A Pair of Brown Shoes in Vegas
Years ago, a comic sitting next to Dean Martin and some other celebrities on the Johnny Carson Show said, "Ever feel like the world is all tuxedos and you're a pair of brown shoes?"
John Ruiz is a pair of brown shoes. And it was painfully obvious in the promotion and the fight in Vegas with Roy Jones, Jr. on March 1 to retain his WBA heavyweight title.
For the week prior to the fight, Ruiz was in the eye of the hurricane. He chafed in the garish colors of the Strip, the Ka-ching of the casinos, the vertigo of sharks, fakes, and glad-handers; the press, baiting and badgering him, and the unremitting glitz. Jones fed off it.
Ruiz is a professional leather-thrower with a title of heavyweight champ. Work and sweat are his mantra, not showbiz or a glib reply. He's focused, not gifted. Jones is an artist, and incomparable. It was Mozart vs Salieri.
The fight was an anti-climax; all the fireworks happened leading up to it.
In a workout for the press at the Media Pavilion in Caesar's Palace, a small film crew was shooting Ruiz for what they called a "documentary," titled "Sweet Science," about Jones for Weiden & Kennedy Advertising and Nike. A production assistant circulated through the crowd asking everybody to sign releases, also describing it as a "documentary." It smelled suspiciously like a commercial, though.
When Norman Stone, Ruiz's manager, learned that Jones might profit from it--aside from his 10- -million-dollar guarantee-- and also get a sneak look at Ruiz in training, he went ballistic. "Lock all the doors! Don't let any'a these guys outta here! he bellowed to team Ruiz, who spread out to all the exits .
Then Stone pushed through the crowd to the cameraman and got right in his face: "Gimme that film right now!" The cameraman trembled: "It's not film, it's videotape." "I DON'T GIVE A FUCK WHAT IT IS!" Stone roared. "I WANT IT RIGHT NOW!" Everybody froze. One wrong move and somebody was going to get hurt bad.
The producer signaled the cameraman to give Stone the tape, which he appeared to destroy, and the crew was ushered out of the room.
But the flinty Stone wasn't through.
At the weigh-in, Stone was unhappy about the gloves, saying his were heavier than Jones' and that they were improperly sent to Jones instead of the commission. Stone got loud about it and stepped up on the temporary platform to complain to Alton Merkerson, Jones' trainer, that unless the gloves were changed, the fight was off.
Stone got too close to Merkerson. Words were exchanged. Stone grabbed Merkerson, who tried to pry him loose, causing him to fall backward, and on his way down, Merkerson caught him on the end of a long overhand right, which split Stone's lip--thanks to a Super-Bowl size ring. Somewhere's at the bottom of the pile, Stone was kicked in the ribs by a Jones supporter, and he broke a finger in the melee.
A few minutes later, Stone collapsed. Initially, it was thought to be a heart attack, but he was rushed to Valley Hospital, x-rayed and released, with just some bumps and bruises.
If a writer had concocted the final Don King press conference, nobody would buy it-- too far over the top. But the real thing boggles the mind.
It was in a large ballroom in Caesar's Palace, teaming with bodies. Jones sat at the dais, expressionless, in pearl-gray designer sweats, bobbing his head to music in his earphones, oblivious to the circus around him .
With two mightly-muscled Roman Centurions--one of them black--and Cleopatra standing at the back wall under a huge Ruiz-Jones sign, King, grinning like the "Joker," in a hand-painted bleeding Eisenhower jacket with sequins, waved four American flags at the TV cameras.
He rambled endlessly in a rap somewhere's between P.T. Barnum and an evangelist about "Kryptonite," "Blackonite", scripture, his meetings with the Ukrainian President, the yellow Lamborghini he gave Ruiz, the French for "not having our back."...And just before he introduced Jean-Marc Mormeck of France, the cruiser weight champ, King shook his finger at him: "Remind Chirac, that if it wasn't for the doughboys, the French would be speaking German!" And finished with a full throated chorus of: "...AND WE WON'T COME BACK TILL IT'S OVER, OVER THERE!"
When King said "God," up jumped Jones, as if his name had been called, ripped off his earphones, and with arms folded across his chest, snapped, "I'm not here to bullshit!. I fight--that's what I do!"
