He might be £70 million richer, a stone lighter, and far too deferential to his Saudi paymasters for comfort, but ultimately, all that matters to Anthony Joshua is that he is once again the heavyweight champion of the world. With a boxing display full of the guile and calculation that had deserted him in New York six months earlier, he wrested back his four belts from the fleshy midriff of Andy Ruiz and signalled a renewed appetite to dominate this sport’s most brutal division.
It would be a stretch to accuse Joshua of running scared in this fight, but the “Clash of the Dunes”, far from being the thunderous collision that many had envisaged, was a study in the wariness and restraint that Joshua had learned from his first humbling by Ruiz. Determined that he would not make the same mistakes for the encore, he showed off his newly-acquired mastery of defence, never wasting a shot and fending off everything that Ruiz had to throw at him.
True to a pre-fight promise, Joshua refused to celebrate wildly, instead settling for a smile of quiet vindication. The margin of victory on the cards, with two judges scoring in his favour 118-110 and the other 119-109, by no means flattered him. The intention in Ruiz’s camp is to extend this rivalry into a trilogy, but it is an invitation that Joshua, who more than doubled his net worth in 36 one-sided minutes, can afford to resist. He underlined here that his shock defeat six months ago, the only blemish of his professional career, was an aberration that should never have happened.
In many ways, this was a night of the unfamiliar. Not only did it feel jarring to be holding this spectacle in the heart of the Arabian desert, and at the behest of the Saudi regime, but for much of the evening a steady rain fell across this arid landscape. Riyadh receives an average annual rainfall of only four inches, most of it falling on Eddie Hearn’s parade. Perhaps, given the furore over the promoter’s grasping decision to bring the rematch here, it was a form of divine retribution.
Joshua reflected on his work as a masterclass in efficiency. “I’m used to knocking guys out, but the last time, I got caught coming in,” he said. “The sweet science of this sport is about hitting and not getting hit. Stay hungry, stay humble.” Such modesty did him credit, although his treacly praise in the aftermath for Saudi Arabia was more difficult to stomach.
Ruiz’s entourage had suggested that their man’s dramatic weight gain had all been a careful ploy to overwhelm a slimmed-down Joshua. The evidence showed it was nothing of the kind: where Joshua was lithe and limber, Ruiz looked a ponderous shadow of his former self, confirming fears that the win of his life had led him to overindulge. “Next time I’m going to get a bit more prepared,” he shrugged. “Joshua did a hell of a job.”
Joshua cut Ruiz in the first round, blood trickling from above the Mexican-American’s left eye after he connected with a crisp right hand. The plan devised by trainer Rob McCracken was reaping early reward, as he waited for the right moment to unleash his destructive power. But the problem that Ruiz presents is his ability to absorb the most fearful punishment, before striking back with his own bombardment. So it proved as he tried to draw Joshua in, clashing heads with his opponent to give him a matching war wound.
Unlike at Madison Square Garden, Joshua was undaunted by the impact. He looked lighter on his feet, sensibly staying beyond Ruiz’s reach and resisting any crazy swinging. At the start of each round, Ruiz was bounding in, looking to administer the decisive blow, but still Joshua refused to become wrapped up in bruising exchanges. Whatever tactic Ruiz tried – be it a quickfire sequence of jabs, or a few sweeping rights – Joshua had an answer, at one point sticking his tongue out at the champion to show that he was in the ascendant.
Only briefly did this escalate into a brawl, as Ruiz unsettled his man with some crafty strikes to the back of the head, but Joshua knew by the seventh that he was ahead on points. It was increasingly evident that Ruiz would only take glory with a knockout punch, but Joshua, who has spent months selecting sparring partners who would mirror his stocky adversary’s style, ensured that there was no way through.
With Ruiz becoming desperate, Joshua, a model of wisdom on the night, knew that he needed only to see out the rounds to seal a decisive victory. Ruiz sensed it as the clock ticked down, beckoning Joshua to trade at close quarters. Joshua just grinned in response, aware that the strategy to shut Ruiz down had worked better than anyone had dared hope. As the judges confirmed the inevitable, Hearn crowed that his boxer had been written off. It was nonsense, of course: Joshua has long confirmed that be belongs on top of the world. And after this exhibition of his more clinical side, one suspects he is there to stay.