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Is Anthony Joshua the best heavyweight in boxing?

Anthony Joshua got his revenge with a clear victory in his rematch against Andy Ruiz Jr. What’s next for Joshua now that he has his belts back? And is Andy Ruiz still a player at heavyweight?

Dan Rafael, Steve Kim and Nick Parkinson offer their thoughts after one of the biggest fights of 2019.

Is Joshua the best heavyweight in boxing?

Rafael: Joshua is an elite heavyweight, in the top three, and you can argue he is No. 1. But the knockout loss to Ruiz in the first fight makes it hard to put him there, even though he beat Ruiz handily in the rematch. Joshua has a tremendous résumé with wins over Wladimir Klitschko, Alexander Povetkin, Joseph Parker, Dominic Breazeale, Carlos Takam and now Ruiz.

For me, the No. 1 spot still belongs to titlist Deontay Wilder, who just knocked out Luis “King Kong” Ortiz for the second time last month in their rematch. I’d say it’s Wilder, Joshua, Tyson Fury, in that order.

Kim: While Joshua now has three of the four major belts, based on both Ruiz fights, whoever wins the rematch between WBC belt holder Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury on Feb. 22 has to be considered the sport’s best big man. Bottom line is that neither Fury nor Wilder has been defeated — or knocked out, for that matter.

If Joshua were to face Wilder, you wonder if he’d be able to take Wilder’s lightning bolt right hand. If he was paired with Fury, it’s doubtful that Joshua could outbox him, the way he did the plodding Ruiz.

Joshua is the biggest draw in the division, there’s no doubting that. And to be fair, he has the best overall résumé of any current heavyweight. Right now, there are three heavyweights who matter: Joshua, Wilder and Fury. And while Joshua might be the most valuable, he also looks like the most vulnerable.

Parkinson: No. Wilder was already assured of that status regardless of what went down Saturday. Joshua lost his place atop of the heavyweight summit when Ruiz dropped him four times and stopped him last June. It was an impressive boxing display to get revenge over Ruiz, but he needs to do more to get the No. 1 spot back. Tyson Fury and Luis Ortiz showed how Wilder can be outboxed, and Joshua has better boxing ability than Wilder. But it takes only one punch from Wilder, and it’s over. Ruiz was able to catch Joshua in the fourth and eighth rounds — what would have happened if those punches had been from Wilder?

Which adjustments won the fight for Joshua?

Parkinson: Joshua won this fight by controlling the range with his movement and jab. Joshua needed to win, first and foremost, even if it was less than thrilling for those hoping for a knockout. By keeping it at long range, Joshua ensured he got the job done without any major scares. Defeat would have been catastrophic for his career.

This time around, Joshua was a lot more disciplined and concentrated, boxing behind his jab and at distance. Only in the fourth and eighth rounds did Joshua deviate from the game plan. Joshua’s fluid movement, drifting one way and then the other, made it difficult for Ruiz, especially after he weighed in at 283.7 pounds — 15 pounds heavier than in their first fight in June. Joshua was patient, methodically working behind his jab on the back foot before setting up the right hand.

In the first fight, Joshua got careless when he landed against Ruiz and was caught on the counter, but there were few moments like that in Riyadh.

Rafael: His change in strategy was very obvious, and it was the perfect strategy for the kind of bulldozing opponent Ruiz is. Joshua dispensed with brawling and inside fighting and went to school on boxing and using his jab. He boxed perfectly from distance and never let Ruiz get inside to do much damage or rough him up. He was trimmer and the stamina was there. Full credit to trainer Robert McCracken for devising a game plan that Joshua would adapt to.

Kim: It was very simple: Joshua did his best impersonation of Wladimir Klitschko, the reinvented version under Emanuel Steward who went on to have a long and distinguished run as the heavyweight champion for a full decade. Joshua boxed an intelligent and disciplined tactical fight, using his long left jab and working the perimeter of the ring. No, it’s not always exciting or necessarily entertaining, but it was highly effective.

Any time he and Ruiz got close, Joshua would liberally clinch and grab. He picked his spots and displayed an abundance of patience behind his jab. Exchanges from the midrange would favor Ruiz, so as far as Joshua and trainer Rob McCracken were concerned, less would be more.

If you go back to Joshua’s memorable firefight with Klitschko in 2017, in which Joshua suffered a knockdown and had to rally to stop Klitschko in the 11th round, from that moment on, he has become a more cautious boxer. And for better or worse, after the Klitschko ordeal and with what took place this past June, expect to see this version of Joshua from here on out.

Where does Joshua go from here?

