Amateur light-heavyweight boxer John Ruiz sits in Room 223 of the Marriott Hotel in Worcester, Mass., at 8:45 on a Wednesday night. Four blocks away at the Worcester Centrum, the best amateur fighters in the United States are competing in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Boxing Trials.
While most of the other fighters nervously mill in and around the Centrum, Ruiz, 20, sits in an armchair with his stocking feet on an ottoman while watching “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” on television. Ruiz is scheduled to fight Jeremy Williams, a professional model from Long Beach, Calif., in the quarterfinals tomorrow night. Williams, also 20, has never lost a fight to another American.
A visitor to Ruiz’s room asks how he feels. He shrugs his shoulders and says, OK.
“How was Hampton?” he is asked. Good, he answers succinctly as he nods his head. What else could be said about taking a months off from his job on a Boston Harbor shuttle boat – and a month away from home – to train in Hampton Beach, N.H.? It’s been a tumultuous period for such a quiet man. During that time he had spoken with many radio, television and newspaper people from the Boston area. He’s said and done everything that he has to. Now Ruiz can quietly sit and watch a movie – alone.
John Ruiz (pronounced: Rue-ease) began boxing when he was 8 years old. He quit boxing when he was 13 but started again four years later in 1989. The following year, Ruiz won the National PAL Championship. In 1991, he was the runner up (to Jeremy Williams) in the National Golden Gloves Championship and in 1992 he defeated the four-time world champion, German Torsten May. Three years after he started, he has lost only three of 44 fights. He’s ranked No. 6 in the world and he’s fighting for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
SEVERAL WEEKS EARLIER, Ruiz rolls out of bed in Chelsea, Mass., wearing a T-shirt and gym shorts. It’s cold and raining outside. It’s what athletes call “gut-check time” – when character and resolve are fiercely tested. He can go back to bed or do his morning roadwork. The small, first-floor apartment is dark and quiet as Ruiz slowly begins pulling on his running gear. His wife, Sahara, and his 2-year-old son, Johnny, are sleeping downstairs in the basement bedroom. The only sounds to be heard are the jet airplanes making their approaches to Logan Airport and the diesel engines of the tanker rigs shifting through their gears as they come and go to the huge oil tanks down the street.
Over his running sweats Ruiz wears a black, nylon jacket with a “USA BOXING” patch on the left breast. On his head is a gray, knitted-wool hat. He does a few stretches on the narrow street outside the brick row house and begins running.
Across the street, a corner lot contains a couple dozen junked cars. The top of the green Tobin Bridge is visible through the mist as the street lights begin flickering off. The sky slowly turns lighter and lighter shades of gray – but not blue. Ruiz runs down streets lined with sub shops, bar rooms, auto body shops, check-cashing services and donut shops. Almost every sign along the street is in Spanish as well as English. He runs past Chelsea Police headquarters and continues a few blocks until he turns toward the Tobin Bridge. On the other side are warehouses, office complexes and the Mystic Mall. Bakery delivery trucks pass Ruiz unnoticed – one after another. As he begins to warm up he picks up the pace and turns left toward the Admiral’s Hill Condominium complex. It’s as bucolic as blue-collar Chelsea gets. The condominiums were built during the real estate boom of the mid 1980s for the middle-class professionals who work across the bridge in Boston. It’s only a mile away from one of the housing projects in which Ruiz grew up, but it’s worlds away. Chelsea may be bankrupt and under federal receivership, but there is little evidence of it here. The wooden condominium townhouses with landscaped lawns line newly paved clean streets. Most of the cars in the assigned parking spaces are late-model imports – there isn’t a ’72 Buick in sight.
Ruiz maintains the same pace while running the hills as he runs on the flat streets. As he nears the top of one of the hills the wind slashes Ruiz’s face with rain. Down below is the sprawling produce distribution center and the gigantic oil storage tanks. Periodically he throws a few discreet uppercuts or clears his nostrils by holding one closed with his thumb while exhaling out the other. Mucus sprays out into the damp air – one sharp blow out of each side. People drive by him with barely a notice. It’s an ironic scene because the previous week Ruiz defeated the best light heavyweight amateur in the world on television.
