Anthony Joshua, Andy Ruiz and the Fierce Jab of Emotions

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DIRIYAH, Saudi Arabia — Depending on who you were—Anthony Joshua or Andy Ruiz, Eddie Hearn or Manny Robles—inside the ring on Saturday night, with specially made placards commemorating the Ruiz-Joshua rematch raining down like confetti, your emotions ran the gamut.

For Joshua, ecstasy. Last June, Joshua lost. He was humiliated, knocked down four times in what was supposed to be a showcase fight against Ruiz in his U.S. debut. He was publicly humiliated, with social media tattooing him as a quitter and peers dissecting his performance. He was encouraged to fire his trainer, change his camp, even pass on an immediate rematch in favor of a few softer touches to rebuild his confidence.

He didn’t do any of it. His chief strategist, Rob McCracken, whose history with Joshua dates back to his amateur days. McCracken served up a perfect game plan, a jab-filled strategy that saw Joshua hammer Ruiz from the outside while never giving Ruiz a stationary target to load up on. His camp was flawless. Joshua dropped nearly 11 pounds since the last fight, allowing him to be a more mobile, agile fighter. And against a fighter some believed had his number, Joshua put on a boxing clinic.

“I can knock people out when I want to and I can box when I want to,” Joshua said. Tonight was just about winning and trusting my process. I know maybe I could have done more at times. But sometimes simplicity is genius. And that was the motto. Keep it simple because it is going to lead to a genius performance. Every time I step in the ring … if I’m prepared, no one can beat me.”

For Ruiz, disappointment. For months, we wondered: Was Ruiz Buster Douglas 2.0? The signs were there. In 1990, Douglas, in his first fight since upsetting Mike Tyson, tipped the scales 15 pounds heavier for a title defense against Evander Holyfield. On Friday, Ruiz weighed in 15.7 pounds thicker than he did in June. The weight clearly saddled Ruiz, never the most mobile big man, who was unable to deal with Joshua’s movement. In the final 30 seconds, Ruiz stood in the center of the ring, waving Joshua in, daring him to trade. Joshua, knowing he was up on the scorecards, could only laugh.

“I should have trained harder,” Ruiz said. “I should have listened to my coaches more. Maybe I shouldn’t have put on all this weight. I would have been faster and I would have thrown more. I had him hurt a few times and I let him survive. I should have pressured him more. It’s not an excuse, but the weight. I weighed in too heavy. There’s no excuse besides me not training hard.”

Inside Ruiz’s locker room after, Robles and Ruiz’s father, Andy Sr., admonished Ruiz. You should have listened, they said. You shouldn’t have put on all this weight. “I kind of tried to do the training on my own,” Ruiz said. At the postfight press conference, Ruiz draped an arm around Robles and apologized. Robles, visibly frustrated, looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.

“As a coach, you have to be with your fighter 100%,” Robles said. “I’m not the first coach and Andy’s not the first fighter where situations happen in camp. I’m there for him, through good and bad, thick and thin. I have to apologize to him too, because this is a team effort … I’m right here, sitting next to him so he knows I have his back. I’m with my fighters 100%.”

Long after the final bell, Joshua remained in the ring, shaking hands, taking pictures, soaking in the moment. Hearn was with him. As much as Joshua had at stake, Hearn did, too. Joshua is Matchroom’s tentpole fighter. A loss would have put him on a long path to rebuild, or even retirement. A win restores Joshua to the ranks of the heavyweight elite and reignites talk of Joshua facing the winner of the rematch between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, slated for early next year.

Hearn, though, says Joshua won’t be chasing them anymore.

“He’s been chasing them for years,” Hearn said. “It will happen. Maybe [Wilder] was right to walk away from the fight. It’s worth a lot more now than it was back then. But [Joshua] just wants the legacy. He created a legacy here in Saudi Arabia. This isn’t a guy that goes in selling seven or eight thousand tickets. This is a guy that is selling football stadiums, 80 or 90 thousand tickets. Madison Square Garden, completely sold out. Saudi Arabia, completely sold out. This is a guy that is transforming boxing. These other guys can’t lace his boots like that. And he’s going to get better and better. He’s 24 fights in—the best is yet to come.”

What’s unlikely to come is a third fight with Ruiz, at least not in the near future. Ruiz clamored for it repeatedly after the fight, but his performance in the rematch will close that door quickly. With his belts back, Joshua must now deal with the mandatory challenges. The IBF, which has installed Top Rank promoted Kubrat Pulev as its top contender, says Joshua must face Pulev by next May while the WBO announced that Joshua has 180 days to face its mandatory challenger, former cruiserweight kingpin Oleksandyr Usyk. Hearn wouldn’t commit to any course of action, though a likely scenario is for Joshua to accept the IBF challenge and seek a waiver from the WBO. Even if Joshua is forced to drop the WBO belt, Usyk is promoted by Hearn—making it easy to create an opportunity to get it back.

And Wilder? Fury? Standing in the ring, Joshua appeared resigned to the reality a unification fight was a long way off.

“What can I say?” Joshua said. “I’ve been speaking about these guys for a long time. You can see this time, when I had this opportunity to focus on Andy, my head was in the right place. So when Wilder and Fury are really, really ready, they will make the call. But until then, I respect what they are doing and I am not going to continue to call these guys out. I’m making my own history in my own lane. If they want to come and be part of that—look at what happened to Andy when he beat me the first time. He created his own legacy. If these guys want to create a legacy, I’m here, I’m ready to fight anyone.”