Rafael: The WBO announced immediately after the fight that Joshua must make his mandatory defense against Oleksandr Usyk within 180 days. The IBF wants Joshua to defend against its mandatory challenger, Kubrat Pulev, so unless a deal is struck between organizations one belt likely will be vacant. Joshua could face Usyk next, an easy fight to make since Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn promotes them both.

But Joshua could also face Pulev, in a fight that can probably still be made, perhaps with a purse bid, which would set Usyk up to fight for a vacant belt. It could make for a massive unification fight between Joshua and Usyk if they both win their intervening bouts. It’s up in the air, so we shall see in the coming months.

Kim: When you have multiple belts, you also have multiple mandatory challengers. And now the likes of Oleksandr Usyk and Kubrat Pulev will eagerly await their shot at the title. Like everything else in boxing, many of these decisions will be politically driven.

With Joshua being promoted by Matchroom, any heavyweight that is associated with them or DAZN, which streamed Joshua’s past several fights, will have an inside track on facing him. A bout with Usyk is intriguing. The former undisputed cruiserweight titlist is a highly accomplished boxer and just recently made his heavyweight debut. Usyk is aligned with Matchroom and DAZN and is a well-known fighter because of his vast accomplishments inside the ring.

Parkinson: The dream scenario is for a clash against the winner of Wilder-Fury, set for Feb. 22, for all four major titles in the second half of 2020. However, there’s a serious threat that Joshua will have to relinquish one of the three belts that were on the line in Saudi Arabia before negotiations start with either Wilder or Fury, due to two world boxing governing bodies demanding mandatory defenses.

Before Wilder or Fury, Joshua will have to face Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev (28-1, 14 KOs), 38, in a mandatory defence if he wants to hold on to the IBF belt. Pulev might not be who Joshua wants to face next, but he would be an easier proposition than Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk (17-0, 13 KOs), 32, the WBO mandatory challenger.

Pulev, whose only defeat in 29 fights came against Wladimir Klitschko, offers Joshua the opportunity to hold on to the IBF belt while waiting for the winner of Wilder-Fury, or Usyk. Joshua was supposed to fight Pulev in October 2017, but the Bulgarian pulled out shortly before the scheduled date with a shoulder injury.

Usyk is a serious threat because of his speed, footwork and boxing skills. He won his heavyweight debut against Chazz Witherspoon in October, and would be a big risk.

Where does Ruiz go from here?

Kim: Despite this lopsided loss, Ruiz is still a marketable figure in the heavyweight division. Since he is with Premier Boxing Champions, look for him to go back on that side of the street and face one of the standout heavyweights on their roster, which includes Wilder and guys like Gerald Washington and Dominic Breazeale — the latter pair representing realistic options for getting Ruiz back on the winning track.

But a fight that would be very fun and an old-fashioned slugfest would be a pairing with Adam Kownacki. Unlike Joshua, he wouldn’t present such a mobile target and these two would have no issues finding one another in the center of the ring. Ruiz-Kownacki is one of the best fights that could be made in the heavyweight division. But now that Ruiz has banked millions in 2019, does he have enough motivation and focus on the sport? Or is he destined to be Buster Douglas 2.0?

Parkinson: Ruiz will not plummet from contention after this defeat. By flooring Joshua four times and stopping the Briton in June, Ruiz secured himself a few big fights, win or lose against Joshua in Saudi Arabia. Comparisons will be made between Ruiz and American Leon Spinks, who also became an unexpected world heavyweight champion in 1978 when he won a split decision over Muhammad Ali. Spinks enjoyed his sudden wealth and fame, but his reign was brief and Ali outpointed Spinks after a sleep-inducing encounter at the Superdome in New Orleans seven months later.

Ruiz can rebuild his career against the likes of Whyte, Povetkin or Joseph Parker (26-2, 20 KOs). Parker won the WBO world heavyweight title with a majority decision over Ruiz in 2016.

Rafael: Ruiz needs to go back to the gym and get in better shape after coming in 15 pounds heavier for the rematch than the first fight in June. He’s a quality fighter, but does not give himself the best chance to win with his fitness. He will probably have a long layoff after all the millions he made for the fight, and when he comes back I’d expect a soft touch kind of opponent — but he will be back in a bigger fight down the road.

Did any of the other heavyweights on the card make a case to be in the conversation with the top 4?

Rafael: No, none of them made the case. Whyte looked sloppy in a win that wasn’t against a top guy. He’s where he belongs — just behind the biggest names in the division. Alexander Povetkin and Michael Hunter are both quality fighters and legit contenders, but they fought to a draw and neither took a big step forward. They are both top-10 worthy but not top four.

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