The reasons for a boy to begin boxing are as numerous as there are fighters. But there are two cliché scenarios. The first is of a boy who is getting pushed around in school so his father brings him down the basement or to the local gym for the boy to learn the art of self-defense. The second scenario is that of a tough, streetwise kid who is persuaded to use his fighting abilities constructively rather than destructively. So he is introduced to boxing, “the sweet science.” When Ruiz began boxing in 1989, it wasn’t because he lost a fight or was getting pushed around in school. He wasn’t a street fighter either. He started boxing after he won a street fight – one of the few he has had. But he was disappointed because he was tired when it was over. He was “winded,” he now says incredulously. So Ruiz asked his stepfather, Junior, to train him as he had done for five years, before Ruiz quit boxing when he was 13 years old. Junior told him that he didn’t think he was serious, to leave him alone. He didn’t want his heart broken when Ruiz quit on him again. Ruiz asked his older brother, Eddie, to appeal on his behalf. Finally, Junior relented and brought Ruiz to the Somerville Boxing Club in Union Square. On a recent Tuesday night, the gym’s locker is crowded with fighters at 5:45. All the chairs surrounding the two rings are taken. Fighters of every shape and size punch bags, skip ropes and spar with each other. Some of them look as though they’ve never had a fight in their lives; others look like they’ve had far too many.
The gym is on the third floor of the Somerville Boys and Girls Club on Washington Street. A blue banner on the driveway fence announces the gym’s presence and a hand-lettered sign instructs visitors to ring the bell to gain entrance through glass doors. The stairway is made of polished granite and the handrail is shiny aluminum. It’s quite a change from the gym’s previous location about an auto body shop in an industrial section of the city. The old gym was a throwback to the 1940s and ‘50s, a good setting for a fight movie but intimidating to novices. The new gym is more accessible. It’s a gym of the 1990s, more user friendly, if you will.
To many of the fighters, probably the majority, the sport is merely a passing interest. Something sparked by a schoolyard bully or a fight on HBO. But it’s also an interest that rarely survives the test of time, girls, hormones and dozens of bloody noses. For the few fighters who continue in the sport, the odds of becoming a champion are slim. They’re underdogs, yet few of them know it.
In one of the rings, Ruiz, known as “the quiet man,” is working. He is six-feet, one and weighs 180 pounds. He is long and lean with coffee-colored skin. His face is wide and unmarked. He keeps his hair in a short flat top. There is nothing very muscular about Ruiz. The only unusual feature about his body is his legs. They’re sinewy and vacuolated, like those of a racehorse. It’s the apparent result of years of running road races and playing basketball and football.
In the ring, he’s wearing a black-nylon sweat suit and black gloves as he punches the red mitts on the hands of his trainer, Gabe Mari. Every time Ruiz punches one of the mitts, Mari’s full head of white hair trembles from the percussion. Ruiz appears oblivious to the people and the activity outside the ring. His eyes are fixed on Mari and the punching mitts. While following him around the ring, Ruiz punches from various angles and positions. Sometimes he punches from in close, and sometimes he’s at arm’s length. His punches are thrown with an impressive economy of movement. There is little wasted motion. His hands are held high and his elbows are tucked tight to his body. With each punch he emits a sound – shiss, shiss … shiss, shiss. The punches are short, quick and powerful as attested by the sound they produce on the mitts and Mari’s trembling hair. Sometimes Mari walks toward Ruiz, crowding him, shiss, shiss, shiss. Then he moves away and forces Ruiz to become the pursuer while throwing punches – shiss, shiss … shiss, shiss. Suddenly Mari throws a three-quarter speed left jab at Ruiz’s head. He slips it by moving his head to the right and then comes back with three or four more punches into the mitts, shiss, shiss, shiss. After three minutes, the automatic timer rings. The noise level in the gym drops sharply as the fighters stop punching and skipping. Some of them drink water from one of the plastic bottles on the ring posts. Others stand around and talk while waiting for the next bell