By Corey Erdman
When Frank Sinatra sang “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” in reference to New York, it became an instant slogan for the city. In one line it summed up both the city’s impression of itself, and the unforgiving nature of it that the residents cultivate. Making it in New York City isn’t a guarantee, no matter who you are or how big you are elsewhere in the world.
On Saturday night, a billboard featuring British boxing superstar Anthony Joshua modeling for Hugo Boss hung high, overlooking Joe Louis Plaza. For many—and perhaps most—the image was just of another dapper man tasked with showing off Boss’ latest threads, not the heavyweight champion of the world. Just as many might think the plaza it overlooked was named for some old guy that became a pastry namesake, not the most dominant heavyweight champion of all-time and one of America’s most significant historical figures.
The most famous people in the world can stroll through the Big Apple in relative anonymity, or so it can feel. Even if you are recognized, everyone is too entrenched in their own personal hustle to care. There’s a gruffness and a fierce individuality and a tribalism that somehow go hand-in-hand that make New York both alluring and difficult to thrive in. And making it is no guarantee.
Prior to Joshua’s bout with Andy Ruiz Jr. at Madison Square Garden on June 1, a video package was circulated, and later aired in the arena, set to Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” The impression one got from watching the package was that they would be treated to a Broadway performance, the conclusion of which was already determined.
Which is exactly how the matchup between Joshua and Ruiz was viewed. The introduction of boxing’s biggest international attraction to the New York audience, against an opponent deemed worthy enough but with no chance of winning. Oddsmakers listed Ruiz as anywhere from a 20-1 to an 11-1 underdog at various points leading up to the bout.
The main source of the public’s lack of belief in Ruiz was purely optical. Joshua is a chiseled physical specimen, perfectly defined and proportioned. Ruiz, meanwhile, is a pale, heavyset lad with short legs and short arms for his height, carrying a frame that likely pushes 300 pounds if out of training, all in his torso.
"Everyone has been doubting me from the beginning," said Ruiz. "I think just the way that I look, the extra flab that I carry. We've been working on it since the (Alexander) Dimitrenko fight. But we also didn't want to lose too much weight because we wanted to be strong. I actually gained five more pounds just because I wanted to be a little stronger."
The mockery and body-shaming of Ruiz was at once tiresome and predictable, but from a boxing prognostication standpoint, image is quite often an accurate determinant of superiority in the ring. Generally, the fighter with the fleshier physique, the shabbier trunks, the smaller entourage, is the one who is going to lose. All are signs of either a willful lack of dedication to the sport, or a lack of financial resources to commit to such things, which often means you weren’t talented enough for someone to want to monetarily buoy your career. In the overwhelming majority of boxing matches that take place, even an uninitiated viewer can pick out who is supposed to win on pure optics alone, and generally be correct.
Ruiz showed no signs of caring about either the teasing, or the enormity of the task at hand, even joking about how he would eat a Snickers bar prior to the bout (something the New York State Athletic Commission reportedly did not allow). At roughly 1 am the night before the biggest night of his life, Ruiz stood in front of the Renaissance Hotel in the shadow of Madison Square Garden, looking as jolly as ever, hanging out with the small group of supporters who followed him from California and Mexico.
Joshua seemed relaxed in a more negative sense. He was late coming out of his locker room for his entrance, and during his introduction, stood slumped in his corner chewing on his mouthpiece like a man either bored, unconcerned or utterly disinterested. Like a man who knew how the night was going to end—or was supposed to, anyway. His hypothesis was supported by the crowd, which audibly chuckled at Michael Buffer’s line introducing the judges scoring the fight ringside “should the fight go the distance.” It wouldn’t take long into the opening round for chants of “you fat dosser” to be heard in parts of the arena.
In the third round, it looked like the show would go as planned. Joshua dropped Ruiz hard with a left hook that would have done plenty of heavyweights in. As he rose from the canvas, Ruiz grinned, bringing to mind an ominous pre-fight line from his trainer Manny Robles: “When you hit Andy in the face, he turns into the devil.”
The Mexican devil would haunt Joshua the rest of the night. Ruiz returned the favor with a knockdown less than a minute later, and another before the end of the round. Without the use of a meaningful jab, Joshua was unable to accomplish much from range, and on the inside, was completely overmatched in the hand speed department. As Ruiz said of his game plan, "I wanted to let my hands go when he let his hands go, and that's when I think I connected really well."
He would continue to connect periodically for the next few rounds, until he really found his mark in the seventh, dropping Joshua twice more. On the final knockdown, Joshua stood wobbly-legged and glassy eyed in the same corner he lackadaisically leaned during his introduction 25 minutes earlier, showing referee Michael Griffin as little enthusiasm to continue fighting as he did when Buffer announced his name.
As Griffin waved the fight off, Joshua protested for mere seconds, and then smiled and walked back to his corner, having received more than he bargained for. Ruiz jumped up and down in celebration with the raw enthusiasm and joy that can only come from proving the entire world wrong. While it will go down as one of boxing’s all-time biggest shocks, the thoroughness of the beatdown illustrates that it was not a fluke, and perhaps if there had been a more careful analysis of Ruiz’s boxing skills rather than his body composition, it might not have been considered as big of an upset as it was.
Immediately afterward, over 20,000 people—almost half of which had traveled in from the United Kingdom, according to promoter Eddie Hearn—filed out in either disbelief or disappointment, having watched a greater show than they either wanted or expected.
New York might be where you come to make a name for yourself, but the boxing ring is where you find out who you truly are. It would be best to wait until the inevitable rematch, tentatively slated for late-2019 in the UK, before making wholesale determinations about Joshua’s makeup. But for this night at least, we found out conclusively that he was not as good as Andy Ruiz Jr.
In the in-ring post-fight interview, as everyone involved was still in disbelief, Joshua appeared to have come to terms with that fact. He smiled and hugged Ruiz, profusely congratulating him, at first requesting to not speak so as to give the spotlight to his conqueror. Once he decided to speak, the only regret he expressed was that it “wasn’t Deontay Wilder, rather than Andy Ruiz.” Joshua seemed like a man disappointed, but otherwise comfortable in the international popularity and wealth he had already amassed—two things one loss couldn’t strip away.
For the heavyweight division however, and more specifically, for Ruiz, one win changed everything.
"Mom, I love you, and our lives are gonna change. We don't have to struggle no more,” said the new unified heavyweight champion. "I'm still pinching myself to see if this is real, man. I’m just happy that it's me. I'm so f-cking happy that it's me."