Every now and then, boxing fights its way back into the crowded sports headlines and Saturday was one of those moments.
Little-known Andy Ruiz Jr. gave sports fans a new Rocky moment. The 29-year-old fighter beat the favored and previously undefeated Anthony Joshua at Madison Square Garden in New York, and became the heavyweight champion of the world.
Or, to be specific, Ruiz became the champion of the confusing, alphabet soup world of boxing – he’s now the top heavyweight in the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO fight-sanctioning bodies.
Ruiz also is the first heavyweight champion of Mexican descent.
And when we say heavyweight – we mean it.
Ruiz stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs a shade under 270 pounds. His flab is evident – he can’t hide the fact, wearing boxing trunks, nor does he try. Pre-fight, he had a warning for Joshua – “don’t underestimate this little fat boy.”
Whether or not Joshua did, it became evident in the fight’s third round that he indeed had a fight on his hands. He knocked down Ruiz, and looked well on his way to another win. But stunningly, Ruiz came back in that same round and knocked down Joshua. Not once but twice. As Joshua got up after the second knockdown, the bell rang. Many believe that saved Joshua from an earlier defeat.
As it was, Ruiz scored two more knockdowns in the seventh, and the referee called the fight. Ruiz was the champion by technical knockout.
“It doesn’t matter what you look like or what kind of physique you have,” veteran boxing writer Nigel Collins told NPR. “The most important thing is knowing how to fight.”
Collins, a staff writer for ESPN, said Ruiz cut off the ring perfectly against Joshua — meaning Ruiz didn’t chase after Joshua, but instead moved to where Joshua wanted to go.
“That’s a skill,” Collins said, “that involves a lot of lateral movement. You don’t want to follow the guy because he’ll always be one step ahead of you. You move laterally so you’re still right in front of him without following him.
“Some fighters do a lot of stuff that uses up energy that’s not really accomplishing anything. [Ruiz], no. Every move he made, he knew what he was doing.”
Regarding Ruiz’s sizeable girth, Collins said he saw a video of Ruiz doing agility drills.
“And he was doing it great, like a ballet dancer,” Collins said.
A 2015 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Collins has witnessed other boxers who, shall we say, were less than sculpted.
“We want to talk about fat fighters,” Collins said, “how about George Foreman when he came back? You know, he was making cheeseburger jokes at press conferences and he had this big gut on him and he ended up winning the heavyweight championship 10 years after he retired.”
Foreman had cheeseburgers; Ruiz has Snickers bars. They have been his candy of choice since he was a kid. His dad, who introduced him to boxing, also introduced him to Snickers.
“My dad would always give me a Snickers before a fight,” Ruiz said. “It gives me energy. It give me everything I need to get the win.”
With Saturday’s win, Ruiz turned the boxing world upside down. Reactions on Twitter included disparaging words for Joshua, a champion from England. He’s been criticized for not fighting other top heavyweights, such as Deontay Wilder.
Wilder tweeted: “He wasn’t a true champion.”
And this from Shannon Sharpe, former NFL star turned co-host of Fox’s sports talk show Skip and Shannon: Undisputed: “Joshua got knocked out by a dude shaped like Butterbean.”
But mostly there was praise for Ruiz, who only qualified for the fight after Joshua’s original opponent failed several drug tests.
Boxing is incredibly popular in Hispanic culture. Boxing experts say the growth of that demographic in the United States has saved the sport here. And Ruiz’s triumph only adds to that.
“There are a lot of good Mexican boxers,” said 15-year-old Mexican-American Trinidad Vargas. “I’m proud of that, to be able to relate to them. [Ruiz] is pretty inspiring.”
Vargas was speaking to NPR from the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, where he’s taking part in a boxing training camp. He’s one of this country’s up-and-coming fighters. He watched Ruiz win on Saturday and says beyond their similar heritage, they have similarities in size. Not weight, certainly. Vargas weighs only about 110 pounds. But at 5 feet, 5 inches, he’s small, just as Ruiz is relatively short for the heavyweight division. Vargas said he appreciates how Ruiz worked against the taller Joshua, and actually mimicked the tactics in his own fighting.
“I kind of did that today,” Vargas said, “because I had to spar a tall fighter and it worked pretty well with the double jabs, coming in [with] over the top [punches].”
Vargas said one of his best skills is copying styles of great fighters like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Canelo Alvarez and Gervonta Davis.
He said he’ll keep copying Andy Ruiz, although only with boxing technique.
“I plan to stay light and cut,” Vargas laughed.