Aside from deciding to box with Jones, the worst decision Ruiz made was to come out at the final weigh-in dressed like a pimp. When he was asked if he was going to win? "The pimp always gets the ho!," he smiled. Jaws dropped... The groans and cringes were audible. In an attempt to pump-up the pay-per-view, somebody in Ruiz's camp thought they had to make him more colorful.
There never was a wronger choice. Ruiz was your everyman--the over-achiever; somebody one could identify with and root for. This pimp nonsense fit him no better than it would Rocky Marciano.
However transparent a rogue King is, none of the street-smart in attendance sell him short. There's no BS about his ability to make a big event like this happen. And at 72, he shows no sign of getting off the stage.
It was clear in training, Ruiz was building up a head-of-steam: He had to accept all of Jones's terms to get the match; and if Jones didn't support the promotion, Ruiz might make no money from his percentage of PPV. And Jones wasn't helping. Whenever a reporter broached the sore spot, the tightness in "The Quiet Man's" jaw and the look in his eye said he wanted to take it out on Jones in the ring...Get his respect!
But it isn't that easy with Jones. Fighters can't "get off." They look like "bums" in comparison.
Ruiz is not a bum; he's stolid, awkwardly affective, and damn dangerous with the best of heavyweights. He had a plan mapped out by Gabe LaMarca, his trainer, to cut the ring off, and they sweated on it right up until fight time. In training, Ruiz looked quicker and let his hands go more freely than I'd ever seen him.
But that's how big the chasm in talent and speed is between Ruiz and Jones. Doing it in the mirror and against sparring partners simulating Jones is not like facing him in the ring... that's the reality check.
If even a fraction of the anger and built-up frustration of Ruiz and his camp had come into the ring, it might have been worth the $1200 they were charging at ringside...but a boxing match broke out. And when that's how it was settled, it was no contest. Passion, rage, payback, brute size...and an alley would have been Ruiz's only hope.
After hours of preliminaries, with what looked like no more than 100 people in the 16,000-seat Thomas and Mack Center, the place was a near sell-out by the main event. Jones and Ruiz pushed their way through the crowd in the ring before the introductions. Jones stripped off his hooded-chocolate vest. He wasn't a man carrying too much weight for his frame; he was cut like a middleweight--just bigger, with knotted muscles in his back and grapefruit-sized biceps...like Harold Johnson used to look.
Ruiz strode shirtless through the mob in the ring, pumping his arms, like a man on a mission. At 226, he looked trim and in shape...but not the Goliath in the ads.
The fight wasn't filled with drama and excitement--as befits such a historic event--it was more like an orderly coronation--the appreciation of royalty to a hip-hop beat. The little man grew in stature every round.
Jones made it clear in his clinic over Ruiz that he's a superstar and everybody else is a supporting player. Ruiz was merely a foil to showcase his talents.
Nobody deserves the title of "The Real Deal" or "The Man" more than Jones. He out-thinks, out-boxes, out-punches.. out-everythings anybody else in a prize ring in 2003. He's like some super model who hit the genetic lottery. As a fighter, he has it all, including radar, an assortment of punches I've never seen, and a body as limber as Gumby.
From his first sneak right hand that wobbled Ruiz in round 4, Jones announced he wasn't running; he was going to fight Ruiz straight up and drub him with ease an arrogance. And that's what he did like a master for 12 rounds.
In the instant that Jones' right hand buckled Ruiz's knee, almost imperceptibly, a flicker registered in his eyes, as if at some level, he accepted the inevitability of Jones getting the glory and the gold, and the only victory he could salvage was to deny him a knockout.
The few times Jones sampled a Ruiz right hand or some body punches against the ropes, he answered the questions on everybody's mind: Can he take a shot? Does he have the character? Jones didn't crumple--seemed almost disdainful, and just tended to business, stinging and discouraging the much bigger man with a never-ending jab, that looked like he was the one with the seven inches in reach.
There were several times when Jones set the same trap: He bent forward at the waist--his head an inviting target-- arms hanging like spaghetti, and Ruiz took the bait and came across with all of his weight and right hand, only to be met with a snapping left uppercut-hook from the floor, while Jones slid off to the right without even looking.
After Ruiz's promising 1st round, where he landed two shotgun jabs and forced Jones back, Jones adjusted, and weight, height and reach were never a factor again. Jones' feints, unorthodox jab, surprising power and ring generalship froze Ruiz in place, like a matador flourishing his cape in front of an enraged bull and turning his back.
