Once more the art of promotion transcended the sport of boxing. It too often does. A bout that somehow got billed as the biggest rivalry this side of the Hundred Years War lasted somewhat less than that last Saturday when, in a lightweight title bout, Oscar De La Hoya bombed Rafael Ruelas out of the ring in less than five minutes.
And again the grimness of the game overtook everything else. It too often does. In an undercard bout at Caesars Palace that featured older brother Gabriel Ruelas in defense of his WBC super-featherweight title, the challenger, Jimmy Garcia, was battered relentlessly until his damaged brain failed his body and he slumped unconscious to the canvas after the 11th round. Garcia, a light hitter from Colombia who was losing every round, remained in critical condition as SI went to press Monday night, but doctors were encouraged that he was squeezing his father's hand and responding to voices.
"He's better, so we're hopeful," said Dr. Albert Capanna, a neurosurgeon who operated on Garcia. "But we still have a long way to go."
The fight was a disturbing event, as Garcia, 35-5, never posed a threat to Ruelas. He simply absorbed punishment. And though Ruelas said that his mind wasn't on his work, that he was worried about his brother's bout later in the evening, he meted out a terrible and persistent beating. Referee Mitch Halpern even summoned physician Flip Homansky into the ring after the 10th round, but the fight was allowed to continue. Then Halpern stopped it 25 seconds into the 11th. The bout had become pointless long before that; it is stupid to celebrate a fighter for his ability to take a punch, especially when it is obvious that he has no hope of ever returning one.
After briefly sitting on his stool, Garcia slumped to the canvas, barely conscious. Paramedics were quick to get him oxygen and eventually got him onto a stretcher and wheeled him out; you could see his fingers moving slightly as he clutched the rails. But his condition apparently worsened on the way to University Medical Center, where he underwent a two-hour operation to remove a blood clot from the front left side of his brain.
"He was comatose, and we didn't expect him to live," said Capanna.
This was the awful subtext to the De La Hoya story as he paused in Las Vegas for a brief stop on his way to greatness. A fighter lies as close to death as you can get and still hope to return to good health, and another gets to enjoy yet another enlarged vision of his future.
The brilliance of De La Hoya, the cheeky East Los Angeles kid who dares to live up to his nickname, Golden Boy, was apparent as he added the IBF lightweight belt to the WBO belt he already held. But Golden Boy's will was hardly tested as he unloaded so quickly and easily on Rafael Ruelas, dropping him twice in the second round and then battering him against the ropes until referee Richard Steele determined him defenseless and stopped the fight one minute and 43 seconds into the round.
Ruelas, a gritty customer who has gotten up from the canvas to win before, weakly lamented the stoppage. In winning his IBF title last year, he had been decked twice in the first round before decisioning Freddie Pendleton. But maybe this was different. Perhaps knowing the damage Gabriel had caused, Rafael was oddly relieved. "I'll be back," he said. Then, "Good thing I'm safe."
He was not safe by much. Ruelas, whose trainer, Joe Goossen, had said he would be on De La Hoya like a "soup sandwich," was a nonfactor. He came out cold, was often off-balance and could not put on the kind of pressure that De La Hoya is supposedly vulnerable to. "He's quick," said Ruelas afterward. "That left hook? I didn't see it. I guess he got me before I could get him." De La Hoya would have gotten him lots more, too, had the fight gone on.