The Rematch In Diriyah
There is a skilled and trusted school of boxing experts convinced that Anthony Joshua has made the biggest mistake of his fighting career by accepting an immediate rematch against Andy Ruiz.
Ruiz has sensibly stayed silent on the growing debate, knowing that he will walk away from the fight in Saudi Arabia on Dec 7 with more money than he could have dreamed of ever making.
“I know in the first fight he never wanted to continue,” said Ruiz, which is close to saying that Joshua quit in their first fight in the famed Madison Square Garden ring back in June. Joshua was the clear betting favourite then, now it is a lot closer, but he is still the favourite.
Joshua left New York after he was stopped, lost his unbeaten record and his three world championship belts and returned immediately to the gym; he was determined to get revenge, get his belts back and secure the rematch. He also talked about what went wrong in the first fight, admitting that there was something in his life that went wrong, but refusing to name the problem. He has denied it was complacency.
There has not been one excuse since that dramatic night and that means there has not been one answer to what happened that night in the ring. He has said since leaving the ring that he wanted the rematch – it is a risk, one that he is prepared to take. “He can’t beat me twice, can he?” he asked recently.
The history of rematches in the heavyweight division is complex and can be manipulated to prove just about any argument. A good fighter losing to an underdog and then beating the underdog in the rematch is a fine narrative, but not without problems. In boxing, just about every so-called fact can be disputed and just about every theory can find some traction.
Floyd Patterson, once the youngest heavyweight champion in history, is a glorious poster-boy for the contradictions in the world of heavyweight title rematches. In 1959 a massive underdog called Ingemar Johansson from Sweden knocked out Patterson to win the title. Patterson was over seven times, humiliated and obliterated. The following year, Patterson knocked out Johansson to reclaim the title in a straight rematch. They had a third fight and Patterson won again.
In 1962 Patterson lost his title once more and was knocked out in the first round by Sonny Liston. There was another rematch, again immediate, and this time Liston knocked out Patterson once again in the first round. He needed a few extra seconds in the second fight.
Liston then lost to Cassius Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, in one of the biggest shocks to ever take place in a boxing ring; they had a rematch and Liston was easily beaten again. Where is the pattern in that series of fights? Underdog wins, favourite wins, underdog loses, favourite loses? There are dozens of knockdowns in that series of rematches, controversy, utter disbelief and a man that changed the world. There is no “rematch” pattern or template from that series of unforgettable fights to comfortably fit like an ugly crown on the Joshua v Ruiz rematch. People in the fight game are desperately trying to make the fight in Saudi fit a previous fight and the truth is that it simply does not.
Lennox Lewis was twice knocked out in shocks, losing his world title and putting his reputation in temporary jeopardy. He gained revenge over both men, but only once in an immediate rematch. It is telling, perhaps, that Lewis never went for an immediate rematch with Oliver McCall after losing in two rounds to the eccentric American in 1994. Lewis waited until 1997, waited until he was more mature, smarter and stronger before beating McCall in their delayed rematch. McCall, incidentally, was a very disturbed man by the time of the rematch.
In 2001 Lewis was knocked out again, this time in round five by Hasim Rahman; Lewis went straight for a rematch and eight months later, this time in Las Vegas and out of Africa, Lewis knocked out Rahman in the fourth round to regain his world title. It was a brilliant end, stunning.
At the time of the McCall loss, Lewis was 29 and it was his 26th fight; Joshua was 29 when he was beaten by Ruiz and it was his 23rd fight. Both were Olympic heavyweight champions. Should Joshua have waited like Lewis did before McCall, had four more fight like Lewis did before the rematch nearly three years later? Is Joshua as convinced of victory in his Ruiz rematch as Lewis was in the weeks and days and hours before leaving Rahman unconscious?
“Smart fighters win rematches,” said Manny Steward, the iconic trainer. He is right, the problem is both Joshua and Ruiz are smart fighters. The odds might very well shift and change, just like the dunes surrounding the magnificent stadium in Diriyah, before the first bell.