By Keith Idec
The last time an undefeated American heavyweight champion and an unbeaten Brit were on a collision course, the fighter from England got knocked out by an unheralded American who wasn’t supposed to win.
This was pre-Internet, when Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis occupied the parts played today by Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua, and fans relied on newspapers and magazines for their boxing news. Like Lewis, Joshua has suffered an unforeseen defeat that has made many boxing observers wonder whether Wilder will ever face Joshua.
Ruiz so badly battered Joshua physically and mentally that what was considered this time last week to be the biggest fight in boxing is in serious jeopardy.
Whether it ever occurs will depend in large part if Joshua can bounce back from his poor performance against Andy Ruiz Jr. like Lewis did after Oliver McCall knocked him out in the second round. Unlike Lewis, Joshua will be afforded an immediate opportunity to prove he’s better than he showed Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York, where thousands of Joshua’s stunned supporters watched Ruiz drop him four times and stop him in the seventh round.
Lewis obviously recovered from that shocking knockout defeat to McCall in September 1994 and became an unquestionable Hall-of-Famer, the best heavyweight of his era. He beat an emotionally unstable Oliver McCall in their rematch, defeated Evander Holyfield twice (a split draw was a ridiculous result in their first fight), dismantled Mike Tyson and fended off Vitali Klitschko in what emerged as Lewis’ last fight.
For all his accomplishments as a pro, Lewis still never boxed Bowe, whom Lewis defeated at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Many blamed Bowe for those two top heavyweights never fighting as professionals, and rightfully so. It was Bowe who traveled to London in December 1992, just to throw the WBC belt in a garbage can, rather than adhering to the WBC’s order to fight Lewis.
The hard-hitting Lewis became the WBC’s mandatory challenger on Halloween night in 1992, when he knocked out Donovan “Razor” Ruddock in the second round of their elimination match in Kensington, England.
Two weeks later, Bowe beat Holyfield by unanimous decision in Las Vegas to win the IBF, WBA and WBC titles from him. Bowe wanted no part of Lewis, though, thus he opted for a publicity stunt over a title defense.
Bowe went on to lose a majority decision to Holyfield in their rematch, almost a year after their first fight. While Bowe and Holyfield had their sights set on a lucrative rubber match that eventually took place in November 1995, Lewis was left to defend the WBC belt he was awarded after Bowe threw it away.
McCall’s upset of Lewis largely eliminated realistic thoughts of Bowe-Lewis from the consciousness of many boxing fans. Bowe stopped Holyfield in the eighth round of their third fight, yet he never seemed the same following the first of his two disqualification defeats of Andrew Golota.
Once Lewis got back on track and regained the WBC title from McCall in February 1997, Bowe’s career had in effect ended, even though Bowe didn’t turn 30 until August 1998.
By then, Lewis was headed toward two fights with Holyfield. Lewis got to and through those two Holyfield fights without incident.
While building momentum toward a mega-fight against a reinvigorated Tyson, however, Lewis got knocked out again, this time by Hasim Rahman. Determined to regain his titles and get back in position for a huge payday to fight Tyson, Lewis wrecked Rahman in their second fight.
His fourth-round stoppage of Rahman in their November 2001 rematch re-established Lewis immediately and ensured that the Tyson fight didn’t go the way of that elusive Bowe bout.
Joshua (22-1, 21 KOs) has a comparable opportunity to quickly correct what went wrong Saturday night, when he was a 25-1 favorite. His setback against Ruiz, a late replacement for PED-user Jarrell Miller, was different from Lewis’ loss to Rahman, though.
Lewis was knocked out by a single, devastating right hand the former champion didn’t see coming that devastating night 18 years ago in South Africa.
Joshua got beat up by Ruiz (33-1, 22 KOs), whose resilience and hand speed surprised the 6-feet-6, 245-pound physical specimen. The newly crowned champion knocked down the British superstar four times – twice apiece in the third and seventh rounds – and stopped an exhausted, dejected Joshua at 1:27 of that seventh round.
The 29-year-old Joshua’s body language before, during and after his first professional defeat didn’t exactly inspire confidence regarding the ex-champion’s chances in their next fight. Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, still said Tuesday that the 2012 Olympic gold medalist has exercised his clause for an immediate rematch, which likely will take place in November or December in the United Kingdom.
If Joshua can correct his stamina issues, become better defensively and stop giving away his height against a significantly shorter fighter, he can beat Ruiz in their rematch and get back on track for his long-discussed showdown with Wilder. Of course, even if Joshua reclaims his titles later this year, the 33-year-old Wilder will have to do his part, too, to keep boxing fans interested in it.
As much as Joshua has his work cut out for him versus Ruiz, Wilder won’t have an easy time handling his business, either.
Dominating Dominic Breazeale was one thing. Winning consecutive rematches against Luis Ortiz and Tyson Fury will provide plenty of challenges for Wilder.
Ortiz hurt Wilder badly late in the seventh round of their March 2018 fight at Barclays Center. Wilder came back to drop Ortiz twice in the 10th round, when Wilder won by TKO.
In his subsequent bout, Fury out-boxed Wilder (41-0-1, 40 KOs) for much of their 12-rounder December 1 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The hard-hitting Wilder still floored Fury twice, once apiece in the ninth and 12th rounds, and fought the former IBF/IBO/WBA/WBO champion to a disputed draw.
If Wilder withstands second encounters with Ortiz (31-1, 26 KOs, 2 NC) and Fury (27-0-1, 19 KOs), and Joshua conquers Ruiz in their rematch, Joshua’s shocking setback Saturday night probably won’t have done as much damage to that huge heavyweight fight as it seems in its immediate aftermath. In that case, the huge heavyweight fight that almost wasn’t would go the way of Lewis-Tyson – just more competitive, hopefully.
As we were reminded Saturday night, a lot can go wrong among huge, strong heavyweights between now and then. Just ask Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.