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A Hard Task – Regaining heavyweight title not an easy task for Anthony Joshua

THEY CALLED IT the Kangaroo Punch. The challenger leaped forward like he had springs attached to the bottom of his boxing boots, unleashing an arcing left hook as he propelled himself toward his opponent. The punch connected flush on the champion’s dimpled chin, sending him crashing down on his back, as the gathering of 31,892 at the Polo Grounds roared as one and flashbulbs blazed by the dozens.

Ingemar Johansson lay supine on the canvas, his arms outstretched, his left leg twitching as referee Arthur Mercante counted him out at 1:51 of the fifth round. The Swede’s brief reign as heavyweight champion was over the instant the left hook landed. Floyd Patterson was among the first to reach the man he’d just flattened, more concerned about his unconscious adversary than his own victory.

But the magnitude of what he’d done could not be ignored. On that June night in 1960, Patterson became the first heavyweight champion ever to regain the lineal title, something that hadn’t been accomplished in the 75 years of the division.

In boxing circles, Patterson’s feat was the equivalent of running the first sub four-minute mile or being the first to scale Mount Everest, records held in perpetuity. There can only be one first.

It’s unlikely that Anthony Joshua will be thinking about Patterson on Saturday in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, when he tries to regain the WBA, IBF and WBO belts he lost to Andy Ruiz in June. The Mexican-American handed Joshua a severe beating, including four knockdowns, before the fight was stopped in the seventh round.

What a forlorn picture the Englishman made as he stood in a neutral corner, arms draped over the top rope, a bewildered look on his face. When referee Michael Griffin told him to fight on, Joshua didn’t move. He was too dazed to focus his thoughts. The fight was over.

You can’t overstate how much the rematch means to Joshua. Before losing to Ruiz, he had experienced the best boxing has to offer: an Olympic gold medal, a brilliant victory over Wladimir Klitschko, the adoration of the nation and multimillion dollar paydays, commensurate with his ability to sell out soccer stadiums in the U.K.

If Joshua loses again, especially by knockout, it could possibly be the end of his career. Beat Ruiz impressively in the rematch and he’s back in business.

UNSEATED HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONS have sought to regain the title since the dawn of the gloved era in 1885, and once Patterson proved it could be done, the rematch merry-go-round has became a standard scenario in boxing’s ever-changing power struggle.

As one might expect, the results have been decidedly mixed. Patterson was unable to duplicate his feat. He lost the championship to Sonny Liston in September 1962 and also lost the rematch. Sonny knocked him out in the first round both times.

And so it goes, another former heavyweight champ rebooting for a second shot at the rarefied air that surrounds the heavyweight champion of the world.

Joshua is 30, young enough to take solace in Lennox Lewis’ eventful journey from the Olympics to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Joshua’s countryman twice rebounded from knockout losses to regain heavyweight titles.

Notable heavyweights to regain titles
Heavyweight champions from the 1960s to the present, and their records while attempting to regain the heavyweight championship.

Inadequate preparation played a significant role in both of Lewis’ defeats. He became too sure of himself and grew complacent. Success can do that to you.

Even so, it came as a shock when underdog challenger Oliver “Atomic Bull” McCall stopped Lewis in September 1994. It happened again in April 2001, when Hasim Rahman knocked him down for the 10 count. Call it a wake-up call with a seven-year snooze button, because other than those two losses, Lennox’s career was spotless.

The losses knocked the cockiness out of Lewis. A rededicated Lewis stopped McCall and Rahman in rematches to win back the titles. Good thing, too. Lennox’s biggest purse was yet to come, against a fading Mike Tyson in 2002.

AGE HITS BOXERS like a Joe Frazier left hook to the liver. In their primes, legendary champions Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis could probably have beaten Gene Tunney and Ezzard Charles, respectively, and wouldn’t have had to worry about a rematch. But they were worn out and just didn’t have enough left to regain the title. Father Time already had them on the ropes.

