2019 ends as it began.
The heavyweight division resumed its previous three-headed status quo on Saturday night in Saudi Arabia. Anthony Joshua, using his jab, his feet, and a remarkable shift to a lean muscle frame, made it easy on himself by never tempting to make it hard.
Andy Ruiz, never a genuine specimen of conditioning, did less than he could have to force harder questions. Instead of a champion, he may be remembered as an interruption. Joshua boxed very well all night, and on occasions where he was tagged he clinched or moved back to a range where the smaller man simply couldn’t follow up.
It wasn’t always thrilling but it worked. Joshua couldn’t afford another loss. He found a way to win, and win going away. Questions about his mental toughness should take into account the professionalism and focus it took for Joshua to come right back and decisively outpoint a man who dropped him four times. He didn’t know how Ruiz would show up and did the work to be ready for any version.
Those who think we’ve already seen the best of Joshua could find themselves surprised moving forward, though we may have seen the most exciting version of him already.. Joshua may not yet be a fully finished product. He had a limited amatuer career and his explosion as a draw limited the development rounds in his career.
Saturday he showed he is still adding new wrinkles and dimensions. Whether those dimensions will translate to ever completing the unification of the division remains to be seen.
If there is a change from the start of the year, it’s that Joshua has moved from the consensus leader of the division to a position where many may seem him as the most vulnerable of the Joshua-Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury trio; in the ring, it’s fair to argue he is the third of three.
That’s the athletic, competitive side of things.
One place where Joshua retains and will continue is as an economic juggernaut. Fury-Wilder II will be big business early next year. Either against Joshua will be the biggest pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Will we see it in 2020?
Let’s get into it.
The Future for Joshua: Joshua was open, verbally, to a third fight with Ruiz down the road but many fans may not be. Ruiz, fair or unfair, will always be judged on aesthetics to a degree and his lethargic outing Saturday will confirm preconceived notions he simply caught lightning in a bottle. If Joshua demands retaining all his belts, he has mandatory challenges waiting from Kubrat Pulev and Oleksandr Usyk. If he elected to shed the WBO belt, Usyk would still loom but perhaps as a unification battle instead. Usyk of course would have to win the WBO belt first.
Two things need to be a part of Joshua’s future no matter what he does while the Fury-Wilder rivalry continues. The first is the apparent reduction in weight lifting witnessed in Joshua’s form on Saturday. He was quicker, lighter, and had more stamina Saturday after bulking up considerably in recent years. Joshua in the 230s is probably a better place for him long term. The other need is activity. Joshua isn’t going to be a five fight a year guy but for the next couple years his team should try to at least keep him in the ring three times. He still needs rounds and there may still be lingering doubts from the first Ruiz fight he’ll need to bolster against before he sees a Fury or Wilder. He doesn’t need another six months off. In 2020, Joshua is likely to try another US landing. Let’s hope it doesn’t represent half of his year. He’ll need to be his sharpest self if and when he sees one of the other leaders of the class.
The Future for Ruiz: Ruiz was clearly disappointed in himself and the thinking expressed here and elsewhere that he may have tried to play games on the scale and make himself sound heavier than he was were false. Ruiz was in lesser shape than he was in June. The effect is probably still overstated. He was in better shape for the first Joshua fight but Ruiz is never likely to be in the best shape he could be. He can be better than he was Saturday and should learn from Saturday. History says fighters who blow up like Ruiz does rarely fail to let themselves down again sooner than later. Ruiz just needs to buckle down enough to make the first Joshua form the more important in the public conscious. Ruiz can feast on the first Joshua win for quite some time even if he won’t be cashing in on a third fight right away. The PBC umbrella offers fan friendly clashes like Adam Kownacki and, if Wilder defeats Fury, a possible chance at another belt next year. Comparison shopping is a regular part of boxing and Wilder taking the shot at knocking out the man Joshua couldn’t, the man who put Joshua down the first time, would put butts in seats.
A lot of everyone’s future rides on the result of Fury-Wilder II. All eyes can now turn to February.
Rold Picks 2019: 68-19 (Including picks for the Showtime tripleheader)
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]