The referee, Jay Nady, had little to do, even though he warned Ruiz for using his head in the first round. Jones handled Ruiz with unexpected ease inside, and hit him with crisp, hard uppercuts when they were on the ropes. Even when Ruiz let go more punches against the ropes, Jones's were more accurate and telling.
Once Ruiz had second thoughts about bull-rushing Jones, he lost his only advantages, and the dye was cast: He was out of his depth in the center of the ring. For the balance of the fight, Ruiz didn't commit. His corner pleaded with him. He looked like an air-hockey figure-- gloves glued to the sides of his head-- jerking sharply side to side with every Jones fake.
Ruiz had been stopped quickly and beaten, but he'd never been dominated. He'd managed to win ugly against some very tough guys, so Jones's near shut-out UD is all the more impressive. I scored it 118-110.
There was some nagging doubt in my mind before the decision was announced, even though many of the 15,300 were streaming to the exists before the end of the last round, sure that Jones had a lock on it. Ruiz was a King fighter, and Vonda Ward, his Amazonian protégé, had just been given a 4-round gift over Wanda Salazar, who soundly beat her, and almost knocked her out.
But even though King tried to reverse the knockout of Tyson by Buster Douglas, he let the Jones win stand. And Roy Jones Jr. --exultant-- was hoisted on the shoulders of his handlers, the first former middleweight in over a century to win a heavyweight championship.
Leaving the arena, somebody passed me and yelled, "Speed kills!" It certainly does when you're being whacked and you have no idea where it's coming from... when every impulse...and months of training, scream: "Charge him!" "Mug him!," and you're never in position to do it... and can't get off. That's what Jones has done to 49 pros.
At 34, Jones could get old overnight in a business that demands Top-Gun reflexes, especially with his style. So, whether any of the mega-buck offers swirling around Tyson, Klitschko or Lewis ever materialize, the idea doesn't seem so far-fetched after this showing. Jones is an American treasure, and you'll tell your grandkids about him in the the same breath with Robinson, Burley and Langford.
On the undercard--which seemed to go on for weeks--the best fight of the night was a non-stop punchout between Jean-Marc Mormeck and Alexandre Gurov of the Ukraine for the cruiser weight title.
Somehow Mormeck's request for entrance music must have lost something in the translation from the French. While Mormeck shadow boxed toward the ring, led by a string of handlers all dressed in battle fatigues, the loud speaker pumped runway music for a Victoria Secret show.
Gurov got great extension and leverage on his punches, and was very gritty. Mormeck, a shorter mound of muscle, kept bobbing and weaving and investing in the body. Mormeck kept pressing and finally drained and dropped Gurov at the end of the 7th, and finished him for good in the eighth.
These were two tough, quality fighters, and though one got stopped, they're both crowd pleasers and well worth seeing again.
Alex Terra Garcia of Mexico was the surprise of the night, and proved to be every bit as big a banger as his record indicated (21 fights, 20 knockouts) in blasting out Santiago Salmenaga of Panama to win his WBA super welterweight title
Garcia isn't imaginative or eye-catching, but he has reasonable hand speed, and a very heavy right . He poleaxed Salmenaga once in the first round, and for the KO in the third. Both times Salmenaga went down, he looked like Gamache against Gatti.
Garcia could be a dark horse among the superwelters. He doesn't look all that impressive, and opponents could still be thinking that while they're on their backs.
I was stunned by the dramatic suddenness of the emphatic KO of heavyweight Maurice "Moe" Harris by Fres Oquendo in the 10th round...and also to read now that Harris has been taken to the hospital because of "recurrent headaches." I hope its something that can be dealt with, but, certainly, it's a clear sign that Harris has to stop now; he's been KO'd 10 times in 21 short-notice fights, and the brutal picture of him laying motionless after Derrick Jefferson's terrifying left hook still is fresh in every fan's mind.
I interviewed Harris before the fight and he was more than confident. He felt a renewed dedication would allow him to fulfill his potential. He couldn't wait to show what he could do in this fight with Oquendo.
I've heard it said that athletes break records if they can envision themselves doing it-- not trying to do it. Mo Harris could see himself a champion.
After Harris's knockdown in the second round, where it didn't look like it was possible for him to get off the floor, Harris somehow made it to his feet, recovered his poise and stylishly won every round until he was abruptly dropped by what looked like an Oquendo left hook inside, and he slumped to the canvas, unconscious.
