John Ruiz: Embracing History

by Damon Ealy (aka PghWindmill)

“I have to knock him out to win. That is my plan: to be aggressive from the first round.”

So says John Ruiz of his strategy for beating Nikolai Valuev this weekend. That squishing you hear is either the midsection of a Ruiz sparring partner or the sound of a nation of boxing fans’ eyes rolling.

Yeah, John Ruiz might be the favorite whipping boy in a constantly dumped-on heavyweight division, and he’s most often shredded for his dull style in the ring, the phrase “jab and grab,” often in conjunction with “hug,” most often invoked. Sometimes, though, it seems a little much, a little unfair and personal, and I’ll get to feeling like cutting Ruiz some slack. After all, he’s faced as many quality opponents as any active heavyweight, he’s active in charitable endeavors, and by reliable accounts, he’s an affable guy. And he’s been at it as a pro since 1992. I get the feeling that Ruiz loves boxing and that he’s making a living doing the thing he’s best at. I think that’s a hell of an admirable thing. But some reflection on a few points about Ruiz’s professional career is usually the tonic for those warm sentiments, and when I watch Ruiz fight, I fall right back in line with the complainers.

– John Ruiz’s resume isn’t all that great:
He’s 43-7 as a pro, but Ruiz’s quality wins are few and far between. Knocking down and decisioning Evander Holyfield in 2001, though Holyfield was 37 and banged up at the time, was big—no doubt about it. And Ruiz holds a safe decision win over Hasim Rahman (though Rahman was then 0-2-1 in his last three), and most recently (March 2008), Ruiz won a wide-margin decision over Jameel McCline in Mexico.

I’ll even acknowledge Ruiz’s 2004 unanimous-decision victory over Andrew Golota, another of the wins on Ruiz’s record that’s often cited as proof of his quality. Golota dropped Ruiz twice in the second round, and later in the fight, Ruiz lost a point for hitting on breaks. But after twice being on the floor, Ruiz returned to his stylistic comfort zone and, despite being outworked and outlanded—and not once knocking down Golota—rode to the decision—an ugly, questionable decision in a bout marred by Ruiz manager Norman Stone’s whining, buffoonery and ejection. Other than that, Ruiz’s wins are over journeymen and 40-year-old Tony “TNT” Tucker.

– John Ruiz is not a classy fighter:
Jab, fall in, clinch, break, repeat: It’s the aspect of the Ruiz ring style that detractors—observers, writers and fellow professionals among them—are quickest to slag. But hey, what works works, and Ruiz is going to slow-dance with the one who’ll prop him up. And at the Blue Corner, we’ve spoken of and admired Teddy Atlas’s view on it: A fighter who’s being held and does nothing but wait for and rely on the referee to break the clinch is entering into “the silent pact” with his opponent. If Ruiz is a clinch addict, his opponents (and some would say certain fight officials) are his enablers.

But infighting, after all, is a part of the sport, and so are its grimier aspects—holding, elbows, low shots and the like. A fighter the old-timers described as a “classy pro” (now a term overused to the point of meaninglessness) would deal with it. But in his 2002 bout with Kirk Johnson, Ruiz showed that he couldn’t take it as well as he could dish it out. Early in the fight, Ruiz was employing his standard techniques: grabbing, a little holding and hitting, doing a little work with his head. Johnson fired back low and was docked a point by referee Joe Cortez. From there, any of Johnson’s work to the body drew complaint to Cortez from Ruiz and his corner.

Cortez apparently heard. In the fourth, he warned Johnson. In the seventh, deducted a point for a shot that hit Ruiz’s leg, and Ruiz was full on into ham mode, falling and wincing, taking his full five minutes to ”recover.” The cards were still tight in round 10 when Johnson landed the next shot deemed low—and grounds for disqualification—by referee Cortez.

Some fighters recognize a generous decision. But Ruiz will even pitch a bitch after a win. This was Ruiz’s quote after the Golota fight: “I was very disappointed with the referee. I felt like I was fighting two fighters in the ring, and I felt like they wanted to take my belt away” (“Championship Eludes Andrew Golota Again,” Mike Indri, thesweetscience.com, November 15, 2004).  That ”second fighter” was the same referee, Randy Neumann, who gave Ruiz the benefit of the doubt at the end of the tenth round of the fight, ruling what would’ve been the third knockdown of the bout as having come after the bell.

And Ruiz was either being brutally honest with himself or was alarmingly delusional after his loss to Roy Jones Jr.: ”I felt like every time I went in, he was holding me” … ”The ref would break us up, and I couldn’t get my punches off” … ”I would give him more credit if I felt like I was given the same advantages he was during the fight” (”For Jones, Victory Only Adds To Legacy,” Mike Freeman, The New York Times, March 3, 2003).

– John Ruiz always has an excuse:
Ruiz has taken total command of the “we wuz robbed” bromide, employing it without hesitance and without even a bit of irony. He was saying it after losing to Valuev: ”Boxing is the only sport where you can get robbed without a gun” (”Ruiz Wants Rematch,” Sports Briefing, The New York Times, December 19, 2005), but even back in 2000, in the days after the Holyfield fight, he was winging the clichés around like leftover promotional Frisbees: ”It was highway robbery without a gun” … ”I was definitely robbed” … ”Like people say, I was robbed without a gun” (”Holyfield Defeats Ruiz for Fourth Heavyweight Crown,” Michael Arkush, The New York Times, August 13, 2000).

Yeah. Like “people” say. Mostly the people around Ruiz.

Ruiz has already complained that “I don’t get close decisions in Germany” after losing to Ruslan Chagaev in Dusseldorf in autumn of 2006 (“Uninspired Ruiz Left At Loss,” Ron Borges, The Boston Globe, November 19, 2006). Then why return to fight Nikolai Valuev for a second time at Max Schmeling Hall in Berlin? Why, the German gemütlichkeit, of course!

“It was more like a robbery than hometown decision,” Ruiz said of his first fight with Valuev. “Boxing is the only sport you can get robbed without a gun. I really enjoy the German people. They’ve been very hospitable to me. I love going back, just not for a fight.” (”Ruiz On The Road Again,” Dan Rafael, espn.com, July 25, 2008)

So dismiss Ruiz’s assertion that he’ll “be aggressive from the first round” against Valuev. He’s made that promise before. At best, Ruiz might be aggressive IN the first round. He might be willing to box with Valuev for three to six minutes. When that doesn’t work, Ruiz will revert to his signature style. Ruiz knows he won’t knock out Valuev; he hasn’t scored a true-blue knockout since he dropped 10-3 Willie Jackson in 1995. And in the meaningful phase of his career, since 2000, Ruiz has TKO’ed only two opponents, the weakest of the bunch: Fres Oquendo and Otis Tisdale.

Ruiz is a generous man, a charitable and well-liked man who avails himself to the media, even though he knows he’s the most maligned fighter in the division and that there isn’t much he can do to shut the critics’ yaps. I think most fair-minded boxing fans wish him well. I know I do. But if Nikolai Valuev wins on August 30th, don’t be surprised if the “Quiet Man” is squawking about handguns and injustice at the press conference.

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