“I used to sleep and I’d be thinking about it – I lost.”
The awful memories of that first fight with Andy Ruiz Jr – looking up at those bright lights, the feeling of helplessness, the countless shouting voices that blurred together into empty noise – will never be completely forgotten but they will no longer haunt him if he rectifies things. He has one more chance, fast approaching.
“Even though I lost, it was only in my quiet times like going to bed or something like that, that I really thought about it,” he has recently admitted.
And this is what is truly at stake in the hair-raising Ruiz Jr rematch, live on Sky Sports Box Office on Saturday. For all the boxing gold, for all the sporting fanfare, it is those quiet times that are on the line for Joshua, the ability to firmly exorcise the ghost of Ruiz Jr.
That search for peace comes at a massive gamble, six months after the nightmare began. What happened in New York will be nothing compared to the eerie silence if Joshua is toppled again, his gargantuan frame forced to drag itself back up and the feeling of helplessness once again engulfing him.
This is one of the most compelling fights that boxing can provide, a world heavyweight championship contest in the desert that will stretch the sport’s most famous face to his absolute limit. Will he break?
Joshua has shown immense strength of character to dive straight back into the fire although, if his desire is to regain the IBF, WBA and WBO titles and to eventually face Deontay Wilder to crown an undisputed champion, he had little choice. If he opted to rebuild slowly, the belts would have fragmented into a puzzle too complicated to piece back together.
The past few months have not always been pretty – the conspiracy theories to explain his first career defeat had to be shot down, Lennox Lewis was called “a clown”, and Joshua’s trainer Rob McCracken was faced with criticism but ultimately backed by the man who matters. We have seen Joshua’s soul exposed at times, and he has been forced to grit his teeth as a vulnerable man battling against adversity. The Olympian with the body of a Greek sculpture is human, after all, but that makes his bid for greatness even more admirable.
He has confessed that complacency was an issue resulting to the original defeat – “I wasn’t fighting King Kong, was I?” – and attributed it to “a lucky punch” but, behind the scenes, has been proactive in upgrading his preparation for the rematch.
McCracken was unequivocally backed, and Joshua called criticism of the trainer as “shallow-minded, small-minded”.
“You can take the belts away,” he added. “The man that [my trainers] built? You can’t take that away.”
New pad-men, Angel Fernandez and Joby Clayton, have been welcomed into camp along with a roster of new sparring partners, after the previous crop drew Joshua’s ire by leaking rumours that they hurt him and caused the defeat to Ruiz Jr.
He has stared failure in the face with maturity but the concern is that, in the six months since losing, he doesn’t have enough time to prevent a repeat result.
“He saw something that he’s never seen before,” Ruiz Jr has said. “His style was perfect for me.”
Over the next week Joshua will again stare into the cold, heartless eyes of the man whose celebration inside the ring have become a universal symbol for the underdog upsetting the odds, the overweight every-man overpowering the body you wish that you had.
How Joshua deals with the intensity will tell us much about what result to expect next Saturday.
Last time, the press conference featured smiles, back-slapping and the now-infamous moment when Joshua allowed Ruiz Jr to touch the championship belts. A few days later those belts became his property.
This time around, don’t expect such chivalry from either man. The belts, and Joshua’s legacy, are at stake.
Watch Andy Ruiz Jr vs Anthony Joshua 2 in Saudi Arabia on Saturday December 7, live on Sky Sports Box Office.