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From Favorite To Suspect, Joshua Faces Mettle Test in Rematch

Go ahead… ask yourself.

When was the last time a fighter who won as a prohibitive underdog suddenly transformed into a smart-money pick – if not exactly a consensus betting favorite – when the time came for a rematch?

Call it the Andy Ruiz Jr. story. Circa 2019.

For those somehow unaware, the amiable Californian – looking more like a regular guy than a world-class athlete – ambled into Madison Square Garden as a late substitute against Anthony Joshua last June, and was widely expected to be vaporized by the fight’s halfway point.

Some, in fact, suggested he was as long a shot in New York as Buster Douglas was in Tokyo.

And yes, we all know how that one turned out, don’t we?

So, fast-forward six months and the two heavyweights will meet again, for the same collection of shiny hardware and this time in a shiny new stadium built specifically for the mega-event.

We can go ahead and debate about big-time sporting events in Saudi Arabia at another time.

More pertinent to this conversation now is the considerable perception that Ruiz – already a slam-dunk candidate for the year’s top upset – is on the verge of making it two straight come Saturday.

Against a pristinely constructed behemoth with 21 KOs in 22 professional wins, how can it be?

To some, it’s an unanswered question of mettle.

Another gigantic Englishman, Lennox Lewis, showed it – while avenging two career KO losses.

“We are now about to learn whether AJ has that, too, and I really don’t know,” said Jim Lampley, HBO’s longtime blow-by-blow man. “I was shocked by first result. So we’ll see. The long accepted view of the division is psychological: When one big hitter whacks another, it happens again the second time. Self-fulfilling prophecy. But to me Andy is more a quick hitter than a big hitter.

“Still suspect AJ is the bigger hitter. What’s in his mind? That is the intriguing answer we now await. I honestly don’t know. Before the Rahman rematch I had zero doubt Lennox would erase the black mark. But he had Emanuel. With AJ it is wait and see.”

Joshua, who’d defended his cadre of titles six times before the stunner, enters the rematch as the fourth-best heavyweight in the world – trailing Ruiz, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury — according to London’s Independent World Boxing Rankings. He’s Ruiz’s No. 2 challenger according to the IBO, while he sits third according to the WBA and WBO and fifth in the eyes of the IBF.

anthony-joshua (17)_5

Ahead of him in the IBF’s rankings, by the way, are the middling likes of Kubrat Pulev, Adam Kownacki and Agit Kabayel. And on the WBA list, he’s two slots behind dubious No. 1 contender Trevor Bryan.

Asked for another scenario where a huge underdog transformed into a “favorite,” former New York State Athletic Commission czar Randy Gordon went all the way back to the early 1960s – when Cassius Clay upset Sonny Liston in their initial fight, then routed him in a rematch as Muhammad Ali.

Gordon sees a similar storyline this time around.

“From the moment he walked into the ring, I wondered why Joshua looked so tired, so lethargic,” he said. “There was really something wrong. Maybe he napped in the dressing room and didn’t give himself time to wake up. Plus, I think he was back in the gym way too early, especially after a four-knockdown loss. I have a feeling we’ll see the same result, but in a different kind of fight, just like Wilder-Ortiz II was a different fight with the same winner.

“Andy Ruiz can fight. It’s not like he was a B-rated fighter climbing in there. Ruiz can fight. Even if he loses on Saturday, I am sure he will make a fight out of it. Funny, if it’s a Joshua victory, even by stoppage, I see a shootout. If it’s a blowout, I see Ruiz winning that one.”

Lewis was twice beaten as a pro – by KOs against Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman – but returned to stop both conquerors in rematches. Joshua hadn’t lost prior to Ruiz, but had rallied from the brink of defeat against former champion Wladimir Klitschko in 2017’s best fight.

That’s what made the fold against Ruiz – which seemed as much mental as physical – stunning to many.

But not to ex-lightweight champ Ray Mancini, who sees a repeat rather than a revenge.

“Klitschko wasn’t hungry like Andy was, that hunger for success will make you go through brick walls,” Mancini said. “(Joshua) wasn’t mentally ready. He was in NYC playing America’s guest, instead of focusing on what was in front of him. Andy will beat him again because of his hand speed.

“It wasn’t a fluke the first time. As far as any comparisons with Lennox, we can only say after this fight with Andy. If he wins, then comparisons certainly can be made. If not, not an issue then.”

* * * * * * * * * *

This week’s title-fight schedule:

IBF/IBO/WBA/WBO heavyweight titles – Diriyah, Saudi Arabia
Andy Ruiz Jr. (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Anthony Joshua (No. 2 IBO/No. 4 IWBR)
Ruiz (33-1, 22 KO): First title defense; Three KO/TKO wins in four fights since lone career loss
Joshua (22-1, 21 KO): Ninth title fight (7-1); Eight KO/TKO wins in 10 scheduled 12-rounders 
Fitzbitz says: No one saw Ruiz winning the first time around as a late substitute. Remarkably, he’s a frequent pick for the rematch because of how bad AJ looked. I disagree. Joshua in 6 (80/20)

IBF junior bantamweight title – Puebla, Mexico
Jerwin Ancajas (champion/No. 4 IWBR) vs. Miguel Gonzalez (No. 14 IBF/Unranked IWBR)
Ancajas (31-1-2, 21 KO): Eighth title defense; Six KO/TKO wins in nine scheduled 12-rounders
Gonzalez (31-2, 8 KO): First title fight; Lost only career fight outside of Chile
Fitzbitz says: Let’s see… it’s a surging champion against a middling challenger who’s never won a fight outside Chile – and never beaten a relevant fighter in the weight class. Easy. Ancajas in 7 (100/0)

WBC middleweight title – Brooklyn, New York
Jermall Charlo (champion/No. 2 IWBR) vs. Dennis Hogan (No. 5 WBC/Unranked IWBR)
Charlo (29-0, 21 KO): Second title defense; Two KO/TKO wins in three fights in Brooklyn
Hogan (28-2-1, 7 KO): Second title fight; Coming off loss in title fight at 154 pounds
Fitzbitz says: Hogan gave Munguia a difficult night in a championship fight at junior middle, but Charlo’s a bigger, stronger and better animal. It won’t be as difficult this time around. Charlo in 8 (100/0)

WBO junior featherweight title – Puebla, Mexico
Emanuel Navarrete (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Francisco Horta (No. 13 WBO/No. 81 IWBR)
Navarrete (29-1, 25 KO): Fourth title defense; Winner by KO/TKO in all three defenses (19 total rounds)
Horta (20-3-1, 10 KO): First title fight; First fight scheduled beyond 10 rounds
Fitzbitz says: I’ve said it before and will say it again, Navarrete had as transcendent a year – from December 2018 to December 2019 – as anyone. This is a resume-enhancer. Navarrete in 5 (100/0)

Last week’s picks: 0-1 (LOSS: Tete)
2019 picks record: 93-20 (82.3 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,104-363 (75.2 percent)

NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body’s full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.

Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.

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