Team Ruiz

By Thomas Hauser:
On March 1st, John Ruiz and Roy Jones, Jr. will do battle at the Thomas & Mack Arena in Las Vegas for the WBA heavyweight crown.

Ruiz has taken a lot of criticism; much of it centered on his nineteen-second knockout defeat at the hands of David Tua seven years ago. But Ruiz isn't a bum. He deserves credit for coming back from the Tua debacle. And more to the point, over the past three years, Ruiz has had three fights with Evander Holyfield and one with Kirk Johnson. Officially, his record in these fights is 2-1-1. Whether one agrees with the official results or not, even Ruiz's most vocal critics acknowledge that all four bouts were contested on even terms. And one can argue that three fights against Evander Holyfield should be weighed more heavily than nineteen seconds against David Tua in taking the fistic measure of the man.

Thus, even Lennox Lewis opines, "I don't think much of John Ruiz as a fighter, but there's one thing I'll say for him. You should never underestimate someone who goes thirty-six rounds with Evander Holyfield."

Still, let's keep matters in perspective. John Ruiz versus Roy Jones is an entertaining match-up. It's a happening. But it's not a true heavyweight championship fight. When other great light-heavyweight champions ventured into heavyweight title territory, they went up against the best. Billy Conn fought Joe Louis. Archie Moore challenged Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson. Bob Foster took on Joe Frazier (and Muhammad Ali in a non-title bout). Michael Spinks defeated Larry Holmes. By contrast, Jones is going up against a man who would be a betting underdog against Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, David Tua, Mike Tyson, Hasim Rahman, and Chris Byrd.

Nor is the expected 45-pound weight differential between the fighters as significant as it might seem. Jess Willard outweighed Jack Dempsey by sixty pounds, and Dempsey destroyed him. Billy Conn weighed 169 pounds when he challenged Joe Louis, and he was beating the Brown Bomber on points when he got careless in the thirteenth round. Rocky Marciano fought at 184 pounds. That's roughly what Jones is expected to weigh on March 1st. John Ruiz ain't Joe Louis, and most people would make him an underdog against Dempsey or Marciano.

So why the fuss?

Clearly, no matter what people say, the alphabet-soup titles mean something. Without the WBA crown, John Ruiz would be just another good heavyweight. But with it, he's on the verge of fulfilling several dreams; his own and those of his team.

Ruiz was introduced to the sweet science at the Somerville Boxing Club; a community gym in a blue-collar neighborhood just outside Boston. Norman Stone and Gabe LaMarca were working as volunteer trainers at the club when Ruiz began boxing there at age fifteen. LaMarca drove a truck as his day job. Stone was a supervisor for the Massachusetts Day Transit Authority. LaMarco is now Ruiz's trainer, and Stone is his manager of record. Say what you will; these two guys didn't latch onto a fighter who was already at the top. They helped him get there.

The Ruiz camp is populated by true believers. "Team Ruiz" is accurate nomenclature. It's members are stubborn and obstinant and their dominant trait is fierce loyalty to one another.

"I remember the first time I saw Johnny in the gym," says Stone. "He was a tall quiet skinny kid, who came in, did what he had to do, and left. It was always that way with Johnny. Gabe trained him, and I was more of a mentor to him."

In many ways, Stone was a surrogate father for Ruiz. John's natural father was estranged from the family, had a bad drinking problem, and died when John was young. "I didn't have the money to do for Johnny what other managers can do for their fighters," Stone recalls. "So I tried to make up for that with friendship and love."

Managing Ruiz has been Stone's day job since 1991. "After he lost to Tua, no one wanted anything to do with us," Stone remembers. "But we stayed together as a team; no one blamed anyone else; and we did what had to be done."

It's an article of faith with Stone that his fighter is virtually unbeatable. Ruiz has lost four fights in his career; three of them by decision. "Against Sergei Kobazev," Stone says, "Johnny got robbed. Against Dannell Nicholson, Johnny got robbed. Against Holyfield, Johnny got robbed."

And Tua?

"Against Tua, Johnny got caught."

"I'm very delicate about Johnny," Stone continues. "I don't like anybody to say anything bad about him. It's important to me that Johnny gets the respect he deserves, and after this fight, he'll get it. Everyone is surprised when they get in the ring with Johnny. We have sparring partners who come into camp and the first question they ask is, 'Should I go all out?' Hell, yes; go all out. They don't realize how strong Johnny is. He mauls people on the inside. They try to hold, but he wears them down and tears them apart. If Johnny has a weakness, it's that he doesn't throw enough punches. And he might not be the hardest punching guy in the world, but he hits hard enough to knock a light-heavyweight out. People knock Johnny. And I tell them, 'Fuck you; just watch. The final smile will be ours.'"

