in for the kill but got a little too reckless and caught a left himself that wobbled him. Moments later he was on the deck for the first of two knockdowns that round.
Joshua went down twice more in the seventh round, and after rising for the fourth time, he was clearly out of it, but when asked by referee Michael Griffin if he was ready to box, he said he was. Griffin didn’t give him that chance, halting the bout at 1:27 of round seven.
Andy Ruiz Jr. was the heavyweight champion of the world.
Anthony Joshua was blasted for everything from quitting (he didn’t) to being a hype job (look at the resume, he’s not). The quitting thing was particularly irksome, especially considering how Joshua rose from the deck to beat Wladimir Klitschko in 2017, and what he overcame in life to get to this point. And if there were any mental demons to vanquish, it’s possible that they were addressed long before fight night while on Mount Hood in Portland last December.
“We found out that AJ didn't like the cold and hadn't been up a mountain before, so we spoke to Freddie and decided to take him to eight and a half thousand feet and live in a small hut with not much and wake him up in the middle of the night and decide in a snowstorm that it was a good idea to take him snow shoeing,” said Winsper. “It pushed him in a way that I think was unexpected. He owns the gym, the guy's just such an amazing athletic specimen, so we tried to do things that were going to take him a little outside his comfort zone and challenge him in a different way, but mostly psychologically. We brought some of the Navy Seals guys in so we not only had protection and coverage on the mountain in case somebody got injured and we could helivac them off, but more so - because AJ brought his team as well - of the importance of communication and the team and having a plan and trusting the process. So it was a really big deep dive into preparing a world champion.”
So with no stone left unturned, both physically and mentally, what happened last Saturday?
Exactly what Joshua said when the fight was over.
It was Ruiz’ night. Let him have it.
There will be other nights for Anthony Joshua, just like there were other nights for Joe Louis, Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko and any other young fighter who suffered a shock knockout defeat.
It’s boxing. It’s a sport where a chubby kid from California can beat a Brit chiseled like a Greek statue, a sport where one punch can truly change everything, where the underdog can bite back and shock the world.
Yeah, it’s not the story I expected to write, but what a story it turned out to be.