to announce the end of their one-minute break. Between rounds, sweat is pouring down Ruiz’s face and he doesn‘t appear interested in talking with anyone. He walks to the ropes on the far side of the ring and clears his nostrils of mucus with the same indelicate method he used while doing his roadwork. Then he walks to the near side of the ring, where Mari is standing with his co-trainer, Norman Stone. Ruiz leans over the top rope and spits into a trash can. He then looks down at the red canvas covering the ring floor while his trainers give him instructions. He nods his head periodically and loosens his neck by moving his head around in circles, a common fighter’s habit. Mari, a former professional lightweight who fought for the world championship nearly 25 years ago, speaks animatedly. It’s a curious sight, the older, white-haired trainer speaking rapidly with the dark and brooding young fighter. Each of Mari’s instructions is accompanied by an exaggerated demonstration. Ruiz, covered in sweat, looks down at his trainer and silently nods. The bell rings after the one-minute rest. “OK, let’s go,” Mari says. The two return to the center of the ring. Ruiz resumes punching the mitts and Mari’s hair starts trembling again.
After the work in the ring, Ruiz removes red hand wraps and makes his way to adjoining weight room to do his calisthenics. Most fighters do this part of their training in relative isolation, but Mari and Stone follow him because of his elevated status. An assortment of weightlifting machines line the walls. Stone times Ruiz with a stopwatch as he skips rope while looking out a window with a view of the traffic winding its way through Union Square in the distance. Stone and Mari speak quietly while watching their young charge. When Ruiz gets a foot or ankle tangled in the rope he doesn’t miss a beat. Instead, he keeps moving until he gets the rope free and resumes his skipping. Four of five times he crosses his hands as he skips the rope, a fancy move that fighters employ to break the monotony. Stone checks the watch and yells “time!” Ruiz hands Mari the rope and does four continuous minutes of sit-ups. He then does a variety of neck exercises learned from his days playing football for Chelsea High School.
Ruiz returns to the main room of the gym and removes his sweat-soaked T-shirt and dries himself with a towel. He puts on a clean shirt and then bundles himself in his favorite black hooded Celtics jacket. He leaves the gym without speaking to anyone else except Mari and Stone.
ON A SUNDAY afternoon at Anthony’s function hall in Malden, Mass., friends and family are hosting a 95th birthday party for the dean of Boston’s boxing trainers, Al Clemente. Attendees sit at large, round tables talking and laughing while enjoying coffee and dessert. Meanwhile, at the end of the room there is one table that is different from the rest. It’s occupied exclusively by men. But there is something distinctive about them. They all have dented noses. It looks like they walked into the same eye-level bookcase at some time in their lives. The cartilage that normally forms the bridge of the nose has been flattened not by a bookcase but thousands of punches. The men are ex fighters and their noses represent a type of membership card into an unofficial club, a fraternity of fists, if you will. Among them is Johnny Rafuse, a retired New England junior welterweight champion. He has his hands on his waistline and is shaking his head as a waitress places a dessert in front of him. A veteran of 50 professional fights, Rafuse has gained 15 pounds since retiring a year ago. He now weighs 160 pounds. The average man would be envious of Rafuse’s physical condition, but to a professional boxer anything less than fighting trim can be troubling. When discussing Ruiz, who is a former training partner at the Somerville Boxing Club, Rafuse’s face lights up. His hands ball into fists as he positions them next to his chin while demonstrating Ruiz’s style. “That kid can really fight. He’s a natural,” Rafuse says. “A tough, tough kid.”
A visitor asks Rafuse about Ruiz’s character.
“He’s a gentleman; a real good kid. The quiet man,” he says laughing.
Ruiz’s managers have adopted The Quiet Man moniker because of his reticent demeanor. Even in the world of boxing, where conversational skills aren’t considered a top priority, Ruiz is viewed as exceptionally non-talkative. When there is important family business, he lets Sahara do the talking. “Sometimes he get caught up in the words because he is so shy,” she says.
