Jack Johnson over Tommy Burns, Gene Tunney over Jack Dempsey, Jim Braddock over Max Bear, Cassius Clay over Sonny Liston, Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson and Hassim Rhaman over Lennox Lewis. Heavyweight upsets, despite their relative frequency, still remain high in the cultural zeitgeist of the sporting world. On the 1st of June this year a shock as potent as any of these occurred as Andy Ruiz Jr stopped reigning champion Anthony Joshua inside of 7 rounds. As always in boxing, the build-up has been shrouded with political, legal and promotional intrigue but this to me is not what interests me about this rematch. What I find interesting is the historical impact and precedents that will shadow these two modern champions into the ring.
The heavyweight championship of the world, first awarded to John L Sullivan in the 1880s has been contested in rematches only a handful of times, in this article, I will examine three of these and use them to see how Anthony Joshua should react to his upset loss to Andy Ruiz. First, we need to understand the scenario, the nature of the first fight and then from this see where there is a comparison in history. So firstly we had Joshua, a seemingly invincible champion with an enormously devoted fanbase. Defending his title on foreign soil every single sports writer and journalist believed he would retain his WBA, IBF, WBO, and IBO titles with relative ease. The spoiler came in the form of Andy Ruiz Jr, a huge underdog who was written off for a lack of experience at the top level, his terrible physique, and short training camp, Our two protagonists. Then there is the fight itself, the narrative, a thrilling back and forth fight where both were knocked down but ultimately Ruiz’s faster hands and ability to recover proved the decisive factor. So in order to find examples of what Joshua needs to do to win we need examples where there is a dominant champion who’s lost his belt to an underdog in emphatic fashion and then see how they sort to reclaim their crown.
The first example comes at the turn of the 1960s where reigning champion Floyd Patterson took on the unknown Swede, Ingemar Johansson. After winning the title against the old mongoose Archie Moore and defending it against contenders Hurricane Jackson, Pete Rademacher, Roy Harris, and Brian London, Patterson seemed invincible. Like AJ many at the time thought he was just waiting for the test to prove his greatness as these challengers weren’t top level, and a win over a Joahasson was just a tick over before he got a real tough test. The fight, however, was not as predicted, it started fast just like AJ-Ruiz and in the same fashion, the champion took first blood hurting Johansson with a leaping left. Then Johansson’s speed began to tell and he cracked Floyd in such a way that he was totally unable to recover despite being back on his feet. The third round of this fight seems identical to the 7th of AJ- Ruiz as Patterson is knocked down 7 times, this I’m sure would have happened to AJ had the fight not been stopped. In a Ruiz like fashion Johansson swarms and pounds the discombobulated champion until mercifully the fight is stopped. In this, we see some direct parallels to the fashion of the loss but the most important lessons came almost exactly a year later in the immediate rematch. This time around Patterson and his legendary coach Cus D’amato had changed everything. Patterson who had been heavy and slow on his feet was bouncing on the balls of his feet. Patterson whose shots had been wide and looping, where concise, tight straight. The power hooks were replaced by sharp jabs and the head on the chest was replaced by intelligent clinch work. Then when his game plan had tired and frustrated Johansson, neutralized his best assets then he reverted to type and unleashed his trademark leaping left hook and ended the fight in a KO which although not often mentioned is absolutely one of history’s most brutal. With this win, Patterson became the first man ever to regain the heavyweight championship of the world.
The two lessons here is absolutely clear for me and I think are absolutely applicable to AJ in his upcoming rematch; Gameplan and conditioning. I’m sure Rob McCracken, like Cus D’amato before him, is acutely aware of the need for a good game plan but sometimes with an unknown quantity like a Johansson or a Ruiz you can be taken by surprise at their skillset and the game plan ends up being lost in the fog of the battle. This time however team Aj has the experience to develop a specific gameplan, that will be similar to Pattersons (Jab, move, clinch, stay long) and stick to it for the duration of the contest. To do this however they will need the body to do this. Both champions came in too heavy, sluggish and slow, reliant on muscle and power to be able to beat their man. Floyd rectified this he came in light, mobile and ready to follow the game plan exactly, AJ must do the same to beat Ruiz.
