Shining Under the Bright Lights of Pressure

Andy Ruiz Jr., Julian Williams and Jean Pascal all overcame heavy odds to win world titles in 2019. Here’s how they did it.

Unified World Heavyweight Champion - Andy Ruiz Jr.

There is a glimpse of Los Angeles Rams’ quarterback Jared Goff as he was running out of the team tunnel for Super Bowl LIII that said something wasn’t quite right.

Goff looked up at the blazing lights and the swirling crowd of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and his face lost pigment. His limbs seemed to freeze up under a hurricane of thoughts. He found himself on a monumental stage and the moment gripped him.

Then, Goff went out and proceeded to play one of the worst games in Super Bowl history.

Fighters get blitzed by the bright lights all of the time. They shrivel, their actions are skittish, their mind doubtful as to what to do next.

Then, unlike Goff, there are those not-ready-for-primetime performers who shine in that glare. They don’t want to get embarrassed. Their will won’t allow it.

This year in boxing could be marked “The Year of the Upset,” because there’s been plenty, big and small.

Not many thought Julian Williams could sustain the pressure of towering Jarrett Hurd in May, but “J-Rock” did, scoring a mild upset in garnering the WBA and IBF world super welterweight belts in May. 

No one, save for his family, team and close friends, thought Andy Ruiz Jr. would beat Anthony Joshua in annexing the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles, let alone knocking “AJ” down four times, in June.

Then there was Jean Pascal, believed to be shopworn, bouncing light heavyweight contender Marcus Browne three times off the canvas in August.

Ruiz Jr, Pascal and Williams all overcame obstacles and the strain of the glimmer that comes with being in the spotlight.

Each stepped into the fulcrum and excelled. They defiantly stood up and spoke with their actions: Not me, not tonight with everyone watching.

“For me, fighting [Anthony] Joshua was the chance of a lifetime, and I didn’t want to give it up,” said Ruiz Jr., who took the Joshua fight on a month’s notice. “I knew what a lot of people thought. No one thought I could win.

“But I felt the pressure was on (Joshua), not me. You dream about fighting before packed houses and in primetime. Why run from that? I ran toward that. It was always my dream to fight for the heavyweight championship with the whole world watching. I think any fighter would want that chance. What helped me was I had nothing to lose. Everyone thought I lost already.”

Jean Pascal always held the belief that anything is possible in life. The former WBC world light heavyweight champion carries the same personality and confidence no matter the situation. Though, at 36, and 4-4 over his previous eight fights, Pascal was supposed to be mere fodder for Marcus Browne, who was coming off a dominant victory over the rugged Badou Jack in January.

The Haitian-born Pascal laughs. He, too, like Ruiz, knows no one expected him to win.

But when the big lights were turned on at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on August 3, Pascal was loose and ready.

“I don’t know why, but it’s been the story of my life to be the underdog, even though I have the skills and I’ve proven over and over that I’m a world champion,” Pascal said. “When I faced Marcus Browne, I was the underdog again. I was supposed to lay down and lose. I always tell my daughter, ‘Don’t listen to people; listen to your heart.’ You put your heart and dedication into being prepared.

“I like the bright lights. When you’re a fighter, especially if you’re a world champion, there is a good amount of pride there. You have to have it. You have to believe in yourself, even though everyone else may not. I got into Marcus Browne’s head, like Bernard Hopkins got into my head. Being in the spotlight is natural to me. I’ve been there. But I do think fighters raise their level. When I’ve been on the big stage, I’m fighting for my pride and rising to the occasion.

“Put me under the bright lights again. I wouldn’t mind fighting Canelo Alvarez next. I have a huge fanbase in Canada. It would be two men, from two different countries and four languages. No one would think I would win. Canelo is one of the best boxers in the world and he’s said he wants to move up to 175. I would love to have that spotlight again.”

Stephen “Breadman” Edwards, Julian Williams’ trainer, is not only a brilliant tactician, he’s a boxing connoisseur versed in the old-school ways of doing things. Edwards has seen his share of fighters shrinking under the glare of pressure. One certain way of dealing with that is through preparation.

Williams feels the influence of social media comes into play today, creating myths as to just how good some fighters may be. J-Rock and Williams are as “Rocky Balboa-and-Mickey Goldmill” as they come. They know how to block out the white noise—even when they’re right smack in the center of it.

“Julian knew he was going to beat [Jarrett] Hurd,” Williams said. “There was no doubt. Julian said it at the press conference and he said it at the weigh-in. When Hurd’s fans were saying sarcastic things to him, Julian turned around and told them, ‘You can’t get in the ring with him and help him in the fight.’ Under the bright lights, when no one expects a lot out of you, the pressure is on—but it’s off, too.

“The pressure is on guys, like when you’re dating a woman. If she tells you she’s a porn star, well, she better be a porn star, or you’re going to find out fast. Jarrett Hurd was going to hit Julian Williams in the face, well, he better do it. Or, Anthony Joshua was going to knock Andy Ruiz outside the ring, well, he better do it.

“Sometimes, the expectations are what the masses put on guys. You get into the ring, under the lights, not everyone can live up to those expectations.”

They start to look around. They notice the crowd and the cameras. It’s suddenly not “a fight” anymore, it’s a show. They curl up and become rigid.

“You have to compartmentalize, and you fight (the anxiety) through preparation,” Williams said. “When you know you’re ready, you can’t wait to fight. Julian wanted to fight two weeks before the (Hurd) fight, because he put all the work in. You use that pressure, you use those bright lights as a stage.”

The kind of stage you always imagined yourself shining on.

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