Over the last few weeks, boxing fans have been treated to an outstanding run of upsets, each of them crowning a new world titleholder.
It started on May 11 in Fairfax, Virginia, when Julian “J Rock” Williams bucked the odds and beat Jarrett Hurd to win the WBA and IBF 154-pound titles in a terrific FOX main event. Williams had been written off by many if not most, because he had been stopped in a title challenge back in 2016 against Jermall Charlo.
Having scaled the mountain at last, an emotional Williams pleaded after the fight for people to stop writing off fighters just because they’ve taken a loss.
“They told me I was done, told me I had no chin,” he began.
“The boxing world, they make it seem like fighters take a loss and can’t come back. I just knew that wasn’t the case. Boxing world, stop condemning fighters when they take a loss,” he said, adding that he hoped nobody would do the same to Hurd, who suffered his first defeat on that night.
While Williams’ win was not seen as a fluke, as he thoroughly and completely beat Hurd, that sort of win still was. Fights are generally very carefully made, and risks too rarely taken in modern boxing. The underdogs were still going to be the underdogs, the favorites would still trounce their overmatched opposition.
And the next weekend, we saw that when Deontay Wilder obliterated Dominic Breazeale in the first round on Showtime, and Gary Russell Jr took Kiko Martinez apart on the same card. The mismatches went as expected, and things were back to normal.
Then on May 25 in Kissimmee, Florida, Jamel Herring knocked off Masayuki Ito to win the WBO super featherweight title. Not many called that one, as Herring had come in having lost not once, but twice in his career. He was defeated by Denis Shafikov in 2016 and by Ladarius Miller in 2017.
Herring made a lot of changes, sort of quietly, because nobody was much paying attention to him, since he’d lost a couple fights and all. He left PBC and signed with Top Rank, while also hooking up with new trainer Brian McIntyre and making a move down to 130 pounds. He beat Juan Pablo Sanchez, John Vincent Moralde, and Adeilson dos Santos in 2018. To be fair, not exactly marquee fights, and not everyone has the time or desire — nor should they be expected to — to keep up with everything in boxing.
But Herring, like Williams, had been pretty much written off — even more so, in fact. Williams was still seen by most as at least a solid contender, just not a guy who was going to beat a Jarrett Hurd. Herring wasn’t even really seen as a contender by much of anyone. The WBO had to sort of nonsensically insert him into their 130-pound rankings just to approve his title fight with Ito. (Given that sanctioning body rankings are generally idiotic in the first place, this doesn’t actually bother me. Herring had as good a case to be ranked as most guys in sanctioning body rankings do.)
Herring was able to out-box Ito and score the win and the WBO 130-pound belt in Florida in an ESPN main event. He won it clean and clear, and again, someone had risen from the pile of ashes where everyone had thrown them after a loss or two.
Then this weekend came Andy Ruiz Jr. As unlikely and noteworthy as Williams and Herring were, neither were near as big a story as this past Saturday night in New York at Madison Square Garden.
Hype behind Anthony Joshua had started in 2012, when he won the super heavyweight gold medal at the London Olympics. There was talk of him going pro, which eventually he did, and he was a star in the UK from the get-go. There was a belief that Joshua could do what Audley Harrison had not: become the British heavyweight to conquer the world after winning Olympic gold.
By 2016, Joshua had already won his first world title, trouncing Charles Martin in two rounds to lift the IBF belt in London. He added the WBA belt a year later, beating Wladimir Klitschko in an instant classic, Fight of the Year winner at Wembley Stadium. And then in 2018, he picked up the WBO title, going the distance for the first time against Joseph Parker and winning a decision.
All the talk had been about Joshua someday facing fellow unbeaten puncher Deontay Wilder, but without going into it yet again, the two failed to get a deal done, and on they went with other fights.
This year, that meant Wilder fought and blasted out Breazeale. Joshua, on the other hand, was meant to fight April 13 at Wembley Stadium, but when Dillian Whyte turned down a rematch, there were really no Wembley-worthy opponents, so focus instead shifted to having AJ make his U.S. debut at MSG on June 1.
Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller was signed up. An undefeated, trash-talking New Yorker with big personality and a big body, Miller figured to be a good foil for Joshua to make a stamp on American soil. Then Miller failed three (3) VADA drug tests, and suddenly Matchroom and Joshua needed a late replacement.
Luis Ortiz was contacted, but didn’t take the fight, and the pool of potential opponents was speculated about over several days. Andy Ruiz Jr was one of the fighters mentioned, and he’d made that happen himself more than anything.
Back on April 18, Ruiz was out in California, two days away from a FOX-televised fight with Alexander Dimitrenko. With Miller out against Joshua, Ruiz threw his name into the hat.
“If the (Joshua-Miller fight is) off and everything goes good (on Saturday), I’ll be ready for June 1 after April 20,” he said.
He was asked if that was realistic.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Anything could happen, boxing’s crazy. But I’ll be ready.”
A couple days later, Ruiz dominated Dimitrenko and won easily. He again said he was ready to fight AJ on June 1.
“That’d be a great opportunity if Al Haymon could talk to Eddie Hearn,” Ruiz said. “I think it would be an exciting fight. I got some rounds in. If they give me the fight, I’ll go to the gym and start working out right now, like, right now and get ready for that fight on June 1.”
