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Ruiz Aims To Gain Respect With Victory Over Kirk Johnson

By Gabrielle Paese

JULY 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Bushkill, Penna. -- WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz may be the first Latin American heavyweight in history, but he's not a household name. Yet.

"You ask anyone who the heavyweight champion of the world is and they'll say Lennox Lewis, or maybe they'll mention the Klitschkos," said Puerto Rican sports commentator Elliott Castro. "Ruiz is the heavyweight champion but he just hasn't gotten the attention."

Ruiz plans to change all that on July 27 when he fights the WBA No. 1 contender Kirk Johnson (32-0-1, 23 KOs). Johnson's last fight was an easy unanimous decision victory over Larry Donald on July 7, 2001 in a WBA title eliminator. Although Johnson has 23 KOs in his 32 victories, he has never fought an opponent of Ruiz's caliber.

"This is the most important fight of Johnny's career," said his trainer, Norman Stone, during a break from the champ's training routine in the Pocono Mountains. "After we win this fight, we'll have options."

Ruiz's goal is clear: He'd like to unify the heavyweight title and retire a rich man. Stone advises Ruiz fans to put their money on a knockout victory, "because it won't go past seven." And although the Ruiz camp won't look past next Saturday night, it's clear they already have Lennox Lewis penciled in on Ruiz's dance card."

"That's the fight we'd like," said Stone. "Lewis is a baby, we've sparred with Lewis. If he wants Johnny then he can step up to the plate."

A victory over the highly regarded Johnson could make a Ruiz-Lewis matchup a reality. Lewis currently holds the IBF and WBC belts and a chance to put all three titles on the line may interest Lewis as much as it already does Ruiz. Lewis also recently said that he doesn't want to fight Wladmir Klitschko.

Until then, Ruiz (37-4-1, 27 Kos) is determined to put his nose (the same one Evander Holyfield broke in their second fight) to the grindstone and train 24-7.

"John Ruiz is one of the hardest-working and most humble boxers I have ever met," said Puerto Rico Boxing Commissioner Jose "Toto‰ Penagaricano. "There's nothing flashy about him."

Puerto Rico's Boxer of the Year in 2001, Ruiz also has the distinction of being the first Puerto Rican heavyweight champ. He won the WBA title in a unanimous decision over Evander Holyfield on March 3, 2001 in the second of their three matches.

"People say it wasn't an impressive win. Does anybody realize that Johnny's nose was broken in the second round?" said his trainer Gabe Lamarca. "He went 10 rounds with a busted-up nose. I'd like to see another boxer do that."

His nose broken and bleeding, Ruiz still managed to drop Holyfield hard in the eleventh round of that fight. The knockdown most likely made the difference in what was a very close fight.

Team Ruiz has been holed up in the Poconos since they fled the Olympic Training Center in Salinas, Puerto Rico, due to the high heat and humidity.

"I would have liked to continue training in Puerto Rico but it just got too hot," said Ruiz, who has been at the Fernwood resort in Bushkill, Penna., for the past two months. "This is a good place to train. There are no distractions and we can work hard."

Ruiz is in good company. The Poconos have long been a mecca for boxers training for their next fight. Joe Louis once trained here and Muhammad Ali kept a camp nearby back in the day. Bruce Seldon and James Toney both trained here and Brazilian powerhouse Acelino Freitas is at Fernwood this week along with Ruiz getting ready for his Aug. 3 bout.

Team Ruiz is set up in a row of duplex cabin apartments just off Fernwood's golf course. Early this week, a golfer sliced a ball right through the window of Team Ruiz's white sedan, one of two vehicles the 15-person group uses to move about. Rio Grande native Luis Rodriguez, who chauffeurs the clan, spent nearly a day last week gathering estimates from three auto glass shops to satisfy the hotel's insurance.

In the morning, Ruiz walks across the Route 209 to the hotel's gym for some light calisthenics under the direction of strength coach Keith McGrath. At night, Ruiz works out in a makeshift ring on the second floor of the hotel's recreation complex. Nothing fancy, the ring is just next to the employees' lounge and the hotel's janitorial storage areas. It's stifling hot at midday, but the air-conditioning kicks in in time for Ruiz's evening workout.