The controversy about whether it was a legal blow may be resolved by the courts, but not the consequences. A short time after his fight, I was encouraged to see Harris back in street clothes, smiling and walking briskly around ringside greeting his friends.
Harris is one of those boxing stories of a man with excellent natural talent--great promise--and heart, but not the a constitution to match.
Winky Wright is a "fighter's fighter"-- but like Rodney Dangerfield, he gets no respect. His wins just don't excite the fans. He out-dueled and out-hit J.C. Candelo, to defend his IBF jr middleweight crown. But, he hardly left promoter's panting for more, and he showed much too much skill for any manager to risk his fighter with.
So, Wright's press agent is going to have to work overtime to find an angle to propel him into big money fights. He's got the talent to be competitive with anyone.
Maybe Wright could take some tips from Candelo on how to be noticed. At the weigh-in, he was a riot of color: red, green, yellow, purple, you name it. He looked like a Mardi Gras reveler.
Candelo is a tall, fluid-punching and strong-willed fighter, with an exceptionally long reach, but he just didn't bring enough fire to win a title. Candelo is no slouch, and he's still young enough to be back.
In a strange way, Lamon Brewster's heavyweight fight mirrored the main event. Brewster was able to do anything he wanted with Joe Lenart--without return-- and Lenart was a much bigger man.
The best that could be said for Lenart was, he didn't short-change the promoter: he kept accepting terrible punishment (and nobody would have faulted him for laying down) and shuffled forward for more. Brewster was loading up and landing with everything he could muster. The report of his body shots, and seeing them sink in almost to the elbow, had fans wincing. It looked like "Rocky" pounding the sides of beef--before Lenart caved-in in the third.
At the weigh-in, I remarked to a trainer that Lenart was well over 300 pounds, and towered over Brewster. "But does he have a pulse?" he replied. That was the story in a nutshell. It had to be a confidence builder for Brewster, but he deserves stronger competition to put him back in the heavyweight picture.
Vonda Ward is one of the most striking physical specimens I've ever seen. She's 6'6", 179 pounds and had more definition than any man on the card. Seeing her for the first time is like looking at the red queen in "The Manchurian Candidate;" It's stunning.
Ward was bounding all over the final press conference in shorts and a cut-off T shirt. Men usually are preoccupied with a woman's figure, but nobody could take their eyes off her arms. There was nothing but sinew. They looked like steel cable. When she walked, it was like viewing a superstructure from below and seeing every beam and girder articulated, as she moved.
But in spite of her 15-0 record, with 14 KO's, she's the 2003 version of Primo Carnera.
She's worked very hard in the gym to learn some of the basics. She's not lacking in intensity, but her athletic skills don't extend to boxing.
She has no feel for the game, no give in her legs, punches only with her arms, and can't get out of the way of anything. She takes everything flush--her head always straight up, begging to be hit.
The girl that Ward fought, looked like no match physically, but she was much the more natural fighter, and rang Ward's bell repeatedly with right hands thrown from the outfield.
Ward will beat a lot girls who can't deal with her size and workrate. But her competitive spirit and tremendous physical condition will only mean she'll take punishment longer from the first decent puncher she faces.
When I spoke to her at the press conference, she was very open, and quick to admit she was just a beginner, and wanted to work very hard to get better. She was very touching...she wore braces, and almost looked like a little girl.
Al "Ice" Cole and David Izon earned a paycheck in a listless heavyweight 8 rounder. Cole was busier with his jab, and Izon was a shadow of himself. Cole was less faded than Izon, and deserved the UD.
Ezra Sellers was annihilating Jason Robinson in the 2nd round, and referee Toby Gibson had to step in to stop the cruiser weight bout in just :53 seconds.
Gabe Brown looks more like a Buddha than an athlete, let alone a fighter. He's 335 pounds, and all of it shakes. But the guy can fight--has some hand speed and moves that mass like a much lighter man. He fought hammer-and-tongs with a Tyson-built fighter named Sherman "Tank" Williams. Williams won because Brown faded in the stretch, but he gave Williams hell.
I'm sure I'll be seeing some unexpected names in Brown's win column. Guys will take one look at him and say, "Piece of cake," and get the surprise of their lives.
Everything in Vegas has to be larger-than-life--SPECTACULAR! All Jones did is box brilliantly and make history. It doesn't threaten "Siegfried & Roy," but it's not smoke and mirrors, either.
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