Ruiz is a reluctant warrior. There are no boxers he greatly admires. He doesn’t watch the sport on TV; he just isn’t interested. He’d rather spend his free time with his family or playing basketball at Chelsea High School with his friends. Like thousands of inner-city youths, Ruiz views boxing as a means to an end, a way out. He’s dispassionate when discussing the sport. There is no tough talk or showy bravado. Instead, he approaches boxing with a deadly seriousness. When asked how he would feel if one day an injury prevented him from fighting again, there is no end-of-the-world, boxing-is-my-life speech. Instead, he simply shrugs his shoulders and says he would like to attend trade school some day.
A.J. Liebling, arguably the greatest American boxing writer, once wrote that fighters are “the most tranquil of athletes.” Ruiz’s demeanor exemplifies that.
When Ruiz was 8 years old, he began crying when his stepfather was bringing his brother Eddie to the boxing gym, leaving young Johnny at home. They relented and let him tag along. First they went to Boston’s best-known gym, Al Clemente’s New Garden Gym in the West End, near the Boston Garden. Eddie soon quit boxing but John continued. Amateur rules prohibit boys from competing in Amateur Boxing Federation bouts until they are 16. So from 8 to 13 Ruiz fought in 17 Junior Olympic bouts in the Boston area. His stepfather, Junior, says he’d wake up 10-year-old John at 6 a.m. to do his roadwork. He’d bundle him up on cold winter mornings and walk him to the street. Junior would tell him how many miles to run and what route to take. Junior says John would just nod and begin running without saying a word. Then Junior would go inside the house and wait for John to return 30 or 40 minutes later. How often would you do this? “Every day,” Junior says.
He never missed a day?
“Ev-er-y day,” he adds for emphasis. “No excuses.”
Junior, a Puerto Rican immigrant, instilled a measure of old-world work ethic in his stepson. But eventually there were excuses. When John was 13, he didn’t want to be a fighter anymore. The daily regimentation was too much. He wanted to play other sports. He wanted to compete in road races.
“I cried,” Junior says simply. “I cried.”
SAHARA RUIZ IS as confident and outgoing as her husband is socially awkward and reticent. A former Chelsea High School cheerleader, she exudes cheerleader cuteness and possesses a ready smile. Although her husband has a habit of looking at his shoes when someone is speaking to him, Sahara stares straight into people’s eyes with a steely confidence. She says people often think her husband is cocky or arrogant because he doesn’t go out of his way to speak with them. But once people get to know Ruiz they understand his quietness, she says. His maturity and seriousness is the product of his past.
Ruiz’s life has been far from idyllic. His mother, Gladys, married and had her first child when she was 18 years old. She had the remaining three children in the next two-and-a-half years. The family moved five times before John finished high school. They lived in Methuen, Mass., spent six months in Puerto Rico, and then moved to New Haven, Conn. A subsequent housing project in Chelsea, and then the Central Avenue Housing Project, were not the most nurturing environments for a young family.
“It’s the type of place where everyone is doing drugs,” Ruiz says. “If it wasn’t for my stepfather …” His voice trails off and he just shakes his head.
Ruiz’s older brother, Robert, says there wasn’t always a father in the house because of his mother’s two divorces. As a result, his younger brother had to grow up fast, producing the serious demeanor.
A combination of factors prompted Ruiz’s return to boxing in 1989. When he was a junior in high school, Sahara became pregnant with John Jr. He also had a fight with a classmate who made rude remarks to Sahara. Not great with words, Ruiz let his fists intervene on her behalf. But months later, the classmate tried to get revenge by sneaking up on Ruiz. Although Ruiz beat him, it took too much energy for him to win the fight. During his senior year in high school, Ruiz was at a crossroads. He realized he was going to graduate in the spring, he had a baby boy and he was out of shape, both physically and financially. It was time to take control. So every night after football practice or basketball practice Junior drove him to the Somerville Boxing Club.
