As a boxing fan that’s been fortunate enough to attend his share of marquee matchups over the years, I can say that I’ve been in the building for some pretty big moments.
I was there the night Roy Jones Jr. became the first former middleweight champion to capture a heavyweight strap in more than a century. I was there the night Floyd Mayweather outpointed Oscar De La Hoya in the so-called “Fight to Save Boxing,” a blockbuster that, at the time, ranked as the most lucrative boxing match ever, with over USD $130 million in generated revenue. I was there the night the great Manny Pacquiao scored a thrilling 12th-round technical knockout of Miguel Cotto, winning his seventh title in seven weight divisions, a first in boxing history.
It’s been a good run. But one thing I still had yet to experience was seeing the heavyweight championship of the world contested at the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York City — the most famous arena on the planet and site of so many seminal heavyweight summit meetings, from Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier and beyond. And believe me, big moments could get no bigger than that. (Literally. Have you seen the size of these guys?!)
That all changed on Saturday, June 1, when I descended upon the Big Apple to witness Britsh superstar and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Anthony Joshua defend his WBA, IBF, IBO and WBO heavyweight belts against late substitute Andy Ruiz. Broadcast on DAZN, the nascent live sports streaming service which has vowed to change the boxing business and seems off to a blazing start, it was Joshua’s U.S. debut.
The plan? For AJ, the biggest star in world boxing, a 6’6 physical specimen with a megawatt smile and the body of an Adonis, who routinely fills stadiums with 90,000 paying spectators back home, to build up his appeal across the pond by scoring an impressive and expected victory over the massive underdog. Also, to further state his case why he was the A-side in a potential superfight against WBC heavyweight titlist, American Deontay Wilder.
At least 10,000 deafening Brits flew over to cheer their man on, transforming a sold-out Garden into something resembling a raucous UEFA Champions League soccer match. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. There was a palpable buzz. It was everything I imagined it would be. All that was left was for AJ to get in that damn ring and take care of business.
Then the bell rang. Apparently, nobody told Andy Ruiz he was there to lose. Ruiz got up from a third round knockdown to put AJ on his butt twice before the end of that same stanza, then twice more in the seventh to end matters.
That’s boxing for you and why they fight the fights. It’s called the theatre of the unexpected for a reason. One punch can change everything, especially with the big boys. But, believe it or not, Ruiz’s Cinderella story actually wasn’t the most impressive thing I saw that night. No, that would be what transpired almost immediately after, when AJ gave his post-fight interview.
“Heavyweight boxing, baby,” he said, when asked about the fight. “Thank you to the people who came out this evening. Heavyweight boxing is on fire. I just have to turn it around a few notches and bring it back my way. This will show I have the power and the strength.”
“It’s all the same,” he said, when asked the difference between this and other times he’d been down or hurt in previous bouts. “It just wasn’t my night. But listen, it is good for the TV. Good for DAZN and the people watching.”
“I don’t do his job,” he said, when asked whether or not he agreed with the ref’s stoppage. “I am never one of those fighters to disrespect a referee like he should have done this, or he should have done that. He called it off when he thought I couldn’t fight. It’s a shame. But I don’t want anyone to drown in their sorrows. It’s the long game, not the short game.”
Here was Anthony Joshua’s opportunity to make excuses, like so many other proud prizefighters who suffered shocking upset losses to unheralded opponents and their reputations take a huge hit. When it happened to Mike Tyson against Buster Douglas, it was a slow count that cost him the victory. When it happened to Lennox Lewis against Hasim Rahman, it’s because he was distracted filming a freakin’ cameo in Ocean’s Eleven.
And did AJ take that same opportunity? Nope.
Heck, even with rumours leaking out in the days since that AJ had been knocked out in sparring a couple weeks before the fight, that his team wanted to postpone so he could recover and that he suffered a panic attack in his dressing room before hitting the ring, he still refuses to take the easy way out.
“There have been a lot of accusations and worries about what was wrong with me,” AJ shared in a video message to his fans. “I want to tell you this: I am a soldier and I have to take my ups and my downs, and on Saturday I took a loss. I have to take my loss like a man; no blaming anyone, no blaming anything. I’m the one who went in there to perform and my performance didn’t go to plan. I have to readjust, analyze, do my best to correct it and get the job done in the rematch.”
“Never let success get to your head, and never let your failures get to your heart.”
Class — you can’t buy it, you can’t steal it, you can’t borrow it. You either got it or you don’t. And AJ has it, man.
So, yeah, I can now say that I saw the heavyweight championship of the world contested at Madison Square Garden. I can also now say I was there the night one of the biggest upsets of all-time took place. But when I look back on this evening for the ages, neither of those will stand as the much-ballyhooed “big moment” I’ve been talking about. No, Anthony Joshua and the character, humility and eloquence he showed in defeat lay claim to that honour.
Boxing is lucky to have him.