It’s been a week since the heavyweight landscape changed inside Madison Square Garden. So often, a week can seem like a lifetime in boxing — this week has proved the contrary, with very little information surfacing following the inquest into one of the biggest sporting shocks of the year. Whether there was any information to discover seems up for debate.
Conspiracy theories have been rife, ranging from the bizarre to the plain stupid. Anthony Joshua’s frank and honest admission that the better man won should have enabled us all to move on from the “what ifs” that Saturday night conjured up.
The dust is slowly beginning to settle. Andy Ruiz Jr is the unified heavyweight champion of the world, and after six years as a professional, Anthony Joshua has been forced to hit the reset button.
Anthony is the biggest, most important cog in the “Team AJ” machine, a machine that has made hundreds of millions of dollars since launching against Emanuele Leo in October of 2013. These hundreds of millions have made many people in the industry very rich, with sponsorship deals queuing up to grab a slice of the Joshua pie. He’s a commodity, a business, a global brand masquerading as a pugilist. The star of Sky Sports and DAZN. The face of JD, Lucozade, Beats, Under Armour and Lynx. The main breadwinner in a Matchroom stable that is furiously scrambling around for its next star to build a career off of being the support act to Joshua’s reign. There are far too many eggs in this one basket.
As the record has grown, the narrative has alongside — despite continuing to win, continuing to sell out stadiums, there was a fragility to his performances that left a huge question mark over his career potential. From Commonwealth, British, to world champion in his 14th, 15th and 16th fights, Joshua was plunged into the deep end without any real significant amateur schooling to fall back on. 43 amateur fights in which silver at the Worlds and gold at London 2012 papered over the cracks that any fighter learning their craft was bound to find in their game. Shortcomings in Joshua’s armoury are expected at this stage, just like it would be any other boxer who followed the same path.
Joshua’s flaws were exposed in emphatic style under the scrutiny of a baying American public last weekend, as Eddie Hearn watched on in disbelief at the first setback of his Golden Goose. It looked to be going to script in the openings of the third round until Joshua decided to hook with a hooker, reluctant to double up on his jab.
Blinded by his adoration for the former unified world champion, Hearn saw Ruiz as a simple jigsaw for Joshua to solve inside the Garden; the pre-fight propaganda selling Ruiz as the “toughest replacement he could find” was a smokescreen to recoup the lost numbers Hearn was expecting to face regarding Sky Sports pay-per-views and DAZN subscriptions. It backfired dramatically. Whether Hearn truly considered this fight a risk is unlikely to be discovered.
The direction of travel has now changed dramatically. We all expected last Sunday’s “What’s next for Anthony Joshua” articles to follow a tenuous template: IBF mandatory Kubrat Pulev weighed up against hyperbolic expectations of Wilder and Fury signing. Now, the Andy Ruiz Jr rematch takes centre stage in the run of fights towards the end of the year.
Hearn’s tactics will be simple: promoting this rematch as a make or break fight for Joshua’s career. It’s a roll of the dice. An assumption that Joshua can right the wrongs of last Saturday. It’ll be impossible to escape the magnitude of the rematch in regards to the future of Joshua; avenging the loss will lay the foundations for AJ to take back his self-designated perch at the top of the division. It’ll be spun into being the “comeback story of 2019”, with Joshua showing the “heart of a lion in defying the odds” — although the Briton will still be a heavy favourite in part II.
Rebuilding and repackaging a fallen champion has been done successfully before. Joshua’s vulnerabilities lend him to become embroiled in exciting fights that the heavyweight division has been starved of in recent years. As fans, that’s all we ask for, with the tug-of-war between promoters, broadcasters and even sanctioning bodies distracting us from the real reason we watch the sport. If Joshua wins the rematch — rumoured to land in the Principality Stadium, Cardiff or MSG, New York — the discussions will once again begin as to who is the No. 1 heavyweight in the world.
We’ll still be months out from the proposed Wilder-Fury rematch, and the narrative of “who’s ducking who” will resurface with added ferocity. For all intents and purposes, we’ll be back to square one.
Hopefully, Joshua losing his “0” will force the hand of Matchroom to “prove” he is the best. Regardless of whether they truly believe he belongs at the top of the heavyweight tree, conceding certain terms in negotiations will now be paramount in guaranteeing Fury, Wilder and Joshua to all fight during this perceived “golden period.”
This is all reliant, of course, on Joshua winning the rematch, which is expected to take place in November of this year. A loss is unthinkable to AJ’s career, but a win could turn the tables on what was transpiring as a heavyweight gridlock. Marketing Joshua as the “comeback king” will be a priority to the casual fanbase; whether Tyson Fury has already monopolised this corner of the boxing market in Britain is yet to be seen.
Andy Ruiz Jr holds three of the four heavyweight marbles, but more importantly, the keys to Joshua’s future. There is no doubt that the following five months will be the most testing of Anthony Joshua’s career — they may well turn out to be the most important to his development as a fighter. The hunger felt fighting as a challenger is unrivalled, and could well prove the catalyst for change.