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DREAM OF LIFE, DREAM OF DEATH
Gary Smith
October 23, 1995
SUPER FEATHERWEIGHT CHAMPION GABRIEL RUELAS ALWAYS HAD A VISION THAT HE WOULD DIE YOUNG. THEN HE FOUGHT JIMMY GARCIA AND LEARNED TO HIS HORROR THAT SOMEONE ELSE WOULD DO THE DYING
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October 23, 1995

Dream Of Life, Dream Of Death

SUPER FEATHERWEIGHT CHAMPION GABRIEL RUELAS ALWAYS HAD A VISION THAT HE WOULD DIE YOUNG. THEN HE FOUGHT JIMMY GARCIA AND LEARNED TO HIS HORROR THAT SOMEONE ELSE WOULD DO THE DYING

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He sprang up, grateful to be of use, and followed the nurse into the ICU. He conveyed her message to the Garcías. And then, somehow—he never saw or heard the others leave—it was just Gabe and Jimmy.

Tears filled Gabe's eyes. Jimmy had planned to go to college after he won a world championship. He had loved to read Gabriel García Márquez and Edgar Allan Poe. Gabe crept closer and sat on the bed. He looked at Jimmy's hand, mottled white by a skin condition. He took the hand into his own.

"If you can hear me, Jimmy, press my hand," he said. Faintly, Jimmy pressed. "Jimmy, I'm sorry. I wish I knew how this happened. I wish I could know if you trained properly. Why...why did you take this fight?" He bit his lip. "I would give everything I have for you to stand up. You understand that I didn't mean to do this, don't you? Please, give me another sign if you understand that." All at once Jimmy's hand jerked up, shook and then dropped.

Relief Hooded through Gabe: He understands. He forgives me. "I'll come back," he heard himself say. "Don't be scared, Jimmy." As he walked out, he felt a chill. What if that hand spasm was anger, what if it was blame? Gabe walked back into the waiting room and cried like Leslie had never seen him cry before.

It was growing dangerous, this river. Crossing it would likely alter the internal equation that had made Gabe an excellent boxer, the delicate balance (imbalance?) of needs and fears, of intelligence and ignorance and personal history. Who could know if, on the other side, there would emerge a better human being or a diminished boxer? Or—yes, here was a risk—both?

Certainly all this crying had to stop. Gabe had grown up in a world of men who showed no emotion; his father was rawhide wrapped around stone. Gabe remembered the expression on his old man's face—no, the total absence of expression—that day when blood was everywhere, and the piglet wedged inside its birthing mother bit four-year-old Gabe's fingers each time he reached in, and Rafael Sr. kept ordering the boy to stop sobbing and stick his hand back in there, now! Yes, the absolute absence of expression on his father's face the night that those men, full of liquor and anger over money they felt they were owed, came with a rope to hang him, which they would have done had Gabe and Rafael Jr. not darted off and fetched their grandmother, the village matron, whose words saved their dad. It wasn't just Gabe's father, though. The Ruelases simply didn't touch or talk of feelings; even Gabe's sweet mother, Concepción, wouldn't kiss him or say "I love you."

But where was the rawhide and stone that Gabe would need to fight again? Where was the old Gabe, who in Hong Kong just a year earlier had noticed an old woman slaughtering chickens on the roadside and, nostalgic for a childhood full of slaughtered chickens, offered her a $20 to let him pinch-hit? But gosh, her knife was dull. Weary of hacking, he finally removed the chicken's head like a twist-off bottle cap.

He left Jimmy at midday, returned to his hotel, then turned around a few hours later and went back to the hospital a third time. It dawned on him why Leslie couldn't seem to let him out of her sight. She's afraid, he thought. Afraid I might do something terrible to myself.

By Monday it was clear: Jimmy was not going to die swiftly. Gabe made certain that Top Rank, Inc., which had promoted their fight, would take care of all the Garcías' needs and that insurance policies from Top Rank and the WBC would provide more than $100,000. Then Gabe packed his family into his car and headed back home to Los Angeles, calling the hospital so many times during the drive that the nurse finally said enough, no more—don't call us, Gabe, we'll call you.

He waited a while, then handed the phone to Leslie and asked her to call.

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