Last Friday evening, barely 24 hours before he would play a starring role in yet another sorry ring decision, John (the Quiet Man) Ruiz sat on a couch in room 1752 of the