Anything but a quiet man
Stone is not afraid to speak his mind in defense of Ruiz
NEW YORK -- Fifteen minutes before he threatened to kill him, Norman Stone was sitting in a small room on the fifth floor of Madison Square Garden yesterday telling a friend how much he respected Freddie Roach.
The two are products of the fallow landscape of New England boxing, a field that has produced some great fighters but a lot of false promise and broken dreams, too. Roach was one of the former, and Stone's pride and joy, John Ruiz, is another. The two will butt heads in a way tomorrow night when the fighter Roach now trains, ex-middleweight, super middleweight, and cruiserweight champion James Toney, tries to wrestle the World Boxing Association heavyweight title away from Ruiz. Naturally, this causes some strain in a relationship, but Stone seems to understand Roach is simply representing his fighter as best he can, just as Stone has done for Ruiz since he was a 14-year-old amateur from Chelsea, Mass.
Tomorrow will be a night of high tension and hot emotions, to be sure, but it is yesterday afternoon and even the often volcanic Stone is a sea of calm as he talks of his reputation as a boxing hothead, his love for Ruiz, and his respect for Roach.
In 14 minutes he will call Roach the vilest of names, begin to pull Roach's shirt off in public, and challenge the former world-ranked boxer to a fistfight all because Toney stepped on a scale without someone from Ruiz's camp standing next to him. It is as if Dr. Jekyll has been replaced by Mr. Hyde the moment Stone sees the men who have come to hit his fighter in the mouth for money in 48 hours.
"They're heavyweights," Roach hollers as Stone begins to grow agitated and charge the scales. "What difference does it make?"
His point is well taken. Since there is no limit to what a heavyweight can weigh -- as Toney seems to try to prove every time out -- the need for anyone but a representative of the New York State Athletic Commission to check the scales is nonexistent. Yet Stone is so obsessed with the underdog nature of his fighter's career, despite having been heavyweight champion for most of the past four years, he leaves nothing to chance and misses no chance to forcefully defend his man, even if the guy talking to him is someone he just said, "I've got nothing but respect for."
That, of course, was 15 minutes ago.
"You [expletive]," Stone hollers at Roach for no discernible reason except that he has perceived his fighter somehow may not be getting a fair shake. "I'll kick your [expletive]."
The usually placid Roach finally gets overheated himself, and takes a step toward Stone before Garden security and handlers from both camps step between them. Above them Toney smirks and Ruiz looks as if a bus has just slowly passed by on Broadway.
A half-hour later, Stone is walking back to his hotel, saying, "Freddie's a great kid but I look out for Johnny."
Such is the geyser-like world of Norman Stone.
"I'm not like that with any other fighter," Stone says, as Ruiz relaxes in another room with his brother, Eddie, and a doctor from the New York State Athletic Commission who is giving Ruiz a physical. "He's not just a fighter to me. He's my other son. I've got to do the best I can for him.
"I think they've downgraded him for such a long time. I'm just trying to bring the world back to see that he's not such a bad kid, and I'm taking it out on the wrong guys sometimes. It takes less to set me off than it used to. I guess I always feel the kid never gets the respect he deserves.
"I can tell you this, this will never happen again. I've stuck up for a lot of guys in my life but there was always a point where I'd say, `No more.' With John, there's no point. He's family. I'll never get as close to a person again."
That closeness, some in boxing feel, has caused Stone at times to lose his judgment and, to a degree, his mind. It led him to get into a physical altercation before a fight with Roy Jones's usually quiet trainer, Alton Merkerson, who sent Stone tumbling off a dais and away in a stretcher.
In Ruiz's last appearance at the Garden, a successful title defense against Andrew Golota, Stone was thrown out of the corner by referee Randy Neumann after Stone repeatedly cursed at him, charged across the ring after one round with fist clenched threatening Golota's stunned manager, Sam Colonna, and finally used language so abusive after Neumann would not help Stone unroll some tape to put on Ruiz's glove between rounds that the referee had no choice but to send Stone packing.
