Sometime around 2006 or 2007, Chris Arreola recalls, he shared the ring with Andy Ruiz for the first time. Arreola was a heavyweight prospect on the rise, knocking out opponents on California club shows, on the verge of his big break on HBO. Even in a bountiful boxing market like California, heavyweights are always in need of bodies big enough to spar them, and there just so happened to be a teenager who had the requisite poundage on his frame in the gym that day. 

“I remember seeing him (and thinking) 'spar with this guy?' First of all, don't judge a book by its cover, because he was fat, short, and I'm like holy sh!t, I guess, whatever I'll get in the ring with him,” Arreola said on FOX’s pre-fight countdown show. “(I thought) holy f---, this guy has the fastest hands that I've sparred with as a heavyweight. It got a little heated, and actually it was a really good sparring session. I knew eventually I was going to have to deal with him.”

On Saturday night, that moment came, as an aging Arreola gave Ruiz the test he required in order to move back into the heavyweight title picture Ruiz once sat atop, and probably a little bit more than he asked for too. This time, it was the 40-year old Arreola who turned in a surprising performance after being all but dismissed as useful opposition to heavyweight contenders several years ago. 

Arreola dropped Ruiz in the second round and rattled him a handful of other times, but ultimately came up well short on the scorecards. Ruiz was awarded a unanimous decision by scores of 117-110 and 118-109 twice, tallies that—whether fair or not—didn’t reflect the competitive nature or the excitement of the bout.

Nor did they reflect the utility of the outing for Ruiz, who entered this fight with as much to prove as he did as a teenager in sparring in the late 2000s. After shockingly upsetting Anthony Joshua to become the heavyweight champion of the world, Ruiz went from an obscurity and a bedroom in his mother’s home to global celebrity and a mansion in California overnight. The understandable temptation to celebrate led him to venues of excess more often than his time in the gym could compensate for, and he ballooned to 310 pounds. When he entered the ring to face Joshua in a December 2019, he was still 283 ½ pounds, still courageous but without the benefit of a focused training camp. He lost his titles back to Joshua before he could make a successful defense. 

Ruiz’s demise led the public to believe that Ruiz was either a fluke of a champion altogether, or simply one incapable of escaping his own intemperance long enough to replicate his magical night ever again.

Ruiz opted for a wholesale change of environment, admitting that despite his former leader Manny Robles’ acumen as a trainer, for whatever reason Ruiz wasn’t listening to him. He called Eddy Reynoso and asked if he could join the Canelo camp, and spent several months shedding close to 50 pounds, and in the process becoming lighter on his feet and adding upper body and head movement to his in-ring cadence.

But fights aren’t won by looking svelte in pre-fight publicity photos. Ruiz hadn’t fought since the holiday season of 2019, and insisted repeatedly following the Arreola bout that he felt rusty, tabulating his condition to be at “about 60 per cent.”

“The rustiness showed. I kind of underestimated him,” said Ruiz at the post-fight press conference. “I feel like I could have done a lot more, a lot more that we practiced in the gym. I couldn't really get my distance. I should have put my hands a little (higher) up, bob and weave a little bit more.”

Ruiz certainly wasn’t the only one to underestimate Arreola, who entered the bout as a +1200 underdog on some sportsbooks. Even FOX’s own pre-fight hype shows struggled to find evidence that Arreola could threaten Ruiz, leaning heavily on the highlights of his stay-busy KO win over Jeanpierre Augustin from March of 2019.

The Arreola that fought Ruiz had very little tactical resemblance to the one that appeared last time out against Adam Kownacki. In fact, Arreola threw less than half the number of punches he did against Kownacki at Ruiz. His hallmark bravado and power remained, but the recklessness was curbed, opting to let Ruiz come to him as often as he could to time him with hard jabs and chopping right hands. 

Following the knockdown and the hairy moments those shots produced for Arreola in the second and third rounds, Ruiz became hip to his approach. The big moments for Arreola became less frequent than the three punch combinations punctuated by left hooks Ruiz was landing.

Perhaps the most critical moment of the fight came in the ninth round however, one which showed the intelligence of Ruiz’s new trainer Reynoso. Ruiz landed a sweeping right hand that connected in Arreola’s armpit. Arreola immediately turned away and started shaking his left arm. Though his trainer Joe Goossen questioned him about whether he was hurt when he returned to the corner, some combination of Arreola’s machismo, toughness and the fact that commission members were within earshot prompted him to respond in the negative. 

In Ruiz’s corner, meanwhile, Reynoso told his fighter specifically to “go after his shoulder.” It’s a strategy which worked for Canelo in a recent bout against Callum Smith, in which Canelo totally neutralized Smith’s vaunted left hook by repeatedly battering his arm. In the championship rounds, Arreola noticeably tried to pick up the tempo, but the zip on his jab and left hook had deteriorated just enough to negate the late rally he was looking for.  

“It felt like he almost dislocated my shoulder, like for real, he's a strong dude,” Arreola admitted following the fight.

Ruiz’s improved physique and ability to make very specific tactical adjustments speak to the party line that he is a newly dedicated and focused fighter. Reynoso said following the fight that the first thing Ruiz told him as he was getting dressed was that he wanted to go back to the gym, something Reynoso said “made him so happy.” Reynoso, who has earned his billing as boxing’s trainer du jour for his work with Canelo, Oscar Valdez and more, said “I promise you he will be world champion again.”

Against more ponderous opponents without a long jab, Ruiz’s lightning hand speed will be a serious problem. We know that even a sub-optimally prepared version of Ruiz is capable of beating Anthony Joshua, for example. But the mere fact that he was hurt by Arreola, and was at least under some level of duress from him thereafter will allow many to ask questions about Ruiz’s true ceiling moving forward.

As for the other big-name heavies, even his latest opponent Arreola has some concerns. 

“Let's think about this, if he stays on the outside, Wilder chews his ass up. He can't do that, he has to get his ass to the inside, move his head and get back in there,” said Arreola. 

Fifteen years after they first sparred, long after the scales of notoriety and importance had tipped the other direction, the old veteran still had something to teach Ruiz.