May 14, 2021

Can Andy Ruiz rebound?

Examining the ultimate cost of a monumental upset victory: Can Andy Ruiz Jnr go on to do what the likes of Buster Douglas, Hasim Rahman and Corrie Sanders could not? By Elliot Worsell

IT will come as a surprise to some to be reminded that Andy Ruiz Jnr is still only 31 years of age, a pup in heavyweight terms, and has gone the 12-round distance just once in his career to date.

If looks are deceiving, so are upset wins, and it is quite natural therefore to assume Ruiz, based on his shape and recent exploits, has been there, done it, and seen better days. It is just as understandable to assume he will now inevitably go the way of the many other former heavyweight champions who, once reaching the summit, found it hard to rediscover the motivation to carry on and repeat their success.

But what if the Andy Ruiz story turns out to be different? What if, at 31, he is just getting started? What if his win over Anthony Joshua in June 2019, a huge shock at the time, was in fact not his crowning achievement but merely a breakout performance he produced earlier in his career than expected?

All will be revealed in time, of course, but what we know for now is that Ruiz, 33-2 (22), has dusted himself down following his rematch loss to Joshua in December 2019 and returns to the ring against Chris Arreola this weekend (May 1). It will be his first fight in 16 months. It will likely be fun. It will just as likely tell us whether Ruiz is on the way up or on the way out.

According to history, once a boxer upsets the heavyweight champion of the world they then struggle to recapture this form – read: motivation – for subsequent defences of the title and then, having given the title back, start to quickly slide back down the same mountain they previously climbed. During this descent, they are often ridiculed and, worse, their earlier upset is recast as a fluke rather than an achievement indicative of their ability.

But perhaps it’s more complex than that. Perhaps the reason a fighter who shocks the world and then fails to repeat this success has little do with their overall quality and more to do with the sudden attention placed on them as world heavyweight champion. After all, in going from ignored underdog to in-demand king, they are faced with all manner of stresses and pressures and temptations, the likes of which had been easy to ignore when comfortable and protected in their role as contender. They are pulled this way and that and offered trinkets and opportunities but, unlike the champion they dethroned, are often not cut out for it. The pressure. The temptations. The multitasking. They previously excelled in the shadows, creeping where they could not be seen and using their silence as a weapon. They were neither expecting nor wanting the light to be turned on.

Andy Ruiz
Andy Ruiz Jnr with previous trainer Manny Robles (Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

When it was, everything changed. In becoming champion, they became the hunted and not the hunter. They had to find inspiration and motivation from a different place than before. But from where, though? Once on top, once having achieved all they set out to achieve, where does the next bit of motivation come from? Is it now their determination to keep something they have wanted all their life? Is it a particular rival against whom they have to defend their title next? Is it the ability to now use this position to make more and more money?

Whatever it is, the motivation, once on top, will never be the same as it was when this fighter was chasing all they now have. That motivation, the motivation of old, is a reliable, universal one, and will forever be the case. That motivation, this desire for tokens of success, was the very motivation by which they would have been fuelled ever since first entering a boxing gym. It is organic and powerful, that kind of motivation. It never lets you down – until, that is, you succeed, turn around, and suddenly it’s not only gone but now belongs to someone else.

In boxing, James “Buster” Douglas is known for a couple of things. He is responsible for causing arguably the greatest upset in the sport’s history, when knocking out Mike Tyson in February 1990 to win the world heavyweight title, and he is also known as a champion whose fall from grace was as dramatic as any we have ever seen.

If one led to the other, we have to first appreciate the size of the Tyson upset and the size of the windfall Douglas received as a result of it. A ginormous underdog, Douglas brought Tyson to his knees during the 10th round in Tokyo and in the process brought the world to a standstill. Every bit of it – every image, every sound bite – turned out to be iconic. It is now the upset by which all other upsets, not just in boxing but in sport, are today judged. It put the name Buster Douglas on the map and put the world, convinced Tyson was either invincible or deadly (or both), at ease.

His reward for winning, though, was as key to Douglas’ legacy as the performance and had a big say on how his career ended. In his first defence of the titles Douglas boxed Evander Holyfield in October 1990, and the two fighters split a $32,100,000 purse, with Douglas guaranteed a then-record $24,075,000, the largest purse ever paid to a single fighter at the time. An astronomical figure, the likes of which have rarely been seen since, Douglas knew right there and then the result of the Holyfield fight was irrelevant in the context of his future security and happiness.
Alas, he came into the fight weighing 246 pounds – meaning he was some 15 pounds heavier than when he beat Tyson – and was stopped by Holyfield, 208 pounds, inside just three rounds.

