A big punch, the kind that ends a fight, former heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson said, doesn’t hurt. “When you’re knocked down with a good shot, you don’t feel pain. Maybe it’s like taking dope. It’s like floating. You feel you love everybody—like a hippie, I guess.’’ It has been six months since Anthony Joshua, another former heavyweight champ, took some big punches. He lost to Andy Ruiz Jr. in the biggest boxing upset of the decade. In the months that followed, Joshua’s feelings on those punches have been analyzed almost as much as the fight itself. Joshua was a legitimate global icon stripped of his status in a matter of about 30 total minutes. He lost his belts. The British superstar lost his aura. He lost control of his own narrative. And yet, there seemed to be a sense of relief.
“He is the first megastar of boxing in this country and it was almost like a relief to him,” Eddie Hearn, his promoter, said this summer after the loss. Hearn added: “He will never admit that but the fact that ‘I am the challenger now, I am not this champion who has four belts and who everyone expects me to win all the time’ … it is kind of like the pressure is off.” Hearn was wrong about one thing: Joshua kind of did admit to enjoying his new challenger role and feeling some relief. “To many, Joshua seemed indifferent to losing his titles. Content, even,” Chris Mannix wrote in Sports Illustrated this week about Joshua’s attitude after the fight.
Everything that Joshua lost that night in June hangs in the balance on Saturday when he faces off against Ruiz in a rematch in Saudia Arabia. They are not the only two heavyweights who matter—not with Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury circling—but their fight will go a long way in determining what the future of the sport will look like. It is not an overstatement to say that Joshua’s career hangs on what happens Saturday. It is true, as Hearn said, that the difference between June and December is that now, no one expects Joshua to win all the time. Joshua was 22-0 when he entered the ring in Madison Square Garden. He was one of the most famous athletes in all of world sports—a gold medal winner in the 2012 Olympics, a world heavyweight champion by 2016, and after a win over Wladimir Klitschko in 2017, a genuine superstar. The plan was for Joshua to continue building his star before showdowns with the two biggest heavyweight challengers, Wilder and Fury. If you want boxing to laugh at you, make plans.
Joshua not only lost to Ruiz, but he also looked outclassed by a boxer who was a replacement for another fighter who was supposed to have no chance. Jarrell Miller, Joshua’s original opponent, dropped out of the fight when he tested positive for multiple banned substances. Ruiz’s hands looked faster than Joshua’s. It did not help Joshua’s case that Ruiz does not exactly look like a bodybuilder, as Joshua does. In fact, Ruiz loved to talk about how many Snickers he ate. Before the fight, Fury said Ruiz looked like the kid from Up, and Ruiz took no offense to that because he agreed. That was the guy who beat the global icon. This was not only shocking, it was deeply funny.
The then-champ did manage to knock Ruiz down once, but it was not a particularly close fight. It ended in the seventh round and immediately took its place with Buster Douglas’s win over Mike Tyson and Hasim Rahman’s win over Lennox Lewis as the biggest upsets in the history of modern heavyweight boxing.
It is hard to explain how shocking the June fight was. After all, Joshua was essentially time-wasting before facing off against Wilder in a big-money fight in 2020 or 2021. After the fight, I compared his loss to Ruiz to Hoosiers, only if Hickory High had won by 50 points instead of at the last second. This does not, however, do enough to explain how much the upset upended the entire ecosystem of the sport. For the non-boxing fan, here is the closest analogy: Imagine that before the College Football Playoff, LSU schedules Louisiana Tech to make some easy money before the real action begins against the other top teams. Then, Louisiana Tech so thoroughly stuffs LSU in a trash can that basically everything we thought we knew about LSU is thrown into question.
On Saturday, the two will fight again. In the last six months, the narrative of both fighters has shifted so dramatically that pre-fight coverage from the first bout seems like it’s from another universe. The stakes are simple: If Ruiz wins, he continues his ride as boxing’s new superstar, while Joshua will fade into also-ran status, likely never again filling massive soccer stadiums all over the United Kingdom. If Joshua wins, he can get back on track toward becoming a global icon once more and set the stage for mega fights in the future. Ruiz would remain famous, and he would still get big fights, but he’d need to collect many more wins against top heavyweights to ever regain his current stature. The future of the heavyweight division rests on this fight. “It was a tough pill to swallow,” Joshua told Sports Illustrated this month. “I just had to deal with the pain and the issues of taking a loss against what people called a fat guy.” One thing we know is that no matter what happens on Saturday, Ruiz will never again be known as just a fat guy.
While Joshua’s star has taken a hit, boxing has gained one in Ruiz, a charismatic powerhouse who got the initial fight because he slid into Eddie Hearn’s DMs asking for one. Ruiz was dubbed “The Mexican Rocky,” and the service that is broadcasting the fight on Saturday, DAZN, punctuated this particular point by having Sylvester Stallone produce a documentary about the first fight. Wilder’s star has only risen this year, with memeable knockout punches against Luis Ortiz and Dominic Breazeale. Fury, who drew with Wilder in a classic last December, has won two fights and fought in the WWE in the interim. The heavyweight class is still in good shape; the only question is whether it will be Ruiz or Joshua who gets the biggest fights.
There are, of course, massive differences between this fight and the first one. The most obvious is that this version is highly anticipated, while the first was an afterthought on the sports calendar. Because boxing is rarely at the top of the agenda for American sports, the Joshua-Ruiz fight has taken on an almost mythical place among those who watched it. Almost no one viewed it with any expectation Ruiz would win, or that it would even be close. In the same way boxing fans of a certain age know exactly where they were when they watched Tyson-Douglas or Lewis-Rahman, there is a certain mystique around watching something so unpredictable. (When Joshua was first knocked down, I texted the only other person I know who was watching the fight, Bill Simmons, to tell him I think I had to write about this no matter what. Before I could send it, he sent me a text telling me I had to write about this.)
There are plenty of other differences. The first fight took place at Madison Square Garden, perhaps the most famous arena in the world. Saturday’s fight is taking place in a 15,000-seat arena in Saudi Arabia that was built in six weeks. Then there are the stakes. Those are different too. For Joshua, Saturday means everything. The pressure is gone, the belts are gone, but the chance to get both back has arrived.