RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Even now, with three belts in his hands, it’s hard to reconcile Andy Ruiz as heavyweight champion. The distinction that belonged to the chiseled physiques and steely demeanors of Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko now belongs with Ruiz, a plus-sized big man with a hankering for Snickers.
On Saturday, Ruiz will defend his belts against Anthony Joshua (DAZN, 3:45 pm ET) in a hotly anticipated rematch of Ruiz’s Buster Douglas-like upset of Joshua last June. The fight will take place in Saudi Arabia because, well, money; the Saudi government put up north of $40 million to host the event, most of which will end up in Joshua’s pockets.
For months, the focus has been on Joshua, what is he going to do, what changes he will make, how will he recover from the first loss of his professional career. Ruiz derailed the Joshua train last spring, flooring the ex-champ four times en route to a seventh round stoppage. The lion’s share of digital ink has been devoted to the question of how Joshua can get back on track.
Ruiz? Yeah – he’s here, too.
On Wednesday, Ruiz rolled into the final press conference, a Knicks jersey on his back, some new bling on his hands and neck. For six months, he has enjoyed the spoils of victory. He hit the late night talk show circuit. He was feted by his hometown. He bought a house, a $450,000 Rolls Royce and six figures worth of diamond encrusted jewelry. He made close to $4 million for the first fight and will earn close to $10 million for the rematch.
He deserves it.
Success, though, has a way of changing people.
In boxing, media interviews provide little, if any, insight into a fighter. Every camp was great. Preparation was perfect. A fighter could be fighting off the flu and he would still tell reporters he was at full strength and ready to go.
Ruiz has followed that familiar script. Training camp was excellent. Having three months to prepare for the rematch was infinitely better than the few weeks he had to get ready for the first fight. He had a chance to zero in on the details, the “technical stuff.” The things he didn’t do before. He weighed in at 283.7-pounds—some 15 pounds heavier than the first fight and the second heaviest weight for a defending champion in boxing history—because “I want to feel stronger.”
“That’s the motivation,” Ruiz said. “Everyone is still talking crap. Everyone is still doubting me. Probably if I win, they will still doubt me. That’s what gives me the hunger to prove everyone wrong. It’s a little bit [annoying], but it comes with the territory. As long as we accomplish our dreams, that’s all that matters.”
Said his trainer, Manny Robles, “He’s not Buster Douglas.”
He might not be. Ruiz is an enigma. Top Rank signed Ruiz early in his pro career. It was hardly a consensus decision. Bob Arum, the Hall of Fame head of the company, didn’t like him. Didn’t see the upside. His matchmakers—Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman—disagreed.
“They constantly said how talented he was, how they never saw a guy who had hands that quick,” Arum told SI.com in a telephone interview. “They were the ones who essentially were reinforcing the decision, telling me to lay off, to give him a break, to give him fights. The truth is, I never saw an elite fighter. My matchmakers said he could take a punch, and while not the hardest puncher, his hands were much faster than all the other heavyweights on that level.”
Arum, who has promoted some of the biggest heavyweight fights in boxing history, says he has no idea if Ruiz can win a rematch.
“The one thing I learned about Andy Ruiz is that you never can tell,” Arum said. “There was never any pattern to him. He has a long layoff, he gets in the ring, he would look terrible. He has another layoff, he gets in the ring, he would look super. He was very unpredictable. I know he’s not a fool. Robles, he is a good trainer. His father [Andy Sr.] is a good influence. I think you will see a really dedicated kid who comes into the ring and thinks he can win. Whether that’s enough to beat Joshua, I don’t know.”
Hasim Rahman might. In 2001, Rahman was a 20-1 underdog when he challenged Lennox Lewis. A thunderous right hand in the fifth round floored Lewis, making Rahman heavyweight champion. Seven months later, the two were back in the ring. This time it was Lewis landing the thudding right hand, ending the fight in the fourth round.
Rahman, ironically, even hilariously, is in Saudi Arabia this week in his role as head trainer for Michael Hunter, a fast rising heavyweight who will face Alexander Povetkin in the co-feature. All week, Rahman has been a lightning rod for interviews. Some have been about Hunter. More have been about Ruiz. But while many have drawn parallels between Rahman’s fight with Lewis and Ruiz’s rematch with Joshua, Rahman sees them very differently.
“[Ruiz] knows Joshua—there is no secret to what Joshua is going to do,” Rahman said. “Social media and everything, the secret is out. He’s going to stay away and try to box him. I had no idea what kind of adjustments Lennox was going to make. Ruiz knows.”
So … does he think Ruiz wins?
“I think he’s the favorite,” Rahman said. “If Joshua wins it will be a boring, [Wladimir] Klitschko type of fight.”
Perhaps. But there is no outcome of this fight that’s implausible. Ruiz could outbox Joshua. Joshua could outbox Ruiz. Joshua could flatten Ruiz, extracting a Lewis-like punishment. Ruiz could knock Joshua out again.
Some of that will be dictated by Joshua. But plenty of it will fall on Ruiz. Ruiz says he wants to put pressure on Joshua. To make him fight backing up. He has trained to fight low, to force the taller Joshua to punch at awkward angles. Robles says a lot about Ruiz is mental, to get him to believe in himself, to get “the best Andy Ruiz we possibly could.”
“The most important thing is that he's been able to stay grounded and stay focused, and he's still hungry,” Robles said. “We've worked extremely hard for this fight, and you're going to see that come Saturday night.”
We’ll see. Every fighter declares that he is ready. Not every fighter is. Ruiz doesn’t look like a heavyweight champion, but he performed like one last June. To really be a heavyweight champion, he will have to do it again.