What do you do after you win but they still call you a loser? When you overcome so much, only to be belittled by so many? What do you do when you become el campion del mundo but your el mundo falls apart all around you?
If you are John Ruiz or his manager, Norman Stone, you have no answers. Regrets? They've had a few, but then again, when you become the first Latino heavyweight champion in boxing history and are transformed into an icon on the island of your family's birth, who wants to hear about your regrets?
Nobody wants to hear about it until it all falls apart. Only then do people wonder what happened.
You wonder yourself sometimes. When it's dark in the desert and the hour is late, you wonder why the life you built for your family couldn't survive the greatest moment of your own. You wonder -- now that it's over and you're no longer either the World Boxing Association heavyweight champion or somebody's husband -- why your friend doesn't hesitate when asked if he'd do it again if he knew the ending.
"Nope," Stone said. "If I could have seen into the future, John would have just stayed my friend, coming to my house on weekends with his family, having a barbecue. In my mind, we were all going to do it together. We were going to win the championship together. John and his family. Me and mine.
"Then we won it and bang! All that stuff stopped happening. It was like a hammer hitting you in the head. Here were two kids from the projects [Ruiz and his former wife, Sahara] who stuck together through so many hard times. It was the greatest story ever. They built a castle, then it fell in on them. Not because of boxing. Because of life."
Norman Stone knows too much about life. A recovering alcoholic for 23 years, Stone has never hidden the difficult road he walked to reach sobriety. He has used his story to turn around the lives of others and to serve as the driving force behind the Somerville Boxing Club, a community gym that inexplicably produced a heavyweight champion when it was designed simply to take care of kids who needed the discipline and self-confidence boxing can supply.
But there had been a dream with Ruiz since he first walked into the gym at 14. Only Ruiz, his wife, Stone, and a few friends truly believed in it. No one else did, regardless of what they said the night it all came together in Las Vegas more than two years ago.
The story has been often told of how Stone mortgaged his house three times and still had to enlist the financial backing of his sister-in-law to keep the effort afloat. Well-chronicled were the 19-second knockout loss to David Tua and the long climb back and the string of big-time promoters who didn't do the right thing until Don King came along and Ruiz signed with him.
And then there they all were one night, covered in blood and sweat, hearing ". . . and new heavyweight champion of the world . . ." That was the beginning. What no one could know at the time was that it was the beginning of the end.
Whole new world
After Ruiz defeated Evander Holyfield in March of 2001, he was forced to fight him a third straight time, and he did not look good retaining his title in a draw that December. By then his personal life was starting to collapse, and it did not improve after he stopped Kirk Johnson in his second title defense.
Life had changed radically. The heavyweight champion does not just go home after he fights and close the door. He does not just go to his son's Pop Warner games or his daughter's school functions. He doesn't just go out on a Saturday night with his wife to salsa, unnoticed, especially in Las Vegas, where the couple moved, leaving Chelsea and the support of their friends and family behind.
"Everybody's life changes, I guess," Ruiz said as he sat in his new home in Las Vegas, where an entire floor echoes at every sound because there's not much furniture. "You go down different roads and all of a sudden you're colliding."
You travel when you're heavyweight champion. You meet people who want to offer you things whether you want them or not. You stop to sign an autograph. Then another. Then two more. You shake a hand, then another, then more. You let someone take a picture with you. Then another. Then a few more.
As you do all this, your family waits. And waits. And they wait some more. Life changes for el campion del mundo. It changes for the people around him, too, but not necessarily the way they might have hoped.
"The biggest problem was at the beginning I wasn't known," Ruiz said. "We could go out. Have some fun with friends. No one noticed me.
"Then people started stopping me. I loved to talk to them, but my wife hated it. If I was on the phone with her and said, `Just a minute,' so I could talk with someone or shake their hand, she'd hang up or chew me out. It was difficult for both of us. I tried to explain these people paid our bills, but I don't think she ever understood that. She didn't realize I had to do what I had to do. Her complaints were killing me. The kids would hear us arguing. By the end, there was just a lot of turmoil. We tried. We just couldn't hold it together."
During Ruiz's last training camp as heavyweight champion, before the night he would lose the title to Roy Jones Jr. in a performance so lacking in fire he appeared to not even be trying, he left Florida several times to return to Las Vegas and meet with his wife. They were trying to save a marriage, but the harder they tried, the more things unraveled, like a sock woven on a faulty loom. Stitch by stitch his life was falling apart, and as it did Stone watched, wondering what to do. Several times he considered calling off the fight but each time he suggested it, Ruiz reassured him everything would be fine. Then he would take it one step further.
"Every time he'd come back from Las Vegas, he'd look great in sparring," Stone said. "He fooled me. I should have seen it with all I've been through but I didn't. Maybe I didn't want to see it.
"About six weeks before the fight, Sahara even called me and said she didn't think he was into it. I told her I'd watch him close. He looked great his next few sparring sessions, but there were signs. He was acting different, especially the week of the fight."
He was, but by then it was too late. Ruiz was fit physically, but mentally Jones wasn't on his mind, except when he grew angry at how little Jones was doing to promote a pay-per-view show that had guaranteed the challenger $10 million but the champion not a penny.
Ruiz threw himself into promoting the fight but resented the hundreds of interviews he conducted while his home life was collapsing. People react differently to that kind of pressure, but Ruiz's response was not an unusual one. Despite eating the same as always and doing the same things in training he had done for Holyfield, he lost 17 pounds, including 9 the week of the fight while doing little but running.
