Two men. Two men dreaming. Two men dreaming two weeks before they step onto a canvas enclosed by ropes, wearing little but shorts and shoes and gloves.
One of them will die. His name is Jimmy García. He is dreaming about returning to his home in Colombia, atop a blaring red fire engine, waving the green title belt to the crowd lining the streets. The other will go on living. He is Gabriel Ruelas, the overwhelming favorite in the fight, the World Boxing Council super featherweight champion. His dreams of death have grown so vivid he cannot sleep.
He climbs out of bed and calls his mother. It's late April 1995. "I want you to bury me where I was born," he says.
"Stop it, you're crazy," she replies.
Perhaps these cross-wired dreams mean nothing. Dreams, like local politicians, just knock on doors and plague whomever answers, some people might insist. But these people did not live their first nine years in a mountain village in Mexico, as Gabe did. A place where people built no asphalt roads, no power plants, no bathrooms or even outhouses; where people built no walls between the conscious and the unconscious, leaving dreams to walk beside reality like shadows. All his life Gabe has responded to their whispers, obeyed all instincts and impulses.
Ever since he was a child, both asleep and awake, Gabe has been envisioning his imminent death; he's a victim-in-waiting. Sometimes it's a plane crash, sometimes a car wreck, sometimes he's not sure how it happened; he's just floating near the ceiling, gazing down upon his corpse. It's a burden, this unrelenting dream, but it's a release, too. It has freed him to indulge his whims, to buy anything he wishes, to never think too far ahead. It has freed him to risk everything, to be a boxer. Of what concern are consequences to a man who believes he's about to die?
Over and over, as Jimmy García lies comatose in a Las Vegas hospital, Gabe will keep repeating these words: "I wish I could trade places with him." No, that's not martyrdom, that's not melodrama. That's Gabe knowing that if he has been wrong all along—if he's the executioner, not the victim—then, God, everything's screwed up.
"He is the worst person for this to happen to," says Gabe's friend Adam Karns, a California physician and fight doctor, "because he feels more than anyone I've ever known. Everything is life and death to him."
Two weeks after the fight, which took place on May 6 in Las Vegas, Gabe reeled out of bed at 2 a.m. and played the videotape of the bout, searching it for clues, for reasons to punish or redeem himself so he could fight again. There was Jimmy climbing through the ropes, a polite and shy 23-year-old whose curly hair bounced on his neck as he began shadowboxing—how could that man be dead? If only Jimmy, who had a 35-4 record, had come with more of a reputation, if only he had made some assault upon Gabe's manhood before the fight, maybe then Gabe would have finished it early, long before....
Gabe watched himself enter the ring. His skin looked a little dry, his eyes a little preoccupied—or was he just imagining that now? No, he never felt quite loosened up that night, because the preceding match had ended with a first-round knockout. He was never quite focused, because a later match would pit his younger brother, International Boxing Federation lightweight champion Rafael Ruelas, against the World Boxing Organization champion and boxing's golden boy, Oscar De La Hoya.