Anthony Joshua began his long-awaited foray on US soil last month at the fabled Madison Square Garden arena versus a relatively unknown quantity in Andy Ruiz Jr, in a fight that was seen by many as a formality.
However, as if so often the case in sport, fortune favours the brave and Ruiz refused to buy into the narrative and proceeded to knock down his opponent an unprecedented four times in seven rounds. Ruiz displayed immense courage and conviction to conquer Joshua and in doing seemed to invert the natural course of events.
For Joshua, by contrast, it was a chastening experience and one which for many has seen him withdrawn from the upper echelons of professional boxing.
On a sporting level, the upshot from this defeat for Joshua was fairly clear: he had conceded his three versions of the world heavyweight title (WBA, IBF and WBO) and with that the aura of invincibility that he and his promoter Eddie Hearn had carefully nurtured over a career which had amassed 22 victories. He will get another opportunity to restore his reputation against the plucky American-Mexican fighter, but even a victory in October will do little to dissolve the memory of June 1st.
What remains to be seen, when the dust eventually settles on Madison Square, is the question of how this defeat will impact upon Joshua’s commercial horizons – more specifically, whether it will come to represent only a minor blemish on an otherwise stellar career, or a point of irreparable rupture which sees broadcasters and sponsors shun the 29-year-old.
In the short term, there is little for AJ to fret over. A cool $25 million check handed to him after defeat in the US will doubtless have provided some consolation. Moreover, he still maintains a broad portfolio of sponsorship deals — which includes brands such as Lucozade, Under Armour, JD Sports and Jaguar — from which he reportedly bagged an extra $2.7m in 2017.
Of far greater detriment to Team AJ will be the immediate loss of potential $100 million paydays against his unbeaten foes Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, and his image in the eyes of sponsors. As Jeremy Nestor observes in his piece for Pitch Marketing Group, sponsors, like fans, “can be equally fickle” and defeat to Ruiz could conceivably place “a significant dent on both his image and aspirations of heavyweight supremacy”.
Since his sudden rise to prominence during the 2012 London Olympic Games, where he stormed to a super-heavyweight gold medal, Joshua’s value —and that of his Matchroom team — has grown inexorably.
His otherworldly physique, his humble demeanour and troubled upbringing have all endeared Joshua to a large section of the British public and turned him into one our most marketable athletes. Yet, while Joshua has become the flagship athlete of British sports, his allure remains relatively detached from the global sporting consciousness and the ignominy he suffered recently at the hands of Ruiz will have further derailed his efforts to bolster his reckoning on the international stage.
After landing in New York in late spring, Joshua laid bare his grand ambitions in America, which he remarked self-assuredly was not “to take part, but to take over”. Blithely unaware of what his opponent had in store, Joshua added: “even though Andy Ruiz is not Wilder or Tyson Fury, he is a fighter who will give me a great contest”. Ruiz, who was drafted in just six weeks before the fight took place, was seen by Joshua as a minor footnote in a wider project to strengthen his foothold in the US, the world’s largest boxing market. Now, with his air of invincibility having perished, AJ’s bid to penetrate an elusive American market look set to fall flat, whilst his unbeaten rivals Fury and Wilder continue to steal a march on the erstwhile heavyweight champion.
In contrasting fortunes, Fury has managed to forge himself a solid reputation amongst the American audience as both an elite boxer and an entertainer, which has bolstered his commercial appeal and marketability. This was underlined recently when he signed a lucrative contract with US broadcasting behemoth ESPN, believed to be in the region of $80m. While Wilder’s status as an American citizen by default gives him better access to that market. With their impending rematch scheduled to take place in 2020, Joshua is set to be consigned further to the margins of the US boxing landscape.
It is certainly not the end of the line of Anthony Joshua. Boxing fans generally are hasty to dismiss fighters after their first loss and the humility that Joshua displayed after suffering humiliation to a very unfashionable opponent merits praise. Even the most accomplished of sports stars are entitled to an off-day.
He does, however, find himself for the first time in a glistening career at a crossroads, and the carefully-constructed image of Joshua as the insuperable warrior no longer holds water. Joshua may be forced to reinvent himself if he wishes to become the preeminent global force both in and out of the ring. Tactically, many elements of his game will need refining; to become an established champion he needs to prove that he can take hard punches and certainly must improve his endurance.
There is a line of argument that defeat to Ruiz could have a positive impact on his image. By magnifying his flaws and his vulnerabilities, that night in New York could help to show Joshua to be more human than he has hitherto been portrayed. In any case, it will be fascinating to see how Joshua responds to adversity, a quality which defines the most accomplished of athletes.