It was supposed to be a coming-out party of sorts. A brand-building exercise. The dawn of the next great era in heavyweight boxing.
Anthony Joshua, a chiseled, towering, undefeated British world heavyweight champion with a wide grin and an easy disposition, came to Madison Square Garden on Saturday night to make his United States debut. He had talked before the fight about not just winning, but winning in style, and about the potential for a megafight down the road against Deontay Wilder, an undefeated world champion from the United States.
Heavyweight boxing would be back for the masses. And it seemed almost secondary that the man Joshua was facing for his first fight on United States soil was Andy Ruiz Jr., a doughy Mexican-American fighter with a penchant for eating Snickers before his fights.
Then Joshua hit the canvas. Again. Again. And again.
By the seventh round, Ruiz scored a spectacular upset with a technical knockout after the referee stopped the fight. The upset had echoes of Buster Douglas’s shocking knockout of Mike Tyson nearly 30 years ago, and it ruffled the top of the heavyweight division.
“I wanted to prove everybody wrong, all the doubters thinking I was going to lose,” said Ruiz, 29, who became the first fighter of Mexican descent to win the world heavyweight title. “I can’t believe I just made my dreams come true.”
The exhilarating showing at the Garden came at a time of renewed hope for the heavyweight division, and as broadcasters showed new interest in the sport.
There is more boxing on television than there has been in more than 30 years, and broadcasters are putting more money into the sport than ever — $400 million a year, by some estimates. ESPN, Fox and a new streaming service, DAZN, which carried Saturday night’s fight, have all made recent lucrative investments in the sport, joining the longtime boxing broadcaster Showtime. This new activity came as HBO left the boxing business last year.
No one had given Ruiz (33-1) a chance against Joshua, an ascendant megastar in the United Kingdom who had fought in front of crowds of 90,000 fans in his home country. But Ruiz stunned Joshua (22-1) with furious punching flurries that left the British fighter wobbling on many occasions. The largely pro-Joshua crowd had gone from thrilled to stunned by the time the fight was over.
Joshua embraced Ruiz in the ring after the fight, posed with him for a picture and smiled. And at 1:40 a.m. on Sunday, long after the fans had cleared out, after most of the news media had left, Joshua, 29, ambled into the interview room and was somber yet affable.
He wanted to speak to reporters, he said, “to show that we don’t fold, we stand strong at all times. I will address the situation that happened tonight, and then we move forward, onto the next.”
The larger question is what’s next for a heavyweight division that boxing enthusiasts in recent months had been hyping as on the brink of a renaissance after roughly a decade and a half slumber. Boxing has always craved an exciting heavyweight division because, with its high potential for thrilling knockouts, it has the best chance to attract mass appeal.
After Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield left the sport, the brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, who fought out of Ukraine, held a grip on the division. Despite their deft talents in the ring, their fighting styles did not have mainstream appeal, and they lacked the types of compelling rivalries that generate broad interest.
The emergence of Joshua, Wilder and Tyson Fury of Britain — three men with skills and captivating personalities, and with drama among them — seemed to present the kind of intrigue and marketability that would attract fans.
Although Ruiz’s upset dampened, for now, some of the hype of Joshua potentially fighting Wilder or Fury, some speculated that it might only add to the allure of the division.
“Any outcome is possible when the top guys fight,” said Evan Rutkowski, a former HBO sports marketing executive and host of Fistianados, a podcast about the business of boxing. “There’s three, maybe four, that could be either elite talents or potentially generational talents. But they all have weaknesses, which is what makes it all very exciting.”
Ruiz may have nudged himself into the conversation of elite heavyweights, and in doing so he gives the Mexican fan base — which is rabid for the sport — a reason to show interest in the division. After the fight, Ruiz, who was born and raised in Imperial, Calif., along the Mexican border, strolled into the news conference wearing a Knicks jersey and a nonstop grin. He spoke with a nonchalant glee.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ruiz’s victory is that he took the fight with about a month’s notice because Joshua’s previously scheduled opponent, Jarrell Miller, tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Ruiz had sent Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, a message on Instagram lobbying for the chance to get the fight.
Short and flabby, Ruiz has something of an everyman look that seems inconsistent with the more sculpted or massive physiques that tend to dominate the heavyweight division.
He might have looked like no match for Joshua, but once hands started flying, he showed the type of scrappiness and offense that fight fans love.
Joshua scored the first knockdown of the fight with a crisp left hand in the third round. But Ruiz sprang up from the canvas and knocked Joshua down twice in the third round, the first coming with a shot on top of Joshua’s head that seemed to disorient him. After the second knockdown of the round, Joshua struggled to his feet and was saved by the bell.
Then, less than a minute into the seventh round, Ruiz again brought on a flurry of punches, starting with a left hook, that dropped Joshua. Less than 30 seconds later, Joshua went down again. He staggered to his corner and leaned on the ropes. After a brief conversation with Joshua, the referee stopped the fight, and Ruiz’s camp stormed the ring in celebration.
“He wasn’t a true champion,” Wilder wrote about Joshua on Twitter after the fight. “His whole career was consisted of lies, contradictions and gifts.”
In the lead up to the fight, Joshua often talked more about potentially facing Wilder than about the task at hand on Saturday night. He insisted that he did not overlook Ruiz, however, and that he simply discussed other opponents when asked about them.
“Rather than trying to block out the fact there’s other competition out there, I keep my eyes on the prize and say, ‘Ruiz is who I’m fighting, but these are the guys I still want to compete with,’” he said.
Before getting to those other fighters, Joshua will likely face Ruiz again, because of a rematch clause in the contract.
“What I have to do is re-evaluate the situation, make it better, and we go again,” he said after the fight.
Joshua had made plans before the bout to stay in New York for a week to promote his making a mark in the United States for the first time. But this could not have been the type of mark he had envisioned.
“We wanted to create a night that people would remember for a long time,” said Mr. Hearn, his promoter. “Unfortunately, they’ll remember it for the shock defeat.”