In his classic work, The Fight, on the equally classic 1974 world heavyweight title clash between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Norman Mailer provides the best and most concise summation of what boxers experience in the ring — of how at a certain point seconds becomes minutes and minutes hours as fatigue enters at the same time belief exits.
‘Before fatigue brings boxers to the boiler rooms of the damned,’ Mailer writes, ‘they live at a height of consciousness and with a sense of detail they encounter nowhere else. In no other place is their intelligence so full, nor their sense of time able to contain so much of itself as in the long internal effort of the ring. Thirty minutes go by like three hours.’
Britain’s Anthony Joshua entered his very own boiler room of the damned in his first fight against Mexico’s Andy Ruiz Jr at New York’s Madison Square Garden on June 1. In his case, though, he didn’t just enter he was forced to stay there over successive rounds of the sustained battering he endured at the hands of his Mexican opponent.
It was an all too rare example of truth penetrating the fog of untruth that is presented to us as reality. We’re talking a Hollywood version of reality in which that which is cosmetic supersedes that which is real, in which hype is preferred to substance.
For as both fighters met in the middle in the ring prior to the opening bell in June, hardly anyone would have been in any doubt whatsoever that the result was a foregone conclusion. How could it have been otherwise when you were confronted by the sight of a 6'6" adonis in the shape of AJ, standing looking down on a six foot tall opponent with the physique of a man who’d made the mistake of arriving at a boxing contest instead of the burrito-eating contest that was being held next door.
Ruiz looked in every particular the epitome of a fighter for whom it wasn’t so much whether he would be getting banged out, but when?
And yet, despite the myth proffered in too many boxing movies that a synergy exists between musculature and fighting ability, the now Mexican world heavyweight served up a display of will and skill that still you leaves breathless watching it again, six months on.
After being dropped by a vicious right uppercut-left hook combination in the third round, Ruiz had perhaps the most important decision of his life to make. It was a choice, the hard choice, between getting off the canvas and walking through fire to risk all for greatness, or quitting and being content with the biggest payday he’d yet earned in a hitherto unremarkable career, before sliding back into the anonymity whence he came.
He proceeded to get up and, with reserves of mental strength and determination developed over years in gyms in which ring wars are mandatory for those who dare presume to walk through the door, he launched himself back into the fight and at AJ with the ferocity of a man who’d just said to himself, ‘Fuck it, I’m rewriting this fucking script’.
It was a remarkable affair, bursting with the kind of drama that Aristotle in his pomp couldn’t have conjured up. Not once, twice, but four times this obese Mexican, his body covered in tattoos, had professional heavyweight boxing’s golden goose down on the canvas before the referee mercifully rescued Joshua in the seventh round.
What we’d just witnessed was the poetry of the unfashionable, unheralded underdog being written in a boxing ring. It marked a victory for skill and will over biceps and triceps, one that would have shocked all who’d been watching apart from the purists of a sport that comes closet to replicating man’s primal state.
So now the stage is set for the rematch in Saudi Arabia on December 7. The amorality attached to holding the fight in a country in which, up to September this year alone, 134 people have been executed either by beheading or crucifixion— a country in which barbarism is entwined with oil in a dance of blood — is undeniable. However this shame is clearly not felt by promoter Eddie Hearn, whose mouth the Saudis have stuffed with gold to enlist him in what is, at bottom, a PR exercise designed to place lipstick on the pig of this barbarous state.
When Anthony Joshua enters the ring, it will be as a man whose most dangerous opponent is himself. The memory of a fight in which he wasn’t just defeated he was humiliated, battered around the ring for four rounds, will either make or break him. Can he overcome or will he wilt under the lights and the mountain of pressure he’s had to contend with in the lead-up? This is a question that will go a long way to deciding the outcome.
Ruiz on the other hand knows that he has the former world champion’s number. Blessed with the hand speed of a fast middleweight, the power to match most heavyweights, and the ability to take Joshua’s power, what does he need of nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, or sports psychologists?
This is boxing, and in boxing anything can and does happen. If the Mexican carries into the ring the same or similar hunger for success in his belly that he took with him into the first fight, you have to fancy him to emerge victorious once more.
If not, if he’s become distracted by his new-found fame and celebrity, overly enamoured with the accoutrements of financial riches — mansions, cars, clothes, and jewellery — and has made the mistake of dialling down on his work ethic in the gym, he’s looking at the prospect of a long night in store.
For as Marvellous Marvin Hagler once put it, ‘It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork 5am when you’ve been sleeping in silk pyjamas.’
John Wight’s memoir of his long lover affair with boxing — This Boxing Game: A Journey in Beautiful Brutality — will be available in February, published by Pitch Publishing.