Ring rust can also be a career killer, and it contributed to Dempsey’s downfall. He hadn’t fought in three years when he faced Tunney the first time. The champ was, as biographer Randy Roberts wrote, “[living] the life of a celebrity without an occupation.”

Defending against a boxer as clever and mobile as Tunney after an extended layoff was the last thing the 31-year-old Dempsey needed. He’d been fighting for a living since he was 19 years old and wasn’t the same fighter he had been before the layoff. Tunney beat him twice on points, winning the title in 1926 and successfully defending it the following year.

“When a doctor told him that another match would mean risking eye damage or even blindness, Dempsey nixed a third fight with Tunney,” Roberts wrote. Had he accepted the offer, Dempsey would have earned in excess of a million dollars.

Floyd Patterson, right, regained the heavyweight world title against Ingemar Johansson in New York in 1960. Hy Peskin/Getty Images
While the huge paydays were over, Dempsey was such an iconic figure he didn’t have to worry too much about his finances. He owned Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant, located between 49th and 50th Streets in Manhattan, where he held court, greeted guests, signed autographs and posed for photos. Others were not so fortunate.

Louis understood he was slipping even before he announced his retirement in March 1949. He’d held the heavyweight championship since June 1937, a magnificent reign that encompassed 25 successful title defenses.

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Louis’ retirement didn’t last long. The Internal Revenue Service was dunning him, and he was forced to fight again to keep the taxman off his back. In his very first comeback fight, Louis challenged new champion Ezzard Charles on Sept. 27, 1950.

Even though it was a title fight, Louis’ purse was just short of $54,000. That was good money in 1950, but a drastic reduction from the $252,000 Louis received in his final bout as champion, a knockout of Jersey Joe Walcott.

Charles boxed his way to a comprehensive decision, denying the creaky “Brown Bomber” another title reign.

“From the seventh round, I knew I just didn’t have it,” Louis wrote in his autobiography. “But, you know something, while I was sitting in the dressing room, it was all I could do not to tell [trainer] Mannie Seamon to call it off. I wasn’t ready for Charles, but what the hell — the government need their money, and I had to live, too.”

The march of time was apparently meaningless to George Foreman, who staged the greatest comeback in heavyweight history, regaining the heavyweight championship 20 years after losing it to Muhammad Ali in 1974. Foreman was 45 when he knocked out Michael Moorer in ’94, but Foreman’s motivations might have been different, as he’s in a league of his own. Foreman has made more money out of the ring than inside, and that’s extremely rare.

Evander Holyfield beat “Big George” in 1991 and then it was Tyson’s turn as he managed to regain the WBA and WBC belts after returning from incarceration. Tyson then lost to Holyfield twice and famously squandered his income. Mike came to grips with his chaotic years and rebuilt his life. To most everybody’s surprise, he has become arguably the most successful second act in boxing.

So what does history tell us about Joshua’s chances? Age and lengthy layoffs don’t apply in this case. There is, nonetheless, a need for fundamental change.

Joshua’s performances have gradually declined since the Klitschko fight in 2017. He’s a pure puncher who should be attacking instead of trying to outbox his challengers. The tiptoe-through-the-tulips approach isn’t going to work. All you have to do is look at the first Ruiz fight to know that. The challenger’s economical footwork cut off the ring throughout the bout. If Joshua tries to box at long range to avoid getting hit with a big shot, he’s going to get hit anyway.

You can’t help but wonder if Joshua was psychologically damaged by the knockout loss to Ruiz. He has often claimed that Ruiz landed a lucky punch, a ridiculous claim under any circumstances, and not exactly a sign of confidence on Joshua’s part. When you’re knocked down four times, there’s nothing lucky about it.

What happened to the guy who came off the floor to stop Klitschko, or the guy who emerged victorious from a ferocious punch-up with Dillian Whyte? In order to win, Joshua has to rediscover his inner puncher.

If he loses, comparisons to Frank Bruno, the lovable but flawed British heavyweight, will be inevitable. In the long run, that might hurt more than losing the Ruiz rematch.

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