I was having a good laugh with my friend and former top 10 tennis player Chanda Rubin in a suite within Arthur Ashe Stadium as Serena Williams was about to take the court. It was the 2015 U.S. Open and we were giddy because we were about to witness history. After winning the first three majors of the season, Williams was just two wins away from becoming the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four in a calendar year.
We were giddy because Flavia Pennetta, a player who had never beaten Williams, had already secured a spot in the finals. We were giddy because the player Williams was about to face, Roberta Vinci, had never won a set against her. We were giddy because we knew on Sept. 12, 2015, we were going to witness history.
And we did.
At 33, Pennetta became the oldest first-time major winner, defeating countrywoman Vinci 7-6 (4), 6-2. Rubin and I witnessed history, just not the history we expected.
Wilt Chamberlain famously said nobody roots for Goliath, and he was right. We like our dynasties but we love the little engine that could — or in the case of Andy Ruiz Jr., who beat the living snot out of Anthony Joshua on Saturday night, the short, fat guys who did.
With a rematch expected this fall, the question of whether Ruiz can repeat the magic is almost irrelevant. Underdogs will never have the most Twitter followers or pace a league in jersey sales, but they will always be the reason why sports matter most. We celebrate champions as gods but we identify with the Vincis and the Ruiz’s because we know what it’s like to be parishioners.
There’s a reason why when Ruiz entered the ring, the crowd at Madison Square Garden politely chuckled and when Joshua entered, it was awestruck. We may not root for Goliath but we don’t expect David to win either. So when he or she does, it gives us hope that perhaps against all odds, we can overcome the odds that are staked against us in our own lives as well. If that glimmer of hope didn’t exist, it’s doubtful sports would hold such a prominent place in society.
This is especially true when it comes to a sport like boxing, in which so many of the combatants have less-than-ideal episodes in their background to begin with.
For example, before Joshua’s demise, Ray Robinson entered the ring. He was forced to wear a body cast as an infant after being thrown down a flight of stairs. Not long after that, he lived for four years in a homeless shelter with his mother and six siblings.
Before Robinson entered the ring, Marco Antonio Periban fought professionally for the first time in more than two years. The layoff didn’t stem from an injury or lack of interest but rather he told me the Mexican cartel demanded money from him before he would be allowed to fight again. They threatened his family.
Periban made it back to the sport that he loves but he lost in his return.
Robinson’s fight was a draw.
Ruiz became the first heavyweight of Mexican descent to become champion.
None of them, for various reasons, should have been there to begin with … and this is why we watch. It’s not always about our favorite team or fairy-tale endings. Periban didn’t have a fairy-tale ending, and that’s OK because that’s a part of life. But he showed heart and that’s a part of life as well.
Over the years I, like many journalists, have been fortunate enough to be present for a number of unexpected victories. I was in San Antonio when Mario Chalmers hit the three-pointer that sent the Kansas-Memphis championship game into overtime.
I was in Glendale, Ariz., when the New York Giants defeated the 18-0 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. I was in Atlanta when the 101-win Atlanta Braves lost 5-1 in Game 5 of the NLDS, handing the 88-win Chicago Cubs its first playoff series victory since 1908.
In each scenario the environment of these improbable wins were similar. Loose chatter from fans about what obviously was going to happen followed by disbelief of what was happening and concluding with a deep appreciation of what was witnessed. Maybe belief in the impossible is what really separates gods from mortals more than physical gifts or a turn of good fortune.
Ruiz didn’t have the pedigree but he had belief. Now that he has both, this fall he becomes the hunted. Now that Joshua has been stripped of his mystique, we get to see if he still has the belief that got him there in the first place. Remember his rise was far from destined as the then 21-year-old stood in a London court pleading guilty to drug-dealing charges back in 2011. The same heart that made him a star is the same heart that got Ruiz off the mat and provided us with one of the greatest rounds of boxing in recent memory.