PHOTOS BY: HASSAN AMMAR [ASSOCIATED PRESS] ; MARK ROBINSON [MATCHROOM BOXING] ; RICHARD HEATHCOTE [GETTY IMAGES]

In trading muscle mass for muscle memory ⁠— and more for less ⁠— the hulking British heavyweight cut a visibly leaner figure for his blockbuster rematch with Andy Ruiz. Was his dramatic physical transformation successful?

Don’t judge a man by the flab on his abs. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Andy Ruiz Jr.’s improbable conquest of Anthony Joshua six months ago inside the hallowed walls of Madison Square Garden, as NFL Hall of Famer Michael Strahan so frankly opined in DAZN’s new One Night: Joshua vs. Ruiz documentary, it’s that.

Whether you follow the sport of boxing or not, you’ve surely heard this story by now: 

Undefeated heavyweight champion, sculpted as if straight out of central casting, takes on 268-pound underdog whose proportions mirror the Pillsbury Doughboy. Few give paunchy underdog any chance. A Cinderella story for the ages then proceeds to unfold as underdog drops and stops chiselled champion in surreal fashion. The world wonders how in the hell what just happened, happened.

It was less of your typical David toppling Goliath scenario, and a sequence of events more akin to Homer Simpson being thrown to the wolves against the fearsome Drederick Tatum, only imagine the beer-bellied patriarch of television’s favourite cartoon family somehow coming out victorious. 

(Note: Boxing aficionados realize this unflattering comparison shortchanges Ruiz’s ability, but for casual fans, the perception was reality.)

It will be forever recalled as the upset that launched a thousand memes, prompting perplexed observers like Strahan to jokingly ponder if the portly Ruiz’s surprise win would immediately kill all the memberships at all the gyms around the country.

Was it a fluke? The rematch, which took place mere days ago from the Diriyah Arena in Saudi Arabia, promised to answer that most conspicuous of questions. But, over the course of the buildup to this blockbuster sequel, an unexpected plot twist arose to complicate matters: the much-ballyhooed subject of physique turning from punchline to storyline.

You see, we’d been paying attention to the wrong guy’s body all along.

— MORE ‘INCREDIBLE HULK’ THAN ‘RAGING BULL’

It’s been theorized that if you went into a lab to create a heavyweight champion, Anthony Joshua would probably be what came out. The British-born bomber stands at a statuesque 6’6” and looks like he was carved from granite. He’s ripped. He’s rangy. He’s fluid offensively. He packs dynamite in his gloves. When he gets knocked down, he gets back up.

“[He’s] an unbelievable physical specimen,” gushed Sylvester Stallone throughout the aforementioned DAZN feature.

Except here’s the catch: though the bevy of brawny, broad-shouldered builds so famously glamourized in Stallone’s own Rocky films might convince you otherwise, a muscle-bound body doesn’t necessarily make you a better fighter.

Boxing relies on combustible and reactive strength. Muscle bulk tends to inhibit a boxer’s flexibility, agility and speed. Likewise, a pugilist could have all the hallmarks of a Herculean beast, but those fibrous tissues need oxygen. Lots of it. Think of a Ford Mustang Bullitt, which might go faster and look prettier than a Toyota Prius, but requires more gas. But the Prius? It can go on and on and on.

The warning signs were certainly there for Joshua, an Olympic gold medallist that turned pro in 2013 at 230 pounds, and has weighed as low as 229 and as high as 254. No less an authority than Freddie Roach had begun to spot them a couple years ago. 

“Ever since he fought [Wladimir] Klitschko, he’s been going downhill a little bit. A lot more muscle. He looks really good and so forth, but I think he has trouble carrying that muscle and he’s been fatigued in his last couple of fights,” the esteemed trainer of Manny Pacquiao told Fight Hub TV weeks after the Ruiz catastrophe. 

“He’s been getting tired before the end and I don’t think muscles make fighters. ‘Oh, he has big biceps, so he must punch hard?’ Give me a break!”

But what’s the old saying? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Despite what Roach and others had viewed as a series of foreboding performances, the naturally gifted Joshua continued to have his hand raised over high-level opposition.

Then came the initial Ruiz showdown, scheduled on short notice thanks to original foe Jarrell Miller flunking not one, not two, but three drug tests. And Joshua, a clean athlete who had been muscling up even further to put a dent in the 300-plus-pound Miller, a man-mountain in his own right, ended up hitting the scales at a jacked 247 pounds.

On fight night, it rendered him a slow, stiff and spent force that was positively unable to pirouette away from Ruiz’s incoming blitz and rapid-fire combinations, especially after he was concussed by an equilibrium blow in the third round. By the seventh stanza, he had been shockingly hammered into submission.

Yes, in entering the squared circle looking more ‘Incredible Hulk’ than ‘Raging Bull,’ it may have done as much to cost Joshua the contest as anything the remarkably quick-fisted challenger he underestimated did.

— ALL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REPEAT OR REVENGE

Before the ink on the contract for last weekend’s insanely lucrative rematch with Ruiz was dry, a common consensus formed that Joshua would need to address the burdensome muscle bulk to have any success his next time at bat, for it could make all the difference between repeat or revenge.

If footage of Joshua hard at work in camp was any indication, he received the message loud and clear.

Beyond an increased emphasis on the kind of bodyweight resistance training that can be translated in the ring — think squats for a stronger base or plyometric jumps for explosiveness — there appeared to be a superior commitment to shadow-boxing, sparring and basic boxing drills. And, in opting to train for generating maximum power through mostly core and rotational exercises, he’d seemingly left the weight room behind.

