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The Boston Globe

Fall Of Ruiz Produces Bout Of Melancholy


March 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Boston Globe. All rights reserved. 

LAS VEGAS - Johnny, we hardly knew ye.

Johnny Ruiz was king of the boxing world and he was one of us. Born in Methuen, raised in Chelsea, Ruiz reigned locally in the proud tradition of Marciano and Hagler.

He was "The Quiet Man," but that didn't stop him from appearing at every regional fund-raiser, parade, and store opening after he won the World Boxing Association heavyweight title by beating Evander Holyfield March 3, 2001, here in Las Vegas.

He wore the championship belt for almost two years before Roy Jones Jr. took it away, decisively, while most of New England slept Saturday night/early yesterday morning.

Though he was never a local sports celebrity like Bobby Orr, Larry Bird, or Pedro Martinez, there was a wonderful dignity about Ruiz and his lofty title. He never did anything to disgrace his name or our region, yet he managed to remain relatively anonymous while holding one of the most prestigious titles in sports. Think about it. How many local kids under the age of 18 knew the WBA heavyweight champ lived in Chelsea? How many times over the last two years did you hear anyone mention Ruiz's name?

It certainly was never like that when Rocky Marciano ruled. And Marvin Hagler was a much more charismatic, flamboyant, and flawed man.

Ruiz lived in relative obscurity because his sport is on life support and his style was boring. Check through the clips of Ruiz bouts and you'll always find "plodding," "awkward," and "slow." His was not a style for highlight reels. And he's doomed to never get the respect he deserved as a man who knocked down Holyfield, twice beat Holyfield, and held the title for almost two years. Critics claim Holyfield was washed up when he lost to Ruiz and it's difficult to forget when the Quiet Man was knocked out in 19 seconds by tomato can David Tua in 1996.

Ruiz's loss to Jones no doubt will please the boxing world because Jones is a far more entertaining personality and fighter. Promoter Don King made no effort to conceal his glee at a hideous postfight news conference when he said, "Roy Jones showed up and he won and Roy Jones also got all the money, ha, ha."

Jones was happy to pile on, saying, "I knew [Ruiz] would take the fight because he's awkward and not many want to fight him. When he cracked me, I was like, `OK, is that all you got?'. There's nothing wrong with Johnny Ruiz's style. He's just a little slower than me, and I kind of outthought him."

King told the assembled crowd that Ruiz was not there because he'd gone to the hospital. That apparently was untrue (King telling a lie? There's a shocker), but Ruiz was not to be found after the fight. He made a few quick remarks, complaining about referee Jay Nady, then he was gone. His people at Caesars Palace yesterday did not return a message.

In other words, the Quiet Man chose to be quiet after the embarrassing defeat.

And make no mistake, it was embarrassing. Ruiz became the first heavyweight champ in 106 years to lose to a former middleweight. Weighing 233 pounds Saturday, Ruiz was beaten by a man who once fought at 153 pounds. The bout was a nightmare for Ruiz and his people. His quest for respect ended at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus and served only to fortify critics who claim Ruiz was an inadvertent champ, beneficiary of a depleted field. He never earned the handle of "undisputed heavyweight champ," and it seems highly likely he never will. He appears doomed to go down in heavyweight history as one of the softest champs of all time.

His people said it might be time for him to take a year off, which makes one wonder if we'll ever see him back on top. Ruiz is 31.

But let's never forget that he was the first Latino heavyweight champ in history. He went to the White House to meet with President Bush. He was greeted by thousands in Chelsea when he returned from winning the title and 20,000 fans mobbed him when he was feted with a parade in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican governor Sila Calderon presented him with a gold medal of honor.

There were three title defenses after that. He won a spilt decision against Holyfield, then prevailed when Kirk Johnson was disqualfied for a low blow in July 2002. Those were ugly fights and nobody wanted to watch the WBA champ, it seemed.

So he took the fight against Jones, getting no guarantee. And everything about it was ugly for the Ruiz camp.

Ruiz has represented himself, New England, and Puerto Rico with class and dignity. It all came crashing down Saturday night/ yesterday morning and in the end, it was hard not to feel sorry for the Quiet Man. The bout looked for all the world like the professional death of a champion.

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