It was just as the ring announcer was crying out, "The winner by knockout victory...still super featherweight champion of the world, Gabrrreeeee-elllll Ruuuuuuelas!" that Jimmy collapsed. Gabe turned off the television, still smelling Jimmy's sweat, and went back to bed to stare at the ceiling. He needed no videotape to see what happened after that.
They told Gabe lies. They told him Jimmy was fine, that there was no reason not to go on nibbling hors d'oeuvres at the postfight party, accepting congratulations and commiserating over his brother's second-round loss to De La Hoya. Near midnight, Gabe learned the truth. Jimmy was comatose after two hours of brain surgery in the trauma unit at the University Medical Center.
Gabe looked around the party, not seeing, trying to work this news down his throat, and trying to decide how a man should respond. Four months after the February 1995 fight in which Nigel Benn left Gerald McClellan blind and paralyzed for life, and less than two months after the Ruelas-García fight, Benn would declare, "I'm ready to have another war, I'm digging in for it." Thai was the classic boxing response, the warrior's pose.
In the end it would be a question of on which side of the river Gabe would live out his life. On one side, the side where he had spent most of his first quarter century, was the child; it was the child in him that made Gabe so lovable and so maddening. It was what made him rip off his jacket and fling it into the bushes as he walked home, sweating, after a boxing workout as a teenager—it wouldn't ever turn cool again would it? It was what made him climb into Diego's crib or his tiny plastic swimming pool and cur up beside the baby. It was what made Leslie squirrel away a piece of Gabe's paycheck so it all wouldn't be torched before his next fight what made credit-card companies scissor all his plastic by the time he was 23, what made him buy jewelry and clothes and shoes, hundreds of pairs, that he would never wear and bring home pet-store dogs he would have to give away. It was not the items that mattered; Gabe scarcely cared about material things. It was the gust of satisfaction he felt from feeling an impulse and feeding it—boom!—just like that, making up for all the ones he had had to starve "He's the purest, truest person in the heart I've ever known," Leslie says.
When Gabe saw a little boy in a store begging his mother for a toy gun, he would wait for the mom to turn away, and then he would slip the kid a $20 and say, "Shhhhh! Hurry! Buy the toy!" That the mother would only have a more difficult time teaching her son not to beg in stores, that the Chihuahua he smuggled onto an airplane in his sweatshirt pocket couldn't possibly be cared for by a boxer who spent seven months of the year at training camp, that buying a 1995 Viper might mean there wouldn't be enough money to send Diego to Stanford in the year 2012...those were consequences of an action, concerns for adults, who lived on the river's other side.
It was only for boxing, Gabe's lifeline, the thing that had saved him from free-falling as a teenager and given him all his self-esteem, that he could give up the moment he was living in for the moment up ahead. But was this the price of self-esteem? A young man was lying in an ICU with a barely functioning brain, the most absolute consequence of an action in Gabe's life...and Gabe had to decide whether to face it completely, or just go on being who he was.
At the party Gabe finally turned to Leslie. "We've got to go to the hospital," he said. He had no idea what he would do or say there. It was just dipping his toe into the river; he could always turn back.
What could Leslie say? She hadn't even seen the fight; she couldn't bear to watch Gabe take the risk anymore. Having been overcome by uncontrollable shaking and sweating a few years earlier as she was about to enter the arena, she now endured her husband's bouts in her hotel room, praying and waiting for updates from a friend with a cellular phone.
"It wasn't your fault, Gabe," she said.
"I know it wasn't my fault," he said. "But it was my hands."