All told, a greater priority had been placed on enhancing muscle memory, not cultivating plain old muscle. This was critical. After all, in boxing, developing muscle memory not only sharpens reflexes, but can help take the thinking element out of the equation.

Joshua was cutting a visibly leaner figure ahead of the rematch as a result — and for good reason. Built through high repetitions and low loads, it was lean muscle definition, not muscle mass, that could support both the offensive and defensive tactics he’d no doubt aim to employ against Ruiz when they renewed acquaintances. To that end, he claimed the muscle trimming had all been part of a blueprint to concentrate on his boxing.

“Nothing else was more important to me in these three months than sharpening the tools that I left out of the box, rather than just coming in strong and fit,” Joshua explained to a group of reporters at a pre-fight media gathering, each one as stunned as the next at the sight of his svelter shape.

“You would’ve known if I’d have just been working on the same things, but you noticed a change because I’ve been working on certain aspects.”

— COULD THE BULL BE CHANGED INTO A RACEHORSE?

The prevailing belief was that Joshua, who ended up tipping the scales 11 pounds lighter than he did in June, was making himself leaner and meaner to utilize a lot more movement against the ever-charging Ruiz. 

For those who still require Rocky Balboa as a reference point, it was like the Italian Stallion shedding unwanted poundage in Rocky III to be slicker and sleeker for his return bout against Clubber Lang, who had steamrolled him the first time around, much like Ruiz did Joshua. But could the bull be changed into a racehorse in real life? 

Tyson Fury didn’t think so. The heavyweight division’s lineal kingpin — no stranger to dramatic physical transformations, having dropped from over 400 pounds to 256 in under a year — believed that by slimming down from his usual muscular form, Joshua was making a massive mistake.

“A racehorse can’t tow a wagon or a heavy load. Doesn’t work,” he told BT Sport in September. “So, if you take that big heavy horse, strip his muscle off and then put him in the same cart he was in trying to pull that heavy load again, he’s not going to manage it.”

Fury understood Joshua’s strategy, but had reckoned his long-time domestic rival would be better served to focus on his positives instead, as well as fixing the gaps in his defence. Jabbing and boxing and moving, Fury warned, was a very hard thing for a heavyweight to pull off. It’s also something he’d yet to witness Joshua do for 12 full rounds as an amateur or pro, and not a skill he felt he could just learn overnight.

“What tends to happen with new things in new camps is when someone practices something in the gym for eight, ten, twelve weeks, and then they go in a fight and try to do it, as soon as they get clipped or get tired, they revert straight back to what they once knew,” Fury carried on. “I’ve seen it many, many times.”

Similarly, in the interviews he’d given to the press, Ruiz had seconded Fury’s assessment about Joshua, particularly that last part. 

“He looks a little slimmer, but I don’t think that’s going to do anything different. You can do whatever you want outside of the ring, but inside of the ring when it’s fight time, like Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until you get hit.”

— LOOKING THE PART AND BEING THE PART

Floyd Patterson. Muhammad Ali. Lennox Lewis. Besides ranking among the most legendary names in boxing lore, each of these iconic big boys had something special in common: in the 127-year history of the sport, they were the only three men to regain the heavyweight championship in an immediate rematch.

That was prior to December 7th. By decisively dominating an even-girthier Ruiz in their follow-up, sticking and moving and controlling distance from the first bell to the last, Joshua became just the fourth.

Rather than engage in another epic slugfest, he remained calculated in patiently peppering Ruiz from the outside. Rather than default to his straight-up, come-forward style whenever Ruiz tagged him with cuffing shots, he stayed on his bicycle and resisted the temptation to trade fire with fire. And rather than exhaust himself through attempting something he never had before, Joshua barely took a deep breath in effortlessly circling the ring on his toes.

While to plug him in the same rarified category as Patterson, Ali and Lewis off the back of this triumph alone would be wildly premature, what shouldn’t be argued is that in completely dedicating himself to achieving boxing’s equivalent to a hardware (physique) and software (technique) upgrade, Joshua again proved that in the sweet science, looking the part and being the part don’t always align. Boxing isn’t a cosmetic competition.

In other words, one of the keys to effective boxing training at the elite heavyweight echelon isn’t making sure you simply have the muscles, but understanding how those muscles are used and being able to decide how to prepare them to best fit their purpose.

But for all this talk of muscle and muscle memory, perhaps what Joshua ultimately demonstrated above all was the sheer capability of the mightiest element in the body: the mind.

Remember, he wasn’t just beaten by Ruiz at Madison Square Garden, he was humiliated. A demoralizing loss like that has broken greater and more established fighters as much mentally as physically. To be able to bounce back in a soul-searching six-month span is a testament to what unyielding self-confidence can do. Especially in boxing.

What’s more, for someone who first laced the gloves at the advanced age of 18 and made it as far as Joshua did with such limited amateur experience, and was virtually written off as being a finished product before he ever truly developed, to perform in such a disciplined and previously unfathomable fashion — something the likes of Ruiz, Tyson Fury and innumerable experts dismissed as a pipe dream — well, it’s practically unheard of.

“It’s all about preparations. Careers are all about experience, I took my L and moved on,” Joshua proudly proclaimed in his post-fight remarks. “What did you want me to do? Give up?” 

“The first time was so nice — I had to do it twice!”

Indeed. And though he may have been referring to becoming a two-time titlist, one can only hope he brings that same mentality to his next training camp and the many that follow, and that we continue to see an Anthony Joshua who resembles a boxer, not a bodybuilder; an Anthony Joshua who both looks the part and is the part.

If that proves to be the case, then his reinvention may have only just begun.