After that, Douglas stepped away and wouldn’t box again until 1996. By that point he was content to ease himself back in gently, beating the likes of Tony LaRosa, Rocky Pepeli, Dicky Ryan, Brian Scott, Louis Monaco and Quinn Navarre on the comeback trail. He then, however, lost to Lou Savarese inside a round in June 1998 before, two fights later, retiring for good in 1999.

He wasn’t the only one to crack under the pressure. Oliver McCall, too, struggled coping with the demands of his new life after stunning Lennox Lewis in a couple of rounds in September 1994. That victory landed McCall the WBC heavyweight title, which he retained in his next fight against Larry Holmes only to then surrender it to Frank Bruno in September ’95.

From there, McCall boxed Lewis again for the vacant WBC title in February 1997 but was this time stopped inside five rounds in a fight infamous for McCall suffering a breakdown in the ring. To his credit, McCall kept going and was still competing as a 53-year-old in 2018, though never again did he challenge for another world title.

Moving into the noughties, the next two big heavyweight upsets involved Lennox Lewis – again – and Wladimir Klitschko, deemed the heir apparent of the post-Lewis/Tyson/Holyfield era.

In April 2001, Lewis once more allowed a lapse in concentration to free up his heavyweight titles, with Hasim Rahman the latest grateful recipient. A fifth-round knockout landed Rahman the WBC and IBF belts, both of which he then returned to sender in a lucrative rematch against Lewis in November.

Undeterred, Rahman, rich beyond his wildest dreams, used his enhanced profile to unearth additional paydays for the next 13 years.
After finishing with Lewis, he lost a split technical decision against Evander Holyfield in June 2002 due to eye swelling from an accidental head clash. He then drew with David Tua in March 2003 and lost a WBA interim fight against John Ruiz in December 2003. This led to Rahman stepping down a level for a few fights, winning five in a row, before beating Monte Barrett to win the WBC interim title, which he subsequently retained in a draw against James Toney and then let go when knocked out in the final round by Oleg Maskaev in August 2006.

Still a big name, Rahman received other title opportunities, first against Wladimir Klitschko (December 2008) for the IBF and WBO, and then against Alexander Povetkin (September 2012) for the WBA ‘regular’, but was stopped in seven and two rounds respectively.

South African Corrie Sanders, meanwhile, was rewarded for knocking out Klitschko in two rounds in March 2003 with Klitschko’s WBO heavyweight title, as well as a date against Wladimir’s big brother, Vitali, the following year. That fight took place in April 2004, for Vitali’s WBC title, and ended with Sanders dominated and stopped inside eight rounds. Sanders then boxed just four times in the next four years and retired after losing a South African heavyweight title fight against Osborne Machimana in February 2008.

Andy Ruiz
Andy Ruiz celebrates his monumental victory over Anthony Joshua Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing

It’s true that a lot is made of the damage a succession of knockout defeats, or a particularly punishing run of fights, will do to a fighter. But maybe it could be argued, too, that one big fight – or, specifically, one big upset – can change a fighter in ways later considered equally detrimental. This doesn’t have to mean damage, of course, or even noticeable wear and tear. It could simply mean a loss of other things: like motivation; like direction; like the ability to get out of bed in the morning. Perhaps, in the end, the price of fame and fortune is the stripping of the ingredients required to attain them.

In the case of Andy Ruiz, the lasting effects of his rise to prominence remains to be seen. However, what is already clear is that Ruiz has, in the space of two fights against the same man, gone from being a talented but ill-disciplined prospect not ready for the best in the world to an ill-disciplined former champion most expect to now go only one way: down.

It’s a curious shift in opinion and is predicated on how the perks of beating Joshua in 2019 ultimately damaged Ruiz heading into the pair’s rematch and maybe even beyond. For in the space of six months Ruiz went from hungry to full up, bloated, and ultimately sick to his stomach. He admitted as much in the ring after losing to Joshua, while his former trainer, Manny Robles, was just as open when revealing, again in the aftermath, how difficult it had been getting his fighter into the gym around that time. It was too much, too soon, and this they both realised only when it was too late.

Now Ruiz returns to his position as contender, his calls for a third Joshua fight having fallen on deaf ears. Now he claims to have regained his motivation and come to terms with his mistakes. He promises to have learned from these mistakes and promises to be slimmer, sharper and better ahead of his next title run. With trainer of the moment, Eddy Reynoso, now calling the shots Ruiz will be facing, in Arreola, a fellow American of Mexican heritage whose own career has been blighted by poor discipline, overeating, and unfulfilled potential.

If there is comfort to be found in familiarity, Ruiz will no doubt take it, though will be just as aware the key to him moving forward is not to feel comfortable but instead to get back to feeling desperate and scared and ignored. For it was desperation and fear and the sound of being written off that ultimately got Andy Ruiz to where he wanted to be and then promptly deserted him the moment he became heavyweight champion of the world and the lights became so bright he could no longer see.