Trainer Gabe LaMarca is on the quiet side compared to Stone. Of course, there are times when Don King is on the quiet side compared to Norman. Cornerman Bobby Covino and photographer Angie Carlino are the fourth and fifth members of Team Ruiz. The final piece of the puzzle is attorney Tony Cardinale, who has been advising the fighter since shortly after the Tua loss.

Cardinale was born in 1950 in the coal-mining town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When he was one, his family moved to Ninth Avenue and 47th Street in New York; an area then known as Hell's Kitchen. Cardinale returned to Pennsylvania to attend Wilkes College. Then he got a law degree from Suffolk University and worked for five years with F. Lee Bailey before going out on his own. Ninety percent of his legal practice is criminal defense work for a list of clients that was once headlined by John Gotti.

"I've been around boxing all my life," says Cardinale. "Two of my uncles were professional fighters, and my father was a pro in the late '30s and '40s. My father was the classic opponent. He was tough, went in against anybody; fought the guys nobody else wanted to fight. He fought Artie Levine four times."

In the 1980s, Cardinale co-managed junior-middleweight Sean Mannion. Then he got involved with the Somerville Boxing Club.

"John Ruiz the person is a wonderful warm modest quiet hard-working unassuming guy," the attorney posits. "John the fighter is very determined, very focussed. He's able to overcome a lot of opponents who have superior physical skills by virtue of sheer will. All of us on Team Ruiz believe in each other and trust each other. We think John will win every fight. Take my word for it; John will find a way to break Roy Jones down. He might not look good doing it, but the job will get done. It might not be the prettiest fight you've ever seen, but John will win."

Team Ruiz is certain of victory; so certain that it has taken what it considers a "bold" step and others consider foolish in order to make the economics of the fight work.

Roy Jones has been guaranteed a $10,000,000 purse by promoter Don King against sixty percent of net revenue from the fight. Insiders say that, out of that total, Jones will pay his own promoter (Murad Muhammad) $150,000. After various training expenses, the rest is Roy's to keep. If Jones wins, King will have options only on his future heavyweight fights.

Ruiz, by contrast, has no guarantee. Team Ruiz and King are supposed to split the remaining forty percent of net revenue equally. Cardinale says that "net revenue" is defined as the income to the promoter from pay-per-view sales, the site fee, international sales, and closed-circuit income minus undercard costs and on-site hotel expenses. All other expenses are to be paid for out of revenue from delayed broadcast rights, sponsorships, and merchandising.

"The deal is fair," says Cardinale. "We pushed Don hard to make this fight and he's giving Jones a ten-million-dollar guarantee."

But Roy Jones's last two pay-per-view shows have generated fewer than 400,000 buys combined, and Ruiz has never been a pay-per-view attraction. At the end of the day, the economics of the fight will probably only make sense for Ruiz if he wins. If he does, his future might be bright. But this is a fight where it's not just who wins but also how he wins that counts. If Ruiz prevails in a slow sluggish mauling fight, it won't mean much. And if Jones wins by dancing away for twelve rounds, it will turn a lot of people off.

Still, if one of the combatants turns in a truly dominating performance, it will raise some eyebrows at a time when the WBA title is becoming a bit more valuable. Folks in boxing are getting tired of Lennox Lewis sitting on the sidelines, keeping the rest of the heavyweight division on hold.

"I'm not worried," says Stone. "Pound for pound, Roy Jones is the best fighter in the world, but John is too big and strong for him. We've been studying the tapes. Jones is a good fighter, but he makes mistakes. And this is a fight where Johnny can take more risks than he normally does, because he's not in there with a guy who has heavyweight power. Eventually, Johnny will catch up to him and knock him out."

"My main thing will be to work the body," Ruiz adds confidently. "I don't want to go head-hunting and miss all over the place. My strength is my strength. I'm a lot stronger than anyone Jones has fought, and it will be a new experience for him to be in the ring with someone like me. His flurries and pitty-pat punching won't work at heavyweight."

Ruiz and Stone are right when they say that size matters in boxing. A boxer has to be able to hurt his opponent. But Roy Jones is a unique fighter. And while Ruiz will present certain problems for Jones, there's a school of thought that Jones will present greater problems for Ruiz.

"Roy will see Ruiz's punches coming," says Jones's trainer, Alton Merkerson. "But Ruiz won't see Roy's punches coming. And when Ruiz watches the tape after the fight, he'll realize that he was hit with things that no one ever threw at him before."

Also, Team Ruiz might be underestimating Jones's punching power. That point is made by Jones himself, who acknowledges, "Sure, he can hurt me. Anyone who hurts Evander Holyfied can punch. But I hit hard enough to hurt him too. And a great little man beats a good big one every time."
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