Behind the scenes, Ruiz had messaged Hearn to tell the promoter he was ready to step in, and a dialogue opened. Hearn sounded excited about the potential fight in numerous interviews about the search for a new opponent.
“I like Andy Ruiz as a person, and I think he’s got a massive heart,” Hearn said when asked if Ruiz was a front-runner. “Physically, he don’t look the greatest, but he can fight. This is a tough fight for Joshua. He’s fast, he’s quite small, he’s explosive, he comes forward, he’s a good fighter.”
Hearn, every time Ruiz was brought up, noted that he knew for a fact boxing fans would write Ruiz off because of how he looked. And almost everyone did.
But Ruiz did get the call for June 1, and in he stepped against Joshua.
Just visually, the matchup looked horrible at every press conference or weigh-in. The 6’6” Joshua towered over the 6’2” Ruiz, and in terms of their shapes, well, Joshua is cut from marble, Ruiz from the marble rye that houses an Arby’s Reuben.
In the couple of days since, a lot of media types have shaken their heads in performative disgust. We didn’t — and apparently never can now — get the mega-fight between Joshua and Wilder. The Fans! were robbed of this by greed, and look what happened! Just like Samwise Gamgee, a fat guy ruins it.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have already seen Joshua-Wilder, and I’m not arguing in favor of “marination.” I’m simply saying that that fight ain’t dead and gone forever just because Andy Ruiz Jr chucked a bag of Snickers into the conversation, and that maybe there should be a bit more excitement about what Ruiz has done and a bit less sorrow over what isn’t going to happen now — and wasn’t in any real danger of happening any time soon, either.
Ruiz, like Williams and Herring, had been previously beaten, against Joseph Parker back in 2016, his only title shot before this one. It was a close fight, Parker winning a majority decision at home in New Zealand.
With Williams, Herring, and now Ruiz, we have been given a reminder that losses don’t end careers, that incredible achievements can still come if suffering a defeat doesn’t actually defeat you. Boxing media is perhaps a little less guilty of this than the broader idea of boxing fans — especially the larger, more casual audience — but boxing media has to take some of the blame, too. As a group, we’ve allowed ourselves to often be romanticized by undefeated records, even when we know those records are sometimes the result of the fighters holding them having not taken many or any real risks.
Speaking honestly, “How can we get the public to care about this?” is a question boxing media have to take into consideration these days, because we’re fighting for attention and clicks and the audience, and an undefeated record is as easy a “sell” for us as it is for a promoter to stick on a fight poster or commercial. We’ve had a hand in giving it too much credit, even if we note all undefeated records are not the same. The details are regularly skipped for the headlines, and we know that.
With promoters, media, fans, and fighters themselves all giving the “0” too much admiration, boxing has become cautious to a degree that has hurt the sport. And that really needs to change. We need to embrace more fighters who have taken an L or two or three or five or 10 and come back from it, fighting hard and chasing glory.
It didn’t start with Floyd Mayweather, of course, but Mayweather’s reign as the top star in boxing over a decade or so really did warp the way a lot of fans, especially younger fans, think about records.
I’m not “hating on” Mayweather, to be clear — his record is incredible, but to expect all fighters to be undefeated forever in order to be considered great or even good is both unrealistic and flat-out stupid. It’s like expecting the standard for the Baseball Hall of Fame to be Willie Mays, which it is not and never has been, or writing off any film that isn’t as great as Citizen Kane or The Godfather or Hawk the Slayer.
We’ve created a culture where as soon as someone loses, they suck and have always sucked. They’re cast aside as frauds.
So to a lot of people, this hasn’t been an incredible few weeks of awesome stories and a reminder that boxing can be a wonderful theater of the unexpected, and that some fighters will bounce back from defeat and go on to great things.
To those folks, it hammers home their simple-minded belief that apparently almost no one is actually any good. I suppose this is their prerogative, but to me they’re just missing out on so much of what actually can make boxing so enjoyable to follow in spite of its own constant fuck-ups and nonsense, so much of what can really excite you to come back to see the next week’s fights.
I also realize I’m saying this at a point where we’re probably about to see a handful of on-paper mismatches play out as mismatches. This Saturday, we’ve got Gennadiy Golovkin vs Steve Rolls and Oscar Valdez vs Jason Sanchez. The Saturday after, Tyson Fury vs Tom Schwarz. It’s not likely that Rolls, Sanchez, and Schwarz join the parade of stunners. Odds are, they all will lose, and badly. So ultimately I may wind up shouting into the void, boxing itself overpowering my attempts to if not completely change, then at least tweak the way we think about a lot of fights and fighters.
But even if that happens, I still firmly believe that all of us really do have to stop writing off fighters just for taking losses — and for now, that includes Anthony Joshua, too. Joshua may not bounce back strong, we don’t know. We’ll find out. Some don’t, admittedly. But if he does, then there’s still a big Deontay Wilder fight, or a big Tyson Fury fight, or a big fight with whomever waiting later on down the line.
It’s not over for Anthony Joshua yet any more than it was over for Williams, Herring, or Ruiz. We have to see how he responds to this defeat, but he’s got every chance to come back a top fighter, just like they have, and to still be in those heavyweight mega-fights so many have mourned the loss of over the last two days.