The problem was that when Stone the manager/trainer left Ruiz's corner, he took with him Stone the cut man as well. That left the fighter at risk and although Stone says he was trying to motivate Ruiz to focus on Golota's actions and not Neumann's rulings, he now admits it was not the wisest course of action.
"The problem was I didn't feel I was getting the most out of John," Stone explained. "He was upset with the referee and didn't want to listen to me. Either I stay in the corner with him or I go after Neumann. My best thought was to get out because once the fighter is worrying about the referee, he's in trouble. Johnny needed to be shocked."
Maybe so or maybe that's Stone rewriting history. Whatever Stone's thinking, Ruiz sat down with him later and made it clear he didn't again want to be left adrift without someone to stanch the flow of blood that often comes when he fights.
"We had a talk about it," Ruiz said. "Him being the cut man and getting kicked out of the corner is a dangerous situation. He's a guy with a lot of emotions and I can't blame him for being on the ref that night, but I was worried about what might happen if I got cut. I told him that can't happen again.
"I depend on him and he depends on me. It's a father and son situation. I do the fighting. I leave the talking to Stoney . . . which he does a lot of."
As he speaks, Ruiz smiles the way a grateful son might at the occasional peccadilloes of his well-meaning but occasionally overprotective dad. It's the smile of a man who understands where Stone's emotions come from, but not everyone is as close to Stone as Ruiz and so not everyone understands, or accepts, his often coarse language in public and the seemingly endless displays of ill temper that can flare up, as they did yesterday, without warning.
"I've maintained a dialogue with him," said Ron Scott Stevens, executive director of the New York State Athletic Commission and the man who fined and suspended Stone after the incident in the Golota fight. "He apologized to the referee and to the commission and he's promised the behavior we witnessed won't happen again, but he knows he's on a short leash.
"He has to act professionally. Anything short of that and there will be consequences. He owes it to the sport and to his fighter not to tarnish their legacy. Stoney has done a lot of good for boxing, but I don't think he's quite managed anger control in the midst of a pressure situation very well.
"The legalized assault needs to take place in the ring."
In that regard, Stone was forced to be fully licensed this time by the commission to serve in Ruiz's corner, rather than simply have his Massachusetts license honored. Stone says he knows why.
"They gave it to me so they can take it away," he said, meaning he understands if he erupts tomorrow night and it leads to a suspension it will be one that prevents him from working anywhere in the legalized fistic world. "Look, I understand sometimes the things I say are too much. I go home and sit in the backyard with a Coke and my dog and think, `What did I do that for? What is wrong with me?'
"I'm not afraid to say when I'm wrong. I didn't like it but I apologized for my language to the commission. I still think that referee did a lousy job and didn't give John a fair break when Golota pushed him down and hit him when he was down, but that didn't excuse some of my language."
What some in boxing wonder, though, is if Stone's sometimes outrageous behavior has created a situation among officials where, whether consciously or unconsciously they no longer give the WBA champion the benefit of the doubt. What they would ignore from someone else perhaps they take too much to heart. Worse, when Ruiz gets fouled or held, etc., do they ignore it, as Stone and Ruiz accused Neumann of?
"I don't know if that's happened or not," said another referee who asked for anonymity because he might one day work a Ruiz fight, "but a referee is a human being, too. We try to remember the cornermen are advocates, not unbiased observers, but there's a limit to the abuse you have to take. Stoney doesn't seem to understand that."
To prevent any problems tomorrow, Stevens had lengthy discussions with representatives from both camps about who he would choose as the referee and gave each a list of five names. Well-respected New Jersey referee Steve Smoger, who has worked Toney and Ruiz fights in the past without incident, was agreed to. Asked about Smoger, Stone said, "I've got a lot of respect for him."
Of course, 15 minutes before he went after Roach, he said he had a lot of respect for him, too.