Everyone knew what it was, but no one would say it. Stress was eating him alive.
"At a couple of points, I thought of postponing it, but I'm a fighter," Ruiz said. "We don't complain. All the things going on in my life took the fight out of me. I knew a month before the fight I wasn't focused. I was mentally checked out two days before the fight, but what do you do then?"
That was the day of the now infamous weigh-in, when Ruiz uncharacteristically showed up dressed like a pimp and said he was going to go after Jones "like a pimp chases his whore." It was shockingly out of character. What followed was a brawl in which Stone was knocked off the podium and had to be carried out on a stretcher after a shoving contest with Jones's trainer.
It was an ugly scene uncharacteristic of a champion whose nickname had been "The Quiet Man," but few knew that a day earlier he had sneaked out of his hotel to meet his wife and the two argued until the early hours of the morning. It was loud. It was upsetting. It was a sad dissolution of love, something that can happen when one person's life changes so radically. But it was no way to prepare for a heavyweight championship fight.
"I blame it on winning the title, 100 percent," Stone said. "They had a nice simple life. They were happy. They just couldn't fit this life into it."
No chance vs. Jones
By then, Ruiz had been ridiculed as a paper champion by some in the national media who gave him little respect for lasting 36 rough rounds with Holyfield and winning more of them than he lost. They said he could never beat Lennox Lewis or Mike Tyson or the Klitschko brothers or even Chris Byrd. Although some picked him to defeat Jones, it was only because of the expected size difference with Jones moving up from 175 to face a 230-pound man. No one knew that man had already been reduced, both in weight and in more important ways.
"The week of the fight, he was talking to everybody," Stone recalled. "He never done that. He was acting totally different. I should have known. Looking back, he was screaming out for help, but I didn't see it.
"Whenever he thought I was worried, he'd come over and hug me and say, `Don't worry about it. I got it under control.' That's what everybody says when they don't have it under control.
"When fight night came, I could tell early we were in deep water and nobody knew how to swim."
Predictably, they sank.
Early in the fight, referee Jay Nady warned Ruiz for holding and for the roughhouse tactics that would be necessary if he was going to beat a fighter as fast and fluid as Jones. Ruiz had no patience left. It was the straw that broke him. He began to complain bitterly. He abandoned everything he had been training to do. He stood in front of Jones, feinting and moving his hands in small circles.
The less he did, the more Jones did, the challenger's speed and skill overwhelming Ruiz without hurting him until it was over. Ruiz barely waited to hear the decision before he stormed out of the ring, complaining about Nady's demands.
"When you're in the mental state John was in, it doesn't take much to feel like the whole world is against you," Stone said.
"I went into the shower and he was just standing there. I told him, `You don't fight again until you get your life straightened out. If you do, you're finished.' All he said was, `I already had the breakdown.'
"I refused to let him go to the press conference because I didn't know what he was capable of. I knew he didn't have much control left. Anything could have happened. How could he go out and talk to people after that?"
Ruiz did not attend the postfight press conference and has not spoken publicly about the fight or how his personal problems affected it until now. He went into seclusion for seven months, again The Quiet Man, not saying much as his divorce became final and he moved into a new house not far from his children, of whom he has biweekly custody.
When he thinks back to his final night as heavyweight champion, Ruiz has only one emotion: anger. He is not angry at all that was swirling around him or at his cornermen for not seeing he was coming apart or even at Jones, who mocked him. He is angry at only one person.
"After the first round, something inside said, `Forget this,' " Ruiz said. "After the referee started getting on me, that took what little bit of mentality I had left to fight away. I'd been called every name in the book. I'd been put down in every way by most of the writers. When Nady spoke to me, it felt like he was just going to give Jones the fight, so I said, `Fine. Then let him have it.' I gave in. I feel so angry at myself for that."
Looking back now, Ruiz sees clearer. He is a champion no more but, he is still a fighter, so he sees the mistakes he made and, to a degree, understands why they happened.
"That fight was my nervous breakdown," he joked. "If I could have cried in the ring like Oliver McCall [who broke down during a fight with Lewis], I would have if it would have helped. I was so angry at myself, the process, my life, the referee, the world. Angry at everything. But you can't fight angry.
"I'm still angry about one thing. I'm angry for giving up."
Now well past that moment, Ruiz has begun to think about a comeback, but he isn't mentally ready to fight and he knows it. He refused to take a King-sponsored fight in September and is not sure he'll be ready by the end of the year, even though there are forces trying to push him in that direction.
He will fight again, though. Of this, he is sure. He will fight because he has a large divorce settlement to take care of, two kids to support, and a new life to finance. But he will fight for something more than that. John Ruiz will fight to recapture the dream that overwhelmed him, but he won't be fooled by it this time.
"Being heavyweight champ isn't all it seems to be," Stone said. "A lot of good things happened, but I could tell after a while we weren't getting the joy out of it we expected. People don't realize what life is after you become heavyweight champion. We'll know next time."
That assumes there is a next time, which no one can be sure of. All that is certain, Ruiz now knows, is the struggle. The struggle to get there, it turns out, is really the dream.
"It saddens me when I think about what happened in my life," Ruiz said. "I feel bad for my kids because I was brought up without a father around. But we tried. We tried hard to make it a family. We didn't survive it, but I know we tried. Now it's time to move on and focus on boxing.
"I'd love to get back into the picture. I'd like to fight the toughest guys out there, but first I have to get my mind clear, get it back on boxing. Some days I feel I have. Other days it's not there yet."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.