For those who appreciate what we might call boxing fairy tales, February 11th, 1990 holds a special place in the calendar of pugilistic memories. It was on that day when James “Buster” Douglas shocked the world by knocking out the seemingly unstoppable Mike Tyson. It was an upset so confounding, so unexpected, that, in the words of HBO’s Larry Merchant, it made “Cinderella look like a sad story.”
However, Buster’s magic coach soon enough turned back into a pumpkin, as he fell in three rounds to Evander Holyfield in his first title defense. But when it comes to heavyweight “one hit wonders,” Douglas isn’t short of company. In fact, many, if not most, of the heavyweight division’s “Cinderella Men” lost their proverbial glass slipper as quickly as their fairy tales had begun. So now the question is this: can unexpected heavyweight champ Andy Ruiz Jr avoid becoming another one-hit wonder?
If Ruiz’s upset win over Joshua conjures up recollections of any previous heavyweight Cinderella story, it’s less Douglas vs Tyson and more Sanders vs Klitschko. Unheralded South African challenger Corrie Sanders’s stoppage of a young Wladimir Klitschko back in 2002 shares a number of similarities to Ruiz’s victory. Like Joshua, Klitschko was, to some extent at least, a product of boxing fans’ imaginations. He was so aesthetically appealing that many ignored his glaring vulnerabilities and technical lapses, shortcomings which Sanders exploited. Prior to the work Emanuel Steward did years later to revitalize the Ukrainian’s career, “Dr. Steelhammer” was far from a finished product in 2002. But as was the case with Joshua, technical deficiencies are less noticeable when a fighter is delivering virtuoso knockout displays, even if against substandard opposition.
For both Klitschko and Joshua, there had been no urgent reason to correct technical weaknesses, some of which led directly to their shocking defeats, but the deficiencies were there. In fact, the writing was on the wall for anyone able to read it in Joshua’s bout against Alexander Povetkin in September of last year, as the Briton struggled to control distance, often finding himself an immobile target for the Russian’s quick-fisted combinations. But in the end Joshua got the impressive knockout win and fans tend to forget the subtleties when they’re treated to fireworks.
But there are those who point to a different heavyweight upset, and a different one-hit-wonder, in making sense of Ruiz vs Joshua. Back in 2001 Lennox Lewis was far more interested in a hoped-for showdown with Mike Tyson, and a bit part in the Hollywood film Oceans Eleven, than he was in challenger Hasim Rahman. A clearly unfocused Lewis paid the price when Rahman bulldozed him with a right hand in round five and Lennox never came close to beating the count. The difference between the Rahman and Ruiz upsets however, is that Andy Ruiz Jr didn’t get the job done with one big shot. Instead he appeared a level above Joshua in terms of timing and accuracy as he systematically broke Joshua down, his fists too quick for “AJ” to see the punches coming.
So while a lack of mental preparation may have been a factor in Joshua’s downfall, the glaring speed differential could be the real obstacle the Briton must overcome. And that is far from a sure thing, even with a notable reduction in the muscle mass some believe affected Joshua’s mobility last June. Further, for trainer Robert McCracken to teach Joshua how to properly maintain distance against Ruiz is also a tall order given a time span of just six months. Consider that it took legendary trainer Emanuel Steward several years to teach Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko how to exploit their size advantages in the ring, a tactic Joshua has, to this point at least, failed to develop.
But if there are questions regarding Joshua’s mental focus and ability to adjust, there are also questions for Ruiz, the biggest one being whether there exists the same fire to hold on to the belts as there was to win them. Since dethroning Joshua, Ruiz has embraced the moment, buying a mansion in California with plenty of lavish accessories, in the midst of a perpetual fiesta for Mexico’s first heavyweight champion of the world. But after the smoke clears and Ruiz finds himself in the ring again, fans and pundits want to know whether he’ll once again be fighting like a man with something to prove. And given all Andy Ruiz Jr has earned this year, it is not a given that he’ll have the same mental toughness he had back in June.
That kind of championship mentality certainly didn’t live inside James “Buster” Douglas, who found himself back in pugilistic obscurity almost as quickly as he emerged from it when he pocketed a twenty-four million dollar paycheck after just seven minutes of uninspired work against Holyfield. Douglas showed up fifteen pounds heavier than for the Tyson bout, not to mention clearly mentally unprepared for his first and last title defense. At the earliest sign of adversity, which came in the form of a right hand blast from “The Real Deal,” Douglas went down and then didn’t even try to get back up.
But it must be noted that, at this point at least, a parallel doesn’t appear to exist in terms of Ruiz’s preparation; in fact, we may be seeing the opposite outcome. Seemingly intent on trying to make due on his promise to transform into the “Mexican Anthony Joshua,” Ruiz has trimmed some ten pounds of the belly fat that made him such an inspiration to all the “dad bods” in the world. Additionally, the champion has looked undeniably sharp in training camp, a camp significantly longer than the five weeks he had to prepare as a late substitute in June. While it is plausible that Ruiz will face a more durable and determined version of Anthony Joshua on Saturday, it appears the new champion is doing everything possible to optimize his chances of turning the rematch into a repeat.
Besides, while the clock struck twelve for Sanders and Rahman, not to mention Ingemar Johansson and Leon Spinks, there have been other “Cinderella Men” who kept their slippers and turned into Prince Charming. It’s been proven that instead of being one-hit wonders, some who go from zero to hero retain the mental toughness that earned them their big upset win. Such was the case for Muhammad Ali after he shocked the world and defeated Sonny Liston. Ali went on to become one of the all-time greats in heavyweight history, some say “The Greatest.”
At this point no serious comparisons can be made between Andy Ruiz Jr and Muhammad Ali, but it’s possible we have had only our first taste of a championship-caliber Ruiz, that he may grow into the role of world champion with the help of trainer Manny Robles. Yes, it’s a tall order, both figuratively and literally with the likes of Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury sharing pieces of the heavyweight crown. But no matter what the future holds, a second win over Joshua on Saturday means no one would underestimate Andy Ruiz Jr ever again. Or ever call him a “One Hit Wonder.” — Alden Chodash