"In boxing the little things add up," said Lamarca. "We're training Johnny here so that every day leading up to the fight is just like the fight day is going to be. There won't be no surprises. That's why we spar at night because that's exactly how it's going to be for the fight. You gotta take every edge you can in this business."

Ruiz spars three nights a week, he had gone 86 rounds at the time of this interview.

When all is said and done, Ruiz will have sparred 100 rounds for this fight, versus a total of six fighters, some of whom have stepped into the ring versus Johnson.

"I think he's changed since I fought him back in '93 or '94,‰ said Bryant Smith, a retired heavyweight who has been Ruiz's sparring partner for the past eight years. "He don't dance as much. He still moves but he tries to be more elusive rather than waste so much energy with the legs."

Last week, Smith and Brian Nix were among the four sparring partners putting Ruiz through his paces. Nix, 32, is currently 18-8 and was scheduled to fight Derek Jefferson on July 28, but that fight , Nix said, may get bumped up to a week later.

"I'm trying to get my bread, and butter too," said Nix, who is managed by Cedric Kushner.

Nix said Ruiz will have to exercise caution against Johnson.

"He's a good fighter but John has to be as quick as he is,‰ said Nix. "Kirk has that looping right hand. He tends to come in and fight a little lazy. John just has to get in a lot of punches and try to slip them in.‰

Stone said Ruiz's training hasn't varied much from that leading up to any other fight.

"The only difference this time is it's spread out a little more,‰ said Stone. "We usually do eight this time we did 12 weeks of training. We want to make sure Johnny's ready to go out and perform his job."

Dubbed "Quietman‰ by the media in his home state of Massachussetts (Ruiz was born in Chelsea, Mass., to Puerto Rican parents), Ruiz lives up to his reputation as a man of few words.

"He treated Team Ruiz to lunch on a recent afternoon at Alaska Pete's on Route 209 in nearby Marshall's Creek and in the company of nine others, kept his opinions to himself, mostly. While talk at the table turned to the conviction of Taliban supporter John Walker Lindh, Ruiz concentrated on his steamed clams and surf and turf platter.

"It's like this all the time," said Alex Rivera, who Stone describes as the team's gopher. "John doesn't say much."

At Alaska Pete's Ruiz's brother, Eddie, filled in the gaps of silence, along with McGrath, Stone, Lamarca, fellow cornerman Bobby Covino and driver Rodriguez. Stone said Ruiz, who is weighing about 232 this week, should have no problems getting down to 228 for the weigh-in.

"Johnny's really strong physically. He's got huge thighs and most people don't notice that,‰ said Stone. "Once he gets his angles with his jabs and starts working inside I don't see him [Johnson] lasting that long. You train for 12 and if you get a KO in between it's like going home from work early."

Ruiz admits he'd like a knockout, but his first priority is a victory.

"I just go into the ring and react," said Ruiz. "After the first round I start thinking about what he was doing wrong and what I could do to win the fight. I think about my kids. This could be their opportunity to a better life and sometimes I think of it like he [my opponent] is trying to take away my kids' future."

Ruiz is reluctant to let success go to his head. He moved his family from Chelsea, Mass., to Las Vegas recently, but it is generally believed that the move was more motivated of convenience.

"It does come to mind,‰ said Ruiz of the prospect of spending some of his hard-earned money. "But I don't think I'm at that point yet. Maybe when I accomplish my goals I'll give myself a little reward."

Ruiz also balks at being mentioned in the same breath as Puerto Rico's boxing legends such as Wilfredo Benitez and Wilfredo Rivera.

"I'm not there yet," said Ruiz. "I'd like to be but I have to concentrate on winning this fight first."

Nor is he even thinking about fixing his broken nose.

"The doctor said he has to break it again to fix it," said Ruiz. "Maybe when I retire."

John Ruiz fights Kirk Johnson July 27 in an HBO televised bout from Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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