Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 29 January 2020

Clash on the Dunes: Muscle cannot mask the mental scars as lean-looking Anthony Joshua eyes redemption against Andy Ruiz Jr

Mind and mettle should form the ultimate determinant come Saturday night as British boxer attempts to reclaim heavyweight titles from Mexican-American

On a lush lawn in front of Al Faisaliah Hotel, under the Saudi Arabia sun in central Riyadh, two of the best heavyweights on the planet convened for one last time before they attempt to tear strips out of one another in front of the watching world.

Michael Buffer, the Hall of Fame ring announcer, welcomed first to the stage Anthony Joshua, the colossus but outwardly collected challenger, who never mind the cool exterior possesses a substantial point to prove. Some say Saturday will go some way to defining a career.

Neil Leifer, the Hall of Fame photographer who has captured the most momentous of boxing bouts, clicked through his lens as Andy Ruiz Jr ascended the dais, sombrero shielding his head in the heat.

The champion was trailed by family and friends. One swished a giant Mexican flag. Others lugged the bounty of belts snatched from the first meeting between the two, six months back in New York, when Ruiz Jr shook Joshua’s brain and shocked the sport.

The week has climbed steadily towards Saturday’s crescendo at the Diriyah Arena, but the official weigh-in 24 hours out felt like the true beginning of the battle. Lines had been drawn.

Joshua, wearing not much more than black trunks and his sponsors' headphones, took to the scales, the display confirming what had dominated the debate through this week. Yes, he would be considerably lighter than the initial joust. At 107.5kg, in fact, the British boxer has never weighed less for a world title fight. How that affects his punch power and, more pertinently his increasingly questionable punch resistance, represents an intriguing subplot.

Ruiz, in contrast, did not so much as tip the scales as trounce them. A double-check was required. A hush fell over the 500-odd in attendance. At almost 129kg, the champion comes in 21kgs heavier than his opponent. Only Russian Nikolai Valuev has weighed more for a world heavyweight title clash. He stretches beyond 2.1 metres; Ruiz just about measures 1.8m.

Had he succumbed to the additional apparatus that has attached since that life-changing experience at Madison Square Garden? His father has voiced concerns about the freshly acquired flash cars and the lavish lifestyle. No doubt, though, it would be remiss of Joshua to underestimate his opponent - a grave mistake - given the ferocity of his beating this summer on the other side of the Atlantic.

On Friday, Joshua departed the stage and was immediately swallowed by his support, not that he minded. He posed for selfies, sometimes taking the smartphones himself, seemingly intent on shaking nearly everyone’s hand.

The crowd hollered in unison “two-time”, a nod to Joshua’s attempts to join a select band to have twice captured boxing’s grandest prize. He responded with a “C’mon” before raising two fingers to the Arabic sky.

Yet beneath the levity and the laughter, Joshua is acutely aware of what is at stake. “It will be catastrophic if I lose,” he conceded. His team understand that wholly, too. As ubiquitous promoter Eddie Hearn has stated, his client fell into a “dark place” after suffering the only blemish thus far on a previously gleaming 23 professional-fight record.

Some estimates, however unfounded, calculate Joshua will earn upwards of £60 million (Dh290m) for the scrap in Saudi. The sense is, that in purely sporting terms, he has way more to lose.

Granted, he may be fine-tuned and focused. He might utter all the correct soundbites about reflection and redemption. Yet Ruiz has proven to hit fast and hit hard. Crucially, he has vanquished Joshua before.

For that, mind and mettle should form the ultimate determinant come Saturday night. The muscle, however impressive, cannot mask the mental scars. It threatens to be the greatest impediment to Joshua on what promises to be a gripping night in the desert. Ruiz is the champion, and on Friday proudly paraded the WBA, IBF and WBO straps to corroborate that. Still, Joshua appears the man with most on the line.

Updated: December 7, 2019 02:33 PM

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