On October 18th, 1991 undefeated gold medalist Ray Mercer demolished undefeated WBO heavyweight title holder Tommy Morrison in the 5th round in Atlantic City. I was ringside. For the better part of the bout Morrison was beating on Mercer and hitting him so hard Ray said he was breaking wind after a few of the punches Morrison caught him with. Then Morrison tired and Mercer released a furious assault that had Morrison hanging in between the ropes taking the kind of shots that Emile Griffith unintentionally killed Bennie “Kid” Paret with before he was waved off by referee Tony Perez.
Roughly four and a half years later on March 20th, 1996 in Atlantic City an undefeated wrecking machine named David Tua brutalized and stopped future title holder John Ruiz in 19 seconds on a card titled “Night of the Young Heavyweights.” It was one of the most devastating knockouts in heavyweight history and like Morrison-Mercer I was ringside for that one too.
Having witnessed both Morrison and Ruiz get stopped in such a spectacular fashion, I was convinced they'd never recover psychologically nor be a championship caliber fighter ever again. However, Morrison fought 24 more times and Ruiz fought 28 more times – and both went onto win a version of the title.
Moreover and perhaps more impressively than winning the title, both Morrison and Ruiz never once entered the ring with trepidation or fought to hide their chin while trying to win. Neither were the least bit affected nor feared engaging and letting their hands go in their subsequent fights. And to this day they don't get nearly the credit they should for the depth of their character as fighters. No, neither were all time greats, but they were as tough psychologically as any fighter whoever held that title.
On June 1st undefeated and unified heavyweight title holder Anthony Joshua was stopped in the 7th round by once beaten Andy Ruiz in a stunning upset at Madison Square Garden. Prior to the bout Joshua was being groomed for a showdown with WBC titlist Deontay Wilder which would've been the richest fight in heavyweight history……now that's most likely gone forever and not just because AJ is no longer undefeated.
The issue for Joshua is, can he get back on track again to even be considered a threat to Wilder after the setback against Ruiz?
During the Ruiz bout, Joshua dropped Ruiz in the third round with a left hook. Ruiz got up and came back to drop AJ twice in the round and twice more in the seventh leading to the fight being stopped. The difference between Ruiz and Joshua when they were dropped was……Ruiz felt as if he had nothing to lose and went at Joshua with little concern about losing because he wasn't supposed to win. Conversely, when AJ got up from being knocked down he tried to con Ruiz, looking to slip and block his shots, and fought not to engage because he had a lot to lose and no longer believed he was invincible as a fighter. Ruiz quickly picked up on that and began putting more pressure on AJ, believing that he'd eventually break him–and he did.
The hard truth is, Joshua seemed to regress after beating Wladimir Klitschko and solidifying himself as the fighter to beat in the division. It seems AJ fought with much more urgency pre-Klitschko, even getting up off the deck to win and a few years before that weathered a brief close call from Dillian Whyte and rallied to stop him. But after Klitschko he took less risk, relied more on his jab and as long as his opponents didn't try to really beat him, he was complicit and left them alone. Had the pre-Klitschko version of AJ fought Joseph Parker, I doubt Joe would've gone the distance with him.
The post-Ruiz Joshua has to fight himself more than any opponent he will face. Lennox Lewis was KO'd by one-punch twice but Emanuel Steward taught him how to fight big and hide his chin. Eventually his confidence returned and he engaged with all the big punchers he fought. Wladimir Klitschko also learned how to utilize his physical attributes from Steward after being brutally stopped and had a ten-year undefeated run at the top. But he never fully engaged with a dangerous opponent and judiciously picked his spots to let loose during a majority of his bouts after being stopped a few times. However, neither Lewis nor Klitschko totally blocked out the stoppage defeats they suffered to the degree that Morrison and John Ruiz did. And unfortunately for Joshua, Emanuel Steward has passed on.
Right now Anthony Joshua has a mountain of self-doubt to overcome regardless of what he says or projects. The two fighters that hurt and dropped him, Klitschko and Ruiz, both did so after he dumped them first, translating into him fearing how he fights when he takes the initiative, resulting in him being hurt and knocked down. Now he has to worry about his defense and his punch resistance…and that's a lot for a fighter, especially a heavyweight, to bring into the ring on fight night along with all the other pressure that accompanies the big events AJ's fights will be the next few times out.
Morrison and Ruiz brushed their setbacks off as a one-time thing and fought as if Ray Mercer and David Tua were not a part of their history. In order for Joshua to have a chance to beat Andy Ruiz in the rematch, let alone Wilder if he ever makes it that far, he somehow must channel an inner Morrison/Ruiz…and that doesn't look good.
Once Ruiz put AJ down, it was obvious that he lost confidence, his potential fear became a reality and he only wanted to fight from a distance in which he felt safe and held the advantage… but Ruiz wouldn't allow it. And once a fighter grasps that his opponent is fighting to survive and is leery of exchanging, he'll pick it up and make him fight out of fear, knowing that he'll get to his less confident opponent.
Anthony Joshua used to believe he was the next Lennox Lewis and perhaps even better. Then Klitschko dropped him and he had second thoughts and fought like he was hiding something and never looked that good again aside for his finish of Alexander Povetkin prior to fighting Ruiz. And now after being stopped and dropped four times by Ruiz, it's hard to envision him ever again fighting like the pre-Klitschko version because that guy is most likely gone forever.
For argument sake, let’s say AJ starches Ruiz in the first round of the rematch – what does that mean? We already knew he could punch. What does knocking out Ruiz, if he in fact does which is certainly not a given, do for him against Wilder? If Wilder ever fights Joshua, is there any doubt Deontay enters the ring as the alpha and Joshua is concerned about his right hand. Wilder has total belief in his right hand and that would be two or three fold against AJ, who he believes he can knock out. Whereas Joshua goes into the ring thinking Ruiz's hooks and right hands discombobulated him, what will Wilder do? Therefore it makes it impossible to make a case for Joshua ever beating Wilder psychologically unless Deontay gets stretched before they fight.
In order for Joshua to ever beat Wilder in light of the Ruiz fight, he'd have to show he's made up of the same things as Morrison and John Ruiz, and it would still be a reach at that. And the odds of Joshua showing the grittiness of Morrison and Ruiz are very slim. It's a short list of heavyweights who came back unfazed after a brutal knockout. Yes, Joe Louis did so against Max Schmeling, but Louis was one of the greatest of the greats!
The final chapter on Anthony Joshua hasn't been written yet, and we need to see a couple more fights of his to see if he's spooked forever, but history is not on his side. The inner fight he'll be having with himself is far scarier than Wilder or Ruiz. If he bounces back, his name will be added to a very short list of fighters who have.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at [email protected]