A TWO-TIME holder of the WBA heavyweight title, John Ruiz was one of the most unlikely champions. Today, years after his last fight, Ruiz is now the owner of the unlikeliest of boxing stories: a happy ending.

At 48, “The Quiet Man” owns his own gym in Medford, Massachusetts, he’s enjoying time with his wife Maribelle and the rest of his family, and while he’s still around his fighting weight at 230 pounds, he’s not thinking about a comeback.

“No, no,” he laughs. “I’ve got a gym that I’m running and that has been going for years. I get those little aches and pains here and there, but I’m trying to stay busy.”

In short, Ruiz made it out. There are no horror stories, no slurred speech, no tales of financial woe. And that’s good news for a fighter who deserved better over a near-18-year career but didn’t get it.

Of course, there’s no mincing words when it came to Ruiz’ style in the ring. At times, it could be ugly, more mauling than brawling. But in retrospect, it’s hard not to respect a fighter who made the most of what he had, and beat some of the best of his era in the process. And considering that he had his greatest success after a 19-second knockout loss to David Tua, his story is even more remarkable.

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

Few appreciated that though, focusing more on the verbal jabs issued by HBO, which televised the Tua fight in 1996, and the incendiary antics of Ruiz’ manager, Norman “Stoney” Stone. At the time, Ruiz was content to let Stone do the talking, but the barbs from HBO commentators stung.

“That show on HBO, they were a hundred percent behind me,” he says. “And afterwards, it seemed like every fight after that, win or lose, they were always bringing me down. HBO turned the tables on me and put me in the garbage.”

But there was no question that Ruiz would continue to fight, and that’s really where his story started. “I had no choice,” he says. “I already had a family in the picture, and this was my career. This was my livelihood and I had to overcome this thing that just happened to me and put it behind me and get ready for the next fight. I had to take what went wrong in this fight and try to fix it before the next fight. That was my mentality – always looking forward. The end picture for me was making life better for my family. I felt like I had to keep going.”

Slowly, but surely, Ruiz got back on track and began winning. A lot. He went unbeaten in 11 straight bouts after the Tua fight, with victories over former IBF boss Tony Tucker, as well as serviceable journeymen and fringe contenders like Jimmy Thunder, Jerry Ballard, Mario Cawley and Fernely Feliz.

That run put Ruiz into a fight for the vacant WBA title against Evander Holyfield in August 2000, and though a 4/1 underdog, he put together a 12-round effort that many believed was enough for him to win the belt, but three judges disagreed.

“The first fight, I was nervous,” Ruiz remembers. “I’m fighting a legend, and it was the perfect scenario. Who else would you want to fight for a world championship? You want to fight the legend himself. In that fight, it was all instinct. You go through all the adrenalin, and I got out alive. But I think I won the fight, and then Holyfield got the decision.”

Ruiz had regained a lot of the respect he lost with Tua, and nine months later, he got another crack at “The Real Deal.” This time, the game plan was clear.

“The second time around, you’re saying to yourself, okay, I’ve got a little more confidence, but at the same time, he’s going to bring everything he has because that last fight was too close,” he says. “So I had to be 200 per cent better than the first fight. And after the first fight, everybody told me I lost it in the last two rounds. So through my whole training camp, that was the mentality. I had to fight him from round one to round 12.”

He did, and as the hard-fought scrap progressed, Ruiz began thinking of the championship rounds and the championship that would be his should he win them.

“Coming close to round number 10, it reminded me, here comes those rounds that they say you lost. If you don’t win those rounds, you’re going to lose the fight again. That’s when I started getting that second wind.”

And in round 11, a big right hand dropped Holyfield and changed the life of John Ruiz forever. “When it happened, it surprised me more than anybody,” he says. As for what went through his mind when Holyfield hit the deck, Ruiz laughs. “What didn’t go through my mind?”

Holyfield would rise from the deck and make it out of the round and to the final bell, but this time, the judges got it right. John Ruiz was the WBA heavyweight champion.