Junior, who works for the Chelsea Public Works Department, is a proud man, strong-willed, polite and stoical. He carefully considered all the trainers at the gym before selecting one for his son, actually a pair — Mari and Stone. The two are now practically in love with Ruiz. Both trainers have been in the sport for many years and train amateurs as well as professionals. Johnny Rafuse was one of their prospects. They talk about Ruiz the way most men talk about a prized 1968 Corvette.
“Great kid,” Stone says. “The best; absolutely the best.”
Sahara Ruiz says Stone, a retired bus driver for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or the T, is more of a big brother to her and her husband than simply a boxing trainer. He’s in daily contact with them and sometimes baby sits John Jr. Stone and Mari’s personalities compliment each other in the same way Sahara Ruiz compliments her husband. Stone is carefree and easygoing while Mari is intense and impatient. The two tease each other unceasingly with locker room humor and colorful language that can leave uninitiated observers blushing.
A person can’t be taught how to throw a punch. It’s one of those skills that can be shown mechanically, but it also involves a sense of timing that is critical to proper execution. The hips, shoulders, arms, legs and hands need to all move in precise synchronization to produce the correct effect. It’s like comedy. Two people can use the exact same words while telling a joke and get vastly different results. Why? Timing. And just like comedy, it usually takes years of practice to get the timing down correctly. In boxing, the timing has to become instinctive. There is no time to think about the placement of one’s shoulder in relation to one’s hip while another guy is trying to knock you unconscious. The boxing skills Ruiz learned when he was in grade school laid dormant until his pivotal senior year of high school. Now, all Mari and Stone have to do is guide those skills back to life and to full fruition. Ruiz’s attitude needs little work because he he’s motivated and lacks any sense of complacency.
“I don’t picture myself as that good yet,” he says. “I don’t consider myself a great fighter. “It’s just not me; I’m always learning.”
Indeed, Ruiz is a simple a man who is probably best suited for boxing. After all, it’s a simple sport that’s measured in three-minute intervals. It’s a life spent in canvas-covered- roped in 20-foot squares. It’s man against man and leather-covered fists are the only weapons. How much simpler could life be? “In boxing, it’s just up to me,” he says. “In team sports, it’s always like you’re always hoping the other guys on the team do their jobs.”
BACK IN WORCESTER, Ruiz is ready to do his job as he walks out from under the stands at the Worcester Centrum about 8:50 p.m. to get gloved for his fight with Williams. About 200 fans from Chelsea start cheering and applauding when they spot Ruiz. “John-ny, John-ny!” they begin chanting. The fans race to seats above the official gloving table. “Here we go Chelsea. Here we go … blam, blam!” as they stomp their feet in unison. The noise is nearly deafening. Members of the media at ringside stop typing and writing as they look over their shoulders at the commotion. “Well, it’ll be safe on the streets of Chelsea tonight,” Boston Globe reporter Ron Borges says.
At the gloving table, Mari and Stone are lacing up Ruiz’s gloves under the supervision of a USA Boxing official. The fans hover over them screaming their support. Although other fighters remain in the gloving area to warm up, Mari and Stone usher Ruiz back to the locker room to escape the turmoil. Ten minutes later, they are back for the fight. Ruiz enters the ring in blue shorts and a blue singlet with the words “Somerville Boxing Club” printed in white on the back. Williams, a lean and black fighter, enters the ring wearing dark green shorts, dark green singlet and fluorescent-yellow boxing shoes. Both fighters are an impressive sight as they stand in the ring. They’re young, fit and eager to fight; two men in their athletic primes.
The fight is more of a brawl than a boxing match. Although the jab is a basic punch and typically the most frequently used in a fighter’s arsenal, Ruiz doesn’t jab as often as usual. Instead, he leads with his more powerful right hand. When he catches Williams, the fans go crazy. Ruiz stands straighter than usual and throws most of his punches at Williams’ head, ignoring the body, a larger target. Williams deftly bends to the side and throws hooks and uppercuts at Ruiz, catching him in the head and the body. The fighters throw two or three punches from the outside and then collide into each other. They grapple for position while trying to do damage at close range. Toward the end of the first round Williams appears to be breathing heavily.
During Round Two, there’s still little boxing or dancing around. Instead, Ruiz and Williams try to throw punches from the outside before clashing again and again. The referee, dressed in an all-white Amateur Boxing Federation uniform, works hard to keep the fight from turning into a wrestling match. Ruiz throws one right-hand lead after another. The pace is furious and both fighters look fatigued by the third round. Williams appears desperate to land some clean blows. He tries uppercuts and more hooks to the body. Suddenly, Ruiz throws a left jab that snaps Williams’ head back and the crowd erupts. With about 40 seconds left in the bout, the referee separates the fighters and deducts two points from Ruiz for holding. But Ruiz points to his ripped shirt to show what was actually holding Williams’ glove. The referee ignores Ruiz’s protest and the crowd begins to boo. A horn blows to signal an end to the fight.
After returning to his own corner, Ruiz walks across the ring to offer Williams his hand. But Williams is facing his trainers in his corner and ignores Ruiz’s gesture. Williams then turns around and looks up at Ruiz’s raucous fans. He smiles and then grabs his crotch. The fans begin booing and taunting Williams. The trainers cut the gloves off the fighters’ hands and the two shake hands with each other and the referee. The ring announcer then pronounces Williams the winner by a 5-0 decision. All five judges voted for Williams.
After the fight, Williams is telling a group of reporters he is a “disciple of God” since he converted to Islam four months ago. “It was a 5-0 decision, but it was probably close on all five cards,” he says. “The people were upset, which is understandable. … Islam has changed my attitude toward people. It’s made me an all-around person because I’ve become more humble.” None of the reporters question Williams’ about grabbing his crotch in the ring to taunt the fans. Williams’ trainer makes some comments and the two leave. A USA Boxing official then leads Ruiz into the room. He has a towel over his shoulders and a slight welt has risen under his right eye. A reporter asks him about the close fight and the 5-0 decision.
“It’s just the way it went,” he says. “It’s not for me to judge. It’s up to the judges. I was disappointed, but I won’t let it hold me back.”
Another reporter asks Ruiz about his plans.
“I just gotta think about my pro career now,” he says.
IT’S 90 DEGREES in Chelsea on the Sunday afternoon following the Williams fight. As the qualifying boxers are competing in the finals in Worcester, Ruiz is hosing down the back porch of his apartment. He’s wearing red shorts and shower thongs. He’s preparing for some backyard barbecues during the next couple of months, before resuming his training. Ruiz seems to relish the idea of a quiet summer after the tumult of the past two months. “I’m not happy with how things turned out,” he says. “But I’m happy that it’s over.”
A visitor asks Ruiz how the loss will affect him. He scratches his head and shrugs his shoulders looking for an answer. “None, really,” he finally says. Then he goes on to explain that boxing is separate from his personal life, his friends and family all treat him the same. After all, there are things more important than the Olympic Trials. Two weeks before the Williams fight he learned that Sahara was pregnant. He plans to return to his job on the Boston Harbor shuttle boat and ready himself for his professional debut. It appears that life has returned to normal for Ruiz, the life of three-minute intervals. He smiles as if to reassure his visitor that all is well despite the loss to Williams and the end of a chance at the Olympics.
“It’s not like my career is over,” he says. “It’s just beginning.”
In 2001, seven years after his defeat to Jeremy Williams, John Ruiz defeated Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas to win the World Boxing Association’s heavyweight championship. It marked the first time in history a native of Puerto Rico won a world heavyweight boxing title. Ruiz would eventually participate in 55 professional fights and win 44 of those, 30 by knockout. He retired in 2010 and now lives in Las Vegas.
Williams would lose in the Olympic Trials qualifying round after the Ruiz fight. He subsequently turned professional and fought 48 times, winning 42 bouts, 35 by knockout. He never won a championship title.