The Next comparison some may find rather harder to contextualize given the career Ali went in to have, but I believe lessons in how not to rematch come from the two contests between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali. Like AJ, the champion Liston was a fearsome puncher and heavy favorite, while the tall skinny, loud-mouthed clay was seen as a novelty heavyweight, very much as the overweight Mexican Ruiz was before the fight. There is a famous clip of boxing writers being asked on the night of Liston v Clay 1 who they would win. They all pick Liston, and they all pick him inside of three rounds. Although this is hard to believe the man then named Cassius Clay had almost identical betting odds against him as Ruiz Jr had taking on AJ. We all know how this fight played out, Ali’s skillset froze Sonny in the ring, he was slow cumbersome and frustrated, ultimately quitting on his stool, at the beginning of the same round AJ was stopped in, round 7, like AJ in June he was thoroughly beaten, defeated and embarrassed in front of the public who believed in him so strongly.
The rematch was again immediate and if Liston hated Clay the first time out he utterly despised the newly Muslim Muhammad Ali. He, unlike Patterson, was heavier, determined to strong-arm Ali and knock him out early. He developed an obsession with the brash young fighter allowing his hatred for him and his desire to avenge his humiliating defeat to consume him and his preparations for the fight. This lead to his defense being leaky, his shots wide and ultimately his chin exposed for the now legendary anchor punch which knocked him down and out in the first round. The lesson AJ must learn is psychological. when you’re psychically dominant, a huge man who can fight brilliantly, a distinguished champion that knocks people out for fun you develop a bully’s mentality. Liston, a convicted felon was further down this path than AJ but the basic principle remains, when a bully is stood up too, he can either stop being a bully be humble and learn or he can continue to try and assert his masculinity and fight to the death remaining stubborn and resolute. Liston did the latter and paid for it with his conciseness. Joshua, for all his talk of humility with, have the bully inside him he has to contend with, and the lesson of Sonny Liston must show him that he must defeat this inner demon and focus his mind solely on the achieving of the goal. Andy Ruiz isn’t the target, the belts and the future are.
The final lesson comes from a man that AJ recently, foolishly, in my opinion, called a “clown”, Lennox Lewis. When it comes to the topic of shock defeats and comeback wins the mind always flicks to Lewis vs Hassim Rahman. Like AJ, Lennox was breaking in new horizons when he took on supposedly tick over opponent Rahman. Lewis had spent a lot of the build-up to the fight on a movie set in Las Vegas, filming Oceans Eleven where he has a mock fight against Wladimir Klitschko and his lack of training and his underestimation of Rahman had dulled his normally razor-sharp reflexes and his coming out party in South Africa became a nightmare. He raised his glove to block the oncoming shot but his judgment of distance was off and the shot cured around his defense and knocked him out clean. Like AJ the rematch was not as quick as initially hoped with Don king forcing Lewis and his then manager Frank Maloney to go to a new york court and have the fight ordered. in the rematch, Lewis was completely different. His dedication in the Kronk gym under Emanuel Steward was absolutely unprecedented and he lived by all accounts like a monk, watching hours of film and training constantly. He won the rematch with one of the all-time great heavyweight knockouts, a thunderous right hand which I’m sure Rahman still feels today. This dedication is the final lesson Anthony Joshua must learn before the 7th of December this year. Although he says he was dedicated last time out results in boxing never lie and whatever he did last time wasn’t enough. He must do better, he must work harder and longer, he must give his life to boxing with no distractions if he is going to vanquish Andy Ruiz.
Written by Ewan Breeze of Rebel Boxing, chief correspondent for SimBoxx👊🥊