It’s hard to believe that almost 20 years have passed since that fight, but time waits for no one, especially prizefighters. And as memorable as a single moment can be, it’s still just one moment, and as such, it can be fleeting. The Don King-promoted Ruiz never got that big fight with Lennox Lewis or Mike Tyson, a sore point with him, but one that he doesn’t spend any time dwelling on these days, unless asked.

“Many reporters came up to me, and one thing they always said was, ‘You got a lot of heart. I might not like how you fight, but you’re in the battle and you do whatever you can to win,’” Ruiz recalls. “That’s what they always told me. But that’s the way I am. I’m a blue collar guy going to work. No matter what way it is, I gotta do it. It’s not gonna please everybody, but at the same time, I’ve got to get my lunch pail and start working. Maybe I didn’t get some of those big fights because of that reason. They saw me as a tough fight with no money. And who wants a tough fight with no money? I never got to unify the titles and I managed to be avoided a lot because of that reason.”

John Ruiz
Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

Ruiz would defend the title twice, but it wasn’t that simple. He drew with Holyfield in their rubber match and won by disqualification over Kirk Johnson, and as the fights got uglier, Stone got louder, drawing a schism between Team Ruiz and the press, some of whom took their feelings about Ruiz’s manager out on the fighter.

“I would probably say 90 per cent of it was him,” he says of the criticism he received. “I’ve got to take some blame for that stuff, but I’m not taking all the blame. I brought the monster into my camp and somehow I unleashed that monster and it came back at me.”

The low point was in Ruiz’s next fight, a March 2003 defence against then-light heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jnr. Dealing with personal issues during training camp, Ruiz also had the distraction of Stone getting into a brawl with Jones’ coach, Alton Merkerson, on the day of the weigh-in, and when referee Jay Nady didn’t allow the New Englander to fight his usual fight on the inside, the die was cast.

“I don’t regret taking that fight,” Ruiz admits. “Do I regret it happening when it did? Yeah, I do regret that. At that time, life was chaos for me. I was going through a divorce, I broke camp in Florida to go back to Las Vegas to work things out. But it was a test of my character. Even though I was not there mentally in that fight, I managed to fight those 12 rounds. But in that first round, it was the first time in my life I actually quit on myself. I tried to outmuscle him and throw some body shots, and he (Nady) broke us up right away. This fight was not meant for me to win.”

After losing the decision to Jones, the resilient Ruiz wouldn’t go away. Nine months later, he decisioned Hasim Rahman for the Interim WBA belt and, after being upgraded to full champion, made two successful defences against Fres Oquendo and Andrew Golota. A loss to James Toney was overturned when Toney failed his post-fight drug test, but he would lose his title for good to Nikolay Valuev in 2005.

Over the ensuing five years, Ruiz – who had split with Stone – stayed in the title picture, but after a 2010 loss to David Haye, he called it quits and kept his word. He hasn’t looked back since. “You know what I miss, I miss the fighting,” Ruiz says. “Going into the ring, there’s that excitement, and you’re depending on yourself to win this battle. But everything before entering the ring and after leaving the ring, I could do without [Laughs]. The fight was always the excitement of it all. No matter how bad your life is and how stressful it is, as soon as you get into that ring, everything was swept away in the emotion and excitement. It’s a feeling that I can never put into words and it’s something I do miss. Even though I got beat up sometimes, it was me trying to overcome someone else.”

On paper, he overcame his opponent 44 times in 55 bouts. But in reality, every trip through the ropes was a victory over the doubts that every fighter has. Ruiz earned his respect, and now, he can look back and smile at a career well fought. And today’s goal isn’t a comeback, but making up for lost time with his children.

‘You know what I miss, I miss the fighting. Going into the ring, there’s that excitement, and you’re depending on yourself to win this battle’

John Ruiz

He said, “The first time around I didn’t get too much time with my older kids. They’re 26 (John Jnr) and 23 (Jocelyn) now, and I didn’t get to spend too much time with them. I was always travelling, always was busy with boxing. And now I get the opportunity.”

If that’s not a happy ending, what is? “Why did I manage to survive after boxing? Family and friends always kept me grounded. I wasn’t out there buying that 25-bedroom mansion, I wasn’t buying that expensive half-million dollar car. And that was probably one of the main reasons. With me, what you see is what you get. I haven’t changed.”