Anthony Joshua didn’t respond to text messages of support and sorrow in the hours after his disastrous defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr one year ago on June 1, 2019. Instead, he deleted them en masse.
Joshua found peace when the large group accompanying him in New York City opted against their planned night on the town, the ritual they expected to celebrate. Instead they stayed at home quietly for a week with a chessboard and occasionally strolled through the serenity of Central Park.
“This is when you know who your people are,” Joshua told Sky Sports about those crucial days after defeat when the battle-plan to avenge Ruiz Jr was already being formed.
Promoter Eddie Hearn was lost for words and, almost, literally lost amid the madness of New York.
“I left the arena after the press conference at 4am in the morning,” he told Sky Sports about the worst result of his career.
“I thought: ‘I’m going to walk back to the hotel across Manhattan, three or four miles’.
“I was walking past Brits who had had a few beers [and they asked]: ‘Eddie, what happened mate?’
“I got back to the hotel. My kids were leaving on the early flight in the morning. So I didn’t go to sleep. They left at 6am with my wife.
“I had to stay out in New York to do Gennadiy Golovkin’s fight week.
“It didn’t really hit me until Tuesday.”At the time you work through it with a brave face. I went round to see AJ: ‘We’ll have a rematch!’
“Then all of a sudden it was hard to get out of bed. It was a tough moment.
“Joshua and his team returned solemnly to their accommodation in the early hours of June 2.
“After I lost you have time to think,” Joshua said. “But none of the boys went out.
“Their decision not to enjoy what New York has to offer in the days after defeat allowed Joshua to view them in a new light. The team had lost, not the individual.
Joshua reflected: “But when you’ve been winning for so many years it can come across that [these people] were just here for the good times. But they stuck with me and didn’t leave my side, and I only realised that when I had time to myself. These people are real.
“The boys that were rolling with me through Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool and Scotland – paying for their own flights – now we can rent an Airbnb home with enough space for all of us. My dad was there, my aunties came.
“Boxing is littered with champions who suddenly find themselves with fewer friends when they lose the title. Joshua, in the days prior to the first Ruiz Jr fight, had been criticised for the size of his entourage.
“No one changed,” he said. “People love you when you’re winning. But you realise that they love you for who you are, and what you represent.
“Madison Square Garden gave Joshua a personalised chess set and this source of entertainment provided focus in the quiet days after June 1.
“AJ got a lot better at chess,” his manager Freddie Cunningham told Sky Sports. “He hadn’t played a huge amount but, by the end, it got very competitive. It was nice to have a bit of normality for our close team.”
The conspiracy theories began swirling as soon as the world heavyweight champion crashed to the canvas. The only person who will not address them is Joshua himself.
“It’s nothing to do with sparring or panic attacks but there are reasons that he wasn’t firing on all cylinders,” Eddie Hearn said. “He will never tell you, and he would hate for me to tell you.
“He doesn’t want excuses like we’ve seen with Deontay Wilder.”
Wilder, by contrast, lost his WBC title and undefeated record then blamed his ring-walk attire for tiring out his legs.
Hearn continued: “When I look back now, knowing what was wrong, I can look at his face and say: ‘You knew you weren’t 100 percent, didn’t you?’
“But all week he was fine, smiling. At no point did anyone say: ‘He doesn’t seem himself’.
“Looking back now there is something in his eyes that says: ‘I’m not best prepared’.”
His manager Cunningham added: “Literally in Manhattan, you walk out of your door and you’re in the city – go go go. That can be suppressive.
“Joshua agreed: “Exactly, it’s all about focus. I’m not saying New York is bad, but Saudi caters for a peaceful way of life rather than the hustle and bustle, which is what a fighter needs.”
“We have to fight [in New York] again,” said Cunningham. “We would do it slightly differently – we tried to minimise travel time by staying in Manhattan but next time maybe we would stay outside of New York to have our own space. That is really important.”
Joshua reflected: “Being a boxer has taught me how to deal with success and failure.”The championship mindset goes beyond the belts.”
In the hours and days after June 1, 2019, Joshua reaffirmed his commitment to trainer Rob McCracken who had come under scrutiny.
He also received countless offers from other coaches who spotted an opportunity to jump aboard. Instead, Joshua sought the counsel of two men he had admired from afar – Angel Fernandez and Joby Clayton, who were brought into his inner circle for the rematch.
A game-plan was devised. Joshua also focused on how to psychologically unsettle Ruiz Jr – he noticed that the new champion “struggled to answer direct questions” so when they went face-to-face, he would ask him things. Ruiz Jr became accustomed to being pressurised.
Joshua embraced visualisation and practiced his ring-walk in Saudi Arabia three times in the days prior to the rematch, when the arena was empty and quiet.
On the night, he awkwardly struggled to step through the ropes but overcame a brief moment of difficulty to own the situation.
He then owned the entirety of his second fight with Ruiz Jr.
The wheels were set in motion in those crucial hours and days after defeat in New York.