The odd thing about Stone is he's two people. One represents Ruiz like a Rottweiler on speed. The other calmly counsels recovering alcoholics like himself, drug addicts, down-and-outers.
He loves boxing for what it can do for a young kid from the projects or a troubled home, and has long run the Somerville Boxing Club, often moving it from place to place when the lease ran out, to help such kids. It is a nonprofit operation that has produced few professional fighters but hundreds of good citizens because Stone has checked on their homework, reviewed their grades, and refused to let them box if they slip below his standards.
Stone has not had a drink in more than 20 years and has worked hard to help others do the same. He's famous for rising to answer a late-night call just to listen to someone else's pain. In the early days, when he was still battling his own demons, a guy would sometimes come to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with him just to be by his side. That guy was John Ruiz.
A bond like that is not easily broken and it creates a fierce loyalty, one enhanced by the fact that the night Ruiz fought Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title the first time, Stone was carrying $65,000 in credit card debt and three mortgages on his house totaling $320,000. All the money had gone to keep afloat the effort to make Ruiz a champion.
In the end, that obsession paid off. Ruiz is 5-2-1 in eight world title fights and twice won the WBA title. He made more than $4 million the night he fought Jones and probably is approaching $10 million in total purses, a figure modest for a heavyweight champion but unbelievable considering where he and Stone started. Such obsession was needed if Ruiz were to make it, but obsession can lead a man to lose perspective at times.
"I was talking with John for a story I was writing one day and Stoney comes roaring up, cursing at me," recalled Thomas Hauser, a biographer of Muhammad Ali and this year's winner of the Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. "I had no idea what he was upset about. He called me every name and said he should punch me in the face. When he left, Johnny just shrugged.
"A few minutes later he comes back and apologizes and kisses me on the cheek. He said he got me confused with someone else. It was a nice gesture, but it's a little difficult to forget a verbal assault like that."
This, of course, is the dilemma. What Stone sees as advocacy, others see as lunacy. Yet boxing has long had mercurial characters such as Stone, men who might be outside the norm but who fit the sport's unique demands.
To Bobby Goodman, promoter Don King's chief aide and a longtime figure in the sport, Stone is to be admired, not vilified.
"I talk to Stoney about some of the things he says and does but he can't help himself," Goodman explained. "I once got an opponent change for him in Tunica, Miss. A last-second thing when a guy pulled out. Johnny stopped the guy but after the fight Stoney is screaming at me, `You tried to set us up! You tried to set us up!' He used a little more colorful language. Twenty minutes later he hugs me and says, `I love you.' That's Stoney.
"He gets caught up in the moment. This kid is his whole life. A guy like Stoney works his whole life for one kid like this. A lot of guys never get a guy like this. Everything he does he feels is in Johnny's best interest. It may not be, but that's the way Norman sees it. When he feels John's being threatened or unfairly treated or disrespected, he loses it. I don't know how many times we've talked to him about it but, hey, he's a guy who really cares. In boxing, that's a rare treasure.
"I think a lot of people in boxing sympathize with him because they come from the same hard place. Neumann should understand. When he was fighting, he had Paddy Flood and Al Certo in his corner. Same kind of guys. The care and love he puts into his fighter is remarkable. Sometimes he crosses the line, but you've got to admire him for it."
You do unless you're Ron Scott Stevens or Randy Neumann or Steve Smoger, the guy in charge of what goes on between Ruiz and Toney and Stoney and everybody else tomorrow night. Those guys are the ones with control of the leash Norman Stone knows he's now on. The short one he created for himself with a blind-eyed, single-minded advocacy of John Ruiz that, in a calm moment, even he sometimes finds baffling.
"We had everything against us for so long," Stone explained. "We made it when everyone said we couldn't. Now we're here and there's a side of me that wants to say, `Screw you!' I got to get away from that."
Tomorrow night, he's promised he will. Promised he'll be calm. Professional. That's what he's promised Stevens and Ruiz and everyone close to him. It's a promise he intends to keep.