There is a moment in every legendary heavyweight’s past life where they have felt the burn of the canvas rub against their flesh.
When, unable to focus their glare, they have heard the gasps and screams from all around them. That’s an uncommon noise, usually it is adulation, so it can cause panic. The pain sets in much later — for now, they are in a place of confusion where their brain and bodies are no longer connected.
Anthony Joshua thought that he had been to this dark, dark place against Wladimir Klitschko two years ago but there was something within him on that unforgettable Wembley night that prevented his system going into full shutdown.
What happened against Andy Ruiz Jr was the true desperation that has been felt by all of the heroes who, like Joshua, have called themselves world heavyweight champion.
Mike Tyson was young, vicious and unbeaten when he succumbed to Buster Douglas in 1990 in what is remembered as boxing’s biggest upset. Lennox Lewis lost to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman in major shocks. Whisper it quietly but Muhammad Ali only reached his feted status by bouncing back from defeat to Joe Frazier in the same ring in the same city that Joshua fell in.
More pertinently for Joshua, Wladimir Klitschko, the man he so respects and eventually defeated, dominated for nearly a decade after three bad defeats.
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Each of these men were forced to complete the long, lonely walk out of the ring that Joshua had to do in New York. They have all tried to avoid eye contact with knowing onlookers, all tried and failed to process what had just happened.
Crucially, they all rebuilt and those nights that scarred them forever have now been rewritten into a key part of their legend. Whether Joshua can do the same will now define the legacy that he leaves.
He will never forget what happened against Ruiz Jr — not the thud of the punches or the crash of his body hitting the floor, but the feeling of emptiness that came with the realisation that the fight was over before it began.
Joshua will eventually realise what they all did — that there is something illogical about losing a fight that makes a fighter more aware of himself, less blinded by the cloak of invincibility that actually didn’t exist in the first place. This realisation won’t come yet, though.
First there must be serious and frank self-examination.
Future opponents will question his ability to take a punch, and his stamina. For the first time, Joshua might have new questions about himself.
“One shot on the top of the dome rattled me,” he said after Ruiz Jr floored him four times in a seventh-round loss of his IBF, WBA and WBO belts. “I tried to stay in there for a few more rounds. I just didn’t recover in time.
“My legs were all over the gaff — I was trying to stabilise my mind and my whole body. It’s the first time [that has happened]. The one with Klitschko? I was just tired.
“They can’t box with me so they just look for power shots. I have to work on being stronger on my base.”
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Joshua will need brutal honesty from the people around him and will not be able to successfully rebuild without it. He will need to deal with people looking at him slightly differently.
But he has lost before. It wasn’t as high-profile but, perhaps, when he was just a kid with a dream the stakes were actually higher. He was beaten by Dillian Whyte as an amateur then stopped by Mihai Nistor in the European championships. That phase of his career ended with an Olympic gold.
His mettle will be tested now like never before, and that doesn’t just mean his appetite to trade punches as soon as possible. His desire to learn, to improve, to change, and to evolve will be examined.
A road that should have ended with an undisputed title fight against Deontay Wilder now has a million possible pit-stops. The next fight should be a rematch in the UK against Ruiz Jr but even that likelihood comes with a concern that the IBF may enforce a mandatory challenger.
That means Ruiz Jr could be stripped of that belt if he insists on the rematch, depriving Joshua of a chance to win it back. This circumstance happened to Tyson Fury weeks after he beat Klitschko.
Promoter Eddie Hearn admitted an immediate rematch with Ruiz Jr is “must-win”.
“This is all part of the story and the journey,” Joshua said. “This is all part of the legacy — it’s about how strong I come back.”
He doffed his cap to Ruiz Jr, didn’t question the referee’s decision, and refused to offer any excuses. These are very good early signs. History says it is possible Joshua will still stand atop the heavyweight mountain.