The boxing faithful have been anticipating this Saturday’s heavyweight championship bout between WBA titleholder John Ruiz and James Toney. Not because they are expecting twelve rounds of great boxing. But because they hope Lights Out will take Ruiz out of the title picture for good.
The Quiet Man is arguably one of the most loathed heavyweight champions in recent memory. His fan base is minimal, other boxers make fun of his style, and sports writers do not hesitate to call his matches yawn fests before they even take place.
No one can argue with the last part. I will be the last person to call it a tragedy if a Ruiz bout never makes Fight of the Year. The only shame comes in that all of these insults are mixed with under appreciation. Boxing is a sport that constantly redeems its biggest squanderers of talent but seems to have very few kind words for one of its biggest overachievers.
John Ruiz’s career is the ultimate exercise in perseverance. His first 27 bouts against journeymen and up-and-comers included two lost split decisions. In his 28th fight, David Tua knocked him out 19 seconds into the first round.
Most boxers have a tough time forgiving themselves after a loss like that. Nobody would have blamed Ruiz if he had traded boxing gloves for a plate on the buffet line. However, Ruiz collected himself and trudged on, jabbing, grabbing, and sneaking a right hand in whenever he could. The Quiet Man won his next eleven bouts after the Tua fight, ten of them by knockout. By 2000, he found himself rated as the WBA’s number one contender.
Then-undisputed champ Lennox Lewis chose to relinquish his WBA Heavyweight title rather than face Ruiz, which led to the trilogy with Evander Holyfield. The Real Deal won the vacant belt in first bout, but it was so close that he had no choice but to give Ruiz a rematch. The Quiet Man convincingly won the decision the second time around, dropping Holyfield in the 11th round. The rubber match ended in a disputed draw, and Ruiz kept his belt.
In March of 2003, Roy Jones challenged Ruiz for the WBA belt and then stuck and moved his way to becoming the first middleweight in 100 years to win the heavyweight title. Jones decided not to defend his belt and moved back down to the light heavyweight ranks, and Ruiz found himself decisioning Hasim Rahman for the vacant WBA belt.
On paper, this is the record of a respected, resilient fighter. In the ring, the respected part is tossed out. The savage knockout by Tua really hurts his credibility. The lopsided loss to Jones followed by Jones’ subsequent knockouts by Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson do not help matters either. But even the most casual boxing fans know Ruiz’s lack of appreciation all boils down to his style of fighting. If Ruiz were even remotely exciting inside the squared circle, boxing fans would forgive him for the losses to Tua and Jones.
Sadly, though, he is not. His repertoire mainly consists of jab, jab, grab, maul, and an occasional right hand. At times, it is downright nauseating to watch. But in Ruiz’s case, it is all he can do, and he maintains the discipline to do it very well.
Ruiz does not have much of a jab or left hook. He has very little mobility and no speed whatsoever. All the Quiet Man really has to offer an opponent is a sneaky right hand and a bulky frame, two attributes he uses relentlessly and effectively. Many fighters with much more ability have not won two heavyweight titles.
It is hard to appreciate the fighter if you despise the way he fights. I can certainly understand why his style is so abhorred. I sat in Madison Square Garden for his muddling ballets with Fres Oquendo and Andrew Golota. In the Oquendo bout, I took Lennox Lewis’ cue and got up to go the bathroom midway through the fight. With Golota, I was more concerned with whether or not the Foul Pole’s fans would spit on me throughout most of the fight.
But that bout with Golota was when I gained the most respect for Ruiz. Amidst a sea of Polish red and white, Ruiz got off to a horrible start. Golota, making the most of his third title shot, dropped Ruiz twice in the second round. The Quiet Man then had a point deducted for hitting after the break. Ruiz seemed done for, and the anti-Ruiz faithful began to salivate at the thought of a new, exciting champion.
Then Ruiz regained his composure. He swarmed Golota, a fighter with much more talent. Ruiz jabbed, clinched, clinched some more, and landed his sneaky right. He was even able to keep at it when his trainer, Norman Stone, was ejected for the last four rounds.
When the final bell sounded, many still expected a Golota decision, but that is the hidden beauty of Ruiz’s style. Because of Ruiz’s continuous mauling, most of the Foul Pole’s shots landed towards the back of Ruiz’s head and received no points. Though it may not have been a pretty strategy, it was certainly a winning one.
And unless James Toney can stick and move for twelve straight rounds, he will find himself on the bad side of that winning strategy, too. Unfortunately, it may be many years before the boxing faithful find the proper admiration for the sports most underappreciated overachiever.