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Ruiz goes very quietly from the sport he loves

NEW YORK -- John Ruiz and Norman Stone spent their final minutes in boxing sitting in the appropriate place. They were on a love seat. It was 2 a.m. yesterday morning and Ruiz sat in Room 1915 at the Southgate Hotel trying to eat a slice of pizza in between having an ice bag pressed to his lips. It was as difficult as it had been trying to avoid the counter right hands of James Toney a few hours earlier across the street at Madison Square Garden.

Ruiz's eyelids had purple splotches and his lower lip was badly swollen, reminders that he had lost more than the World Boxing Association heavyweight title to Toney Saturday night. He had lost a few pieces of himself as well as his final shred of innocence.

After the lopsided decision was announced, a disgusted Ruiz left the ring immediately and returned to his locker room. Less than a half-hour later, he announced he was finished with prizefighting, ending at 33 a love affair with a sport that never loved him back except when Stone was at his side.

Stone was there still, Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote, sitting with him on the small sofa and watching a crime show on television while believing it was the second crime he'd witnessed that night. The first was the one that stole the heart from a fighter he calls "my son."

Ruiz, the man not of La Mancha but of Chelsea, Mass., never figured to become heavyweight champion. A light heavyweight as a nationally ranked amateur, his heavyweight career seemed to end nearly a decade ago after David Tua knocked him out in 19 seconds in Atlantic City. It was a defeat the boxing world never let him forget, even though he came all the way back to twice win the WBA title, earn millions, and have his hand raised in all but three of the nine title fights he was in.

New England is fallow ground for fighters, a part of the country that seems to produce only a limited number of world champions. Perhaps none ever was more limited than Ruiz, who rose above his meager talent through force of will, persistence, and a refusal to listen to the critics who hated his plodding style. But, like acid dripping on a sheet of metal, the criticisms slowly ate away at him until everything came to a head Saturday night, when he fought miserably and without the jabbing and grabbing style he'd used to wear down so many opponents.

Even his conditioning was gone. He entered the ring at 241 pounds, a career high, and withered at the end. Unlike past fights, it was not his opponent who flagged in the final rounds, it was Ruiz, who fought the last three minutes of his career with even less intensity and more indifference than Toney.

When it was over, two judges had Toney winning, 116-111. The third had it 115-112. It was reported the Globe card had Ruiz winning, 115-114, but upon a recheck yesterday morning, even it came down on the side of the new champion, 115-114.

Regardless of how anyone scored the fight, though, Ruiz lost it in the locker room, where he felt slighted and ill-treated one last time in the final hour before his final bout. An argument over facial hair and the language used by the bombastic Stone seemed to undo what little resolve Ruiz had to press on.

Not long after Ruiz arrived in the locker room, New York State Athletic Commission head Ron Scott Stevens asked him to shave the beard he had worn through most of his professional career, citing a commission rule against facial hair.

Ruiz was stunned and Stone refused, saying he had nothing to trim it with and pointing out Ruiz had fought with the same beard, in the same building, six months ago and no one had said a word.

Stevens had been with Ruiz and Stone at a public workout Tuesday in Greenwich Village and had two long conversations with the champion. He never mentioned the beard. He was with him at the final news conference Thursday, when he gave a long speech about sportsmanship. He said nothing about banning facial hair. He was with Ruiz for the prefight physical, at the weigh-in, and at the rules meeting Friday and never mentioned it.

Then, an hour before the fight, the issue suddenly was raised, and that convinced Ruiz his worst fears would be realized.

"It hurts me to walk away like this because I know it will make a lot of them happy," Ruiz said. "They'll probably go out and have a party. I grew up in boxing. It's sad for me to put it this way, but boxing was the sport I loved. Now it's the sport I hate.

"It dawned on me [when Stevens raised the beard issue] they were going to do everything they could to get me out of the sport tonight. I knew right then this was the night they were going to take it away from me. I think they decided a long time ago they didn't want me in the sport."

Stevens quickly backed down, but the psychological damage had been done. When stern resolve was most needed, a seed of doubt had been planted in the fighter's head.

Soon things got worse when referee Steve Smoger began his instructions and brought up Stone's sometimes vile language and the fact that it had led to him being thrown out of Ruiz's corner during his last fight in New York against Andrew Golota in November.

As he spoke to fighter and loyal liege in the locker room, Stone began to bristle.

Smoger went on to assure Stone he was "starting with a clean slate" and said his decision to bring up what he called his "atrocious language" was "preventative" not punitive. But when he then said, "I don't want the fight to end on a disqualification," Stone lost it. Shouting and cursing as Ruiz stood in silence, Stone accused Smoger of picking on him and being prejudiced. He then said, "The fight's off. I don't use atrocious language. I'm gonna sue."

None of those statements was true, of course, but when Smoger ruled Ruiz had been knocked down in the seventh round when the HBO replay showed Toney stepped on Ruiz's right foot with his left and pushed him down with his left forearm, the persecution complex that had been festering inside Ruiz for several years seemed to explode with bile. His retirement began right then.

On two of the three judges' cards, Ruiz won only one round after that, the 10th. On the third, he did not win any. That indifference, coupled with the 10-8 scoring in the seventh for the "knockdown," provided Toney with a wide margin of victory and convinced Ruiz there was no reason to go on.

"I think he's had enough," said Tony Cardinale, the attorney for Ruiz and Stone. "The last couple of years have been very hard on him. It's been nothing but negativity. He feels the sport he loves is pushing him out. Why fight it?"

Stone echoed those feelings. As Ruiz stared at the TV, saying nothing though occasionally acknowledging the words of others by looking at them for a moment before going back to his pizza-and-ice-bag repast, Stone sat next to the boy he had first taken in as a 14-year-old amateur and sounded almost relieved that their long walk together was finally over -- even if it had ended in bitterness and defeat.

"He says it's over with, it's over with," Stone said. "We went all the way to the heavyweight championship of the world with nobody behind us. Nobody. They can never take that away from him. I'll miss the sport but not the [expletive]. I don't need this. Johnny don't need this. He's my son. He's part of me. We've had enough."

Ruiz sat impassively as he was told promoter Don King already had made a deal in a room two floors overhead for a July 23 unification title fight between Toney and International Boxing Federation champion Chris Byrd. That card may also feature Hasim Rahman in with Monte Barrett for an interim World Boxing Council title while the world waits for Vitali Klitschko's bad back to heal.

A fight with Byrd to unify at least two of the four belts was something Ruiz repeatedly had asked for from King, who was also his promoter. He was told it couldn't be done because there was not enough interest or money available. Now, barely three hours after the final bell tolled over his career, the deal was done.

For a moment, Ruiz looked like he was about to speak, but then he thought better of it. The Quiet Man was back in form. He looked down at the stained pizza box for a moment, picked up his slice of pepperoni, took a bite, and dabbed the ice bag over his swollen lip.

He was gone now. Lost in his thoughts as the crime show flickered across the screen. It seemed a fitting way for it all to end, in a hotel room with his one friend in boxing, Stone, and nobody saying a word as a crime unfolded in front of him.


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