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The Other Ruiz

Andy Ruiz
Action Images/Andrew Couldridge
Before Andy Ruiz came John Ruiz, a heavyweight dogged by a bad rep despite an illustrious ring record. Elliot Worsell catches up with the former WBA champion

Shhh… Keep it quiet but John Ruiz wasn’t a big fan of boxing when calling it his job and has even less interest in it now he is almost 10 years retired and spends his time working in Florida’s Sheriff’s Department.

True to his ‘Quiet Man’ nickname, Ruiz discusses boxing only when pressed to do so and refuses to bring up the fact he was the former WBA heavyweight champion of the world unless he is recognised by someone aware of that kind of thing. If a big fight is happening, it is usually off his radar, and when friends try cajoling him to watch one, he is usually busy.

roy jones vs John Ruiz
John Ruiz meets Roy Jones at heavyweight Action Images/Reuters/Steve Marcus

“I grew up with the sport,” he told Boxing News. “It was nonstop. I would eat, sleep and drink boxing. My stepfather was brutal with that even if all I wanted to do was watch cartoons.

“Being so young and force-fed boxing, sooner or later you want to be done. That’s probably why I didn’t watch it.

“People always used to talk to me about fights and who was out there, and I’d just say, ‘Sorry, I really don’t know. I don’t watch boxing.’ The thing is, I do love the sport, and loved being in the sport, but sitting down and watching it was too nerve-wracking for me.”

Ruiz’s recent attempts to ignore boxing were going well until another Ruiz happened to defeat Anthony Joshua at Madison Square Garden, New York in June. Unlike most fights, that one, a seventh-round knockout win for Andy, registered and did so not only because it was a colossal upset but because there was suddenly another Ruiz of Latino descent on top of the heavyweight division.

Joshua vs Ruiz
Andy Ruiz caught the world’s attention when he beat Anthony Joshua to win the world heavyweight titles General Sport Authority/Matchroom Boxing

It had all come back around: just as John Ruiz made history in 2001, when becoming Puerto Rico’s first ever world heavyweight champion, Andy Ruiz had managed to do the same for Mexico 18 years later. It’s why John feels an affinity with the new king. It’s why he jokingly tells people they are related.

“That’s my joke,” said John, now 47. “He’s another Ruiz, a Latino, who has made boxing history. Every time someone asks me about Andy Ruiz, I say, ‘Yeah, he’s my cousin.’

“It’s weird to have two Latinos from different countries with the same last name both win the heavyweight title. That’s strange to me. He managed to accomplish it and so did I, what, 18 years apart.

“I wish him all the best. I hope he keeps moving forward and takes full advantage of the spotlight.”

As far as marriages go, the one shared by Ruiz and boxing was always one of the arranged variety. He learned to love it, of course, and was grateful for all it provided, but to say he made the first move would be wide of the mark.

“I was actually thrown into boxing,” he said. “My mother left my father and moved to Boston where she met a gentleman who loved boxing. He started taking me to the gym when I was like seven years old and that’s how I got into boxing. From seven to 12, I was doing that nonstop. It was that and school.

“Being a kid, though, you get tired of it and I was looking for a way out. My stepfather and my mother separated and that was when I got away from boxing and started picking up other sports. Football, baseball, running, you name it. I tried everything. The one sport I loved was football, but I knew I could make a living from boxing because it has been a part of me since I was a kid.

David Haye defends the WBA heavyweight title against John Ruiz in Manchester Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

“Having a kid when I graduated high school meant I needed to do something with my life. I had to get a job or make a go of it with boxing. So I chose to make a living from boxing.”

Before making a living from it, Ruiz was a top-class amateur annoyed to have missed out on making the 1992 Olympic Games. That remains a sore point even now, especially as he held a win over the eventual light-heavyweight gold medallist, Torsten May, but Ruiz admits his overall amateur experience is one of the few things he misses about his time in boxing. Indeed, after the Olympic dream faded, Ruiz was tempted to stick around another four years and try again. However, a greater need to provide for his son took the decision out of his hands. In August of that year, he turned pro.

“I had to fight my way out of my environment,” he said. “I wanted something better for myself and my kids.

“I never thought about becoming a world champion. My only thought was to try to do the best I could to succeed and bring some money to the family. It definitely was a job for me.”

Early on as a pro, Ruiz did his fair share of travelling. There were trips to England, for example, jaunts to Ipswich, Bristol and Bethnal Green, and he remembers this period, when promoted by Panix Promotions, with fondness.

“That was fun,” he said. “I travelled back and forth to England and liked the fact boxing allowed me to see the world. I never thought I’d be able to do that coming from the projects. We didn’t think that was an option for us growing up.”

Accustomed to hardship, Ruiz won 14 fights in a row before dropping a decision against fellow unbeaten fighter Sergey Kobozev, known as ‘The Russian Bear’, in August 1993. Five fights later, Ruiz then suffered his second decision loss, this time against Danell Nicholson, who squeaked past him after 12 rounds.

John Ruiz has plenty of experience fighting in the UK Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

Worse was to come. In March 1996, Ruiz, having rebuilt from his two losses and pieced together seven straight wins, met a squat, hard-hooking Samoan called David Tua in Atlantic City. Their acquaintance lasted just 19 seconds.

“That right there would have been my final goodbye if I let it get to me,” said Ruiz. “Being knocked out in the first round and it being on live TV, it would have ruined anybody else. But I took this as a job, and I take every fight personally. You win some, you lose some. That’s how I always thought about it. If you take a loss, okay, you’ve got to do better. That’s how I approached it. You never learnt from wins, but you learnt a lot from losses.”

Here’s what Ruiz likely learnt from spending 19 seconds in the company of Tua: he would have learnt, first of all, to keep his hands up and to never get slack with a puncher early; he would have learnt that even durable fighters can be caught, hurt and knocked out; he would have learnt that when hurt it’s best to hold on for dear life rather than fire back. He then would have taken all of this, tightened up, and vowed to return stronger.

Which he did. He won his next 11 fights, beating veterans like Tony Tucker and James Thunder, as well as prospects like Fernely Feliz and Jerry Ballard, and landed a WBA world heavyweight title fight against Evander Holyfield in August 2000. 

“Before I fought Holyfield, I was told I’d be the first ever Latino heavyweight champion if I won,” Ruiz said. “That actually made me stop and think. There are so many Latinos in the boxing world – champions in every weight class – but there was never one in the heavyweight division. I thought, Geez, I could really be making history here. But was I really thinking about it? No, I was thinking about fighting Evander Holyfield.

“I’ve got to admit I was nervous. It was my first time in a big spotlight fight, and it was for the heavyweight championship in a fight against a legend like Evander Holyfield. But you can’t be embarrassed by it all. You have to go out and fight the fight. That’s what I did.”

‘When you become the champion of the world, against a guy who is going to be in the history books forever, it’s a sweet moment’

John Ruiz

Unbeknown to either man at the time, Ruiz and Holyfield would, between August 2000 and December 2001, end up sharing 36 rounds spread across three back-to-back fights. Inseparable in every sense of the word, Holyfield edged the first fight, Ruiz gained revenge in the rematch, before a draw levelled the series in fight three. It’s not a boxset in high demand, admittedly, but the three fights nevertheless allowed Ruiz to make history.

“The first time was crazy for me but the second was a little easier,” he said. “I knew he would be in better shape and be a better fighter, so I had to train twice as hard. After the second fight, things were going well for me and the third time it was one of those fights that ends up being a draw.

“When you become the champion of the world, against a guy who is going to be in the history books forever, it’s a sweet moment.”

Yet no sooner was he a champion than Ruiz had a target on his back. He was unfairly deemed one of the weaker titleholders of that era and only those who shared a ring with him appreciated his uncanny ability to drag them into his kind of fight with physicality and underrated fundamentals.

This was something Canada’s Kirk Johnson discovered when succumbing to Ruiz in his next defence. Johnson, the pre-fight favourite with a 32-0-1 pro record, couldn’t get to grips with Ruiz, much less make a dent in him, and wound up flustered, overwhelmed and disqualified in the 10th round. Few saw it coming.

And yet an awareness of Ruiz’s boogeyman capabilities wasn’t enough to deter Roy Jones Jnr from having a go in March 2003. He made the move to heavyweight from light-heavyweight and cherry-picked Ruiz, believing he could snatch his belt despite weighing 193 pounds to Ruiz’s 226. And snatch it he did.

“That was the first fight where I honestly felt like I quit on myself during the fight,” Ruiz recalled. “I was going through a divorce and wasn’t even training that much. I was flying back and forth from Florida to Vegas to deal with the matter.

“In the first round I tried to muscle him up because I was bigger and wanted to use my size to my advantage, but the referee broke us up every time we got close. I knew right then that nobody was there for me. I was there to lose this fight and Jones was there to win.

“I clearly remember saying to myself in that first round: ‘If they want this guy to win, I’m just going to go through the motions and fight these 12 rounds.’ That’s why I felt like I quit on myself. Instead of saying, ‘Right, let me go and kill this guy,’ like I would with any other opponent, I took the other route and quit on myself.”

As if to either make amends or punish himself, Ruiz spent the remaining years of his career fighting the following: Hasim Rahman, Fres Oquendo, Andrew Golota, James Toney, Nikolay Valuev, Ruslan Chagaev, Jameel McCline and David Haye. He won some, lost some, and lost fights he perhaps deserved to win. But nobody can deny John Ruiz fought near enough everybody during his time as a world-class heavyweight.

‘I knew right then that nobody was there for me. I was there to lose this fight and Roy Jones was there to win’

John Ruiz

“I was ready to get out three or four years before I retired,” he said. “There were a few things happening in my life and things happening to me in the boxing world. I had a sour taste in my mouth and was ready to wave goodbye and get on with my life.”

Ruiz, 44-9-1 (30), eventually called it a day in 2010, after being stopped by Haye in nine rounds in Manchester, England. That marked only the second time he had been stopped in his 55-fight, 18-year career, and Ruiz, in contrast to so many, shrewdly acknowledged the signs and retired at the perfect time, with both his faculties and reputation intact.   

Thanks to this intuition, Ruiz has thrived in retirement and last September joined the Sheriff’s department in Florida.

“I knew some guys who worked there and they said that if I was looking for something that would challenge me that could be it. So I chose to apply,” he said. “I see a lot of retired boxers go into the court system with the bailiffs and stuff. I wanted to do something that would challenge me and feel like I’m part of a team.

“Some of them know I used to box, but I don’t talk much about it except when they want to discuss it. I went through it. I try not to talk about it so much.”

John Ruiz is still keeping quiet after all these years. It remains his default setting. It’s how he prefers to be.

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