For Andy Ruiz, June 1 was the stuff of dreams. But it wasn't all magic and unicorns; part of it was like showing up to high school in your underwear.
In a heavyweight bout against the heavily favored Anthony Joshua, Ruiz was floored by a big left hook in the third round. Ruiz made it to his feet, though, and put Joshua on the canvas twice before the round ended. Working the body and using superior hand speed to land big combinations, Ruiz finished his handiwork with a TKO four rounds later, shocking the reigning champ to become the first fighter of Mexican descent to capture the WBO, IBF, WBA and IBO world heavyweight titles.
As he held the belts aloft and patiently sat through the post-fight interview, Ruiz evoked an image less like the baddest man on the planet and more like that of an affable kid in a chocolate syrup commercial. The contrast had been obvious from the beginning: Joshua, at a statuesque 6'6" and 248 pounds, was Britain's boxing poster boy. At 6'2" and 268 pounds, Ruiz was, well, different.
Ruiz isn't the first "fat athlete" or fat boxer—ever hear of Tony Tubbs?—and he won't be the last. Still, it's out of the ordinary, and anything out of the ordinary draws attention. After Ruiz made history, Deadspin's headline was that the "enormous fraud" Joshua was knocked out by a "thirsty, hungry fella."
Ruiz isn't blind to his unconventional frame, either. That fact was clear in the news conference that followed the fight, as Ruiz's sheepishness tempered the jubilance.
"I think it's just the way that I look, the extra flab that I carry," Ruiz said at the post-fight presser in reference to the clownings he's taken in social and conventional media. "We've been working on it since when we fought [Alexander] Dimitrenko. After we got this fight right away, we didn't want to lose as much weight. I wanted to be strong."
In the same press conference, however, Ruiz also acknowledged a plan to address the issue.
"Now that I have this time," Ruiz said, "I just want to get in really good shape and look like a Mexican Anthony [Joshua]."
In the run-up to the December 7 rematch, Ruiz has been chronicling his weight loss on Instagram and elsewhere. Salmon, cardio, shirtless photos, you name it.
"I think being 10 pounds lighter, I'm going to be a better fighter," Ruiz said at an October media event in his native California. "I'm going to be faster, more [able to] let my hands go and be faster on my feet as well. Ten pounds isn't going to make any difference [with strength]."
Ruiz has a stated goal weight of 255 pounds, or 13 pounds less than his fighting weight against Joshua.
And while crash dieters and infomercial hosts might laugh off that number as too small to be of any consequence, several people in and outside of the sport suggest Ruiz may be playing with fire, unnecessarily messing with the delicate athletic alchemy that launches him or any athlete to world-class status.
"I like the idea that he cares and has pride, but I wonder why now?" said famed trainer Teddy Atlas, who among other things currently works as a boxing commentator on ESPN. "But wait, I can answer that. I think it's because there's pressure on him. They hear the noise. They're not deaf. So part of me would be concerned about why. Some guys come down too much and they lose the fuel."
Change makes everyone nervous, especially when it's altering something that worked. And while Ruiz has his reasons for shaping up, none other than Mike Tyson wonders about the wisdom of Ruiz's choice and whether it could cost him his mojo, particularly in the power department.
"There have been rumors he has lost weight," Tyson told Parimatch (per the Daily Mail). "I don't like that. I believe losing the weight can affect power sometimes. If it's not broken, don't fix it. He did well at that weight, so he should stay at that weight."
Size Matters (Sometimes)
The natural concern for a heavyweight boxer trying to cut a significant amount of weight is a loss of power.
"People talk about big overweight guys, and what they would do if they lost weight," said George Lockhart, a nutritionist who has worked with a number of combat sports champions, including middleweight boxing great Gennady Golovkin and former dual-division UFC champ Conor McGregor. "You wouldn't pack so much weight behind that big right hand. It's just physics."
Ruiz, however, is not a "big right hand" kind of fighter. He's recorded 22 of his 33 wins via knockout, but his come less from a single blow and more thanks to hand and foot speed, which allow him to string together combinations, batter the body and let the physical and strategic damage build over the course of the fight.
In other words, although he is bigger than most heavyweights, Ruiz actually fights like someone much smaller—someone who isn't a heavyweight at all.
"He fights like a smaller man because of his hand speed, his ability to throw combinations," said Joe Goossen, a longtime trainer and commentator for Premier Boxing Champions on Fox. "He's got a variety of punches. He works the left up underneath and he works the jab to the head. He'll get a knockout by throwing five, six, seven punches in combination. He's not just winding up for one big shot. ... I've always said that if you could get a heavyweight to fight like a welterweight, then you've got something."
So if the risk of diminished power shouldn't be that big of a deal for Ruiz, where is the trouble in weight loss? Part of it is the simple risk of the unknown. Ruiz has never done this before, boxing observers said, meaning it is unknowable how his body will react. Another big ingredient is his durability—the knockdown he sustained at the hands of Joshua was his first as a pro. Size is widely believed to play a big role in chin as well as power.
Given the timing, some wonder if the months before the biggest fight of your life is the time to be experimenting with the daily routine.
"A lineman might be 340 but play at a high level," said LeCharles Bentley, a former NFL offensive lineman and now a performance coach and owner of L.Bentley O-Line Performance in Arizona. "Someone comes along and says 325 might be better, but it's not necessarily the case. Losing 20 pounds may not be the best thing for him in power, or his ability to fight late into the fight. Size plays a role in endurance. ... You could get to the sixth round and start wondering, should I have changed?"
Stamina could pose another problem. Even small changes in body composition can markedly affect the body's energy needs. While it may seem counterintuitive for weight loss to hamper cardiovascular endurance, the two things are not necessarily binary.
"You can't actually see someone's fitness level," Lockhart said. "The leanest person is not always the highest fitness level. A guy could look like a beast, but those muscles require oxygen. Fat is its own energy source. A Toyota Prius isn't cool-looking, but it goes forever. A muscle car might go faster, but it needs more gas or carbs."
Like their bodies, an elite athlete's brain is a finely tuned piece of equipment, honed to operate at peak levels under fairly specific conditions. The space between one's ears stands to benefit—or be harmed—by a dramatic shift in approach almost as much as any other part of the body.
Ruiz himself admitted the goal of his weight-loss plan was at least in part to look more like a fighter out of central casting. If that is indeed the case, there could be a risk that he is reshaping his physique for the wrong reasons—or at least reasons that aren't necessarily related to performance.
"The benefit component is psychological," Bentley said. "Maybe that athlete feels better. Does he feel more confident? You want that psychological edge, but you don't want to reach the point of diminishing returns."
With a relatively short time before the rematch, it could be easy to lose too much weight and then be left lacking in certain areas and unable to restore or adapt in time for the bout. Put another way, it isn't just how much weight you lose, but how and how quickly you lose it.
That left some experts wondering whether even 10 or 15 pounds was too much weight to attempt to lose before the December 7 rematch.
"Certain guys can lose too much and look vulnerable," Goossen said. "Can you improve a little bit? Absolutely. But you don't want to try too hard for it."
The Champ's Process
The month after his big win, Ruiz, who punctuated his post-fight press appearances by openly expressing his longtime love of Snickers bars, drew laughs and raised eyebrows on social media while extolling a more dietarily sensitive outlook on life, one in which a typical lunch consisted of a club sandwich and chicken noodle soup.
"That's something I'm working on now, choosing the right foods," said Ruiz during an interview with Josh Peter of USA Today, wherein he also bragged about giving up his beloved Snickers. "If not, I would be eating a three-patty hamburger with bacon and all kinds of cheese. People need to understand that I came this far being chubby and all that. Imagine how far I could go actually being in good shape and looking good."
Fortunately, Ruiz has turned to professionals for help. He has been working with California-based Zo's Meal Plans to set his up his nutrition planning. Speaking recently with James Dielhenn of Sky Sports, a Zo's spokesperson said Ruiz was eating an omelet for breakfast, a chicken salad or wrap for lunch, and steak or fish with pasta or rice for dinner.
There are limits to his good nature, though.
"I'm sick and tired of salmon right now," Ruiz said at the October presser.
Diet—and exercise, for that matter—aren't enough on their own to achieve an optimal weight and peak performance. The third and perhaps most overlooked leg on that metaphorical stool is sleep, which is the kind of detail that can fall by the wayside when weight-loss plans happen on tighter timelines than might otherwise be optimal.
"Sleep is your biggest and best PED," Bentley said. "That's where all your work actually takes root. When you're training, it doesn't show up until you can recover. That's what's happening when you sleep. That's where the body heals itself and the brain begins to wire skill development. You can type or code on a computer all day long. But until you turn the cipher off, that coding won't stick."
This is particularly true in boxing, where less tangible traits like reflexes and smarts are big parts of the success equation. According to boxing experts, these, and not purely physical talents, are what has always set Ruiz apart—and likely will determine his performance in December, regardless of what the scale says.
"The first time I remember seeing Ruiz, I remember he was sparring," Atlas said. "I didn't know him that well. I saw him and I thought 'gee, he's heavy.' But he was just one of those guys. If you're a doctor, I'm sure you'd look at his health status differently than a civilian would, or an art collector who's looking to pick up something for their wall. I was looking through the lens of a boxing person. A classic car may have rust, but you have to learn to see beneath the rust."
Ruiz has indeed been "one of those guys," at least to this point, though all the prominent bookmakers have the champ as an underdog to defend his belts against a presumably hypermotivated Joshua. Whether he'll still be the champ come December 7 has everything to do with what happens now, and how he chooses to live the dream that began with that improbable and history-making knockout.
Scott Harris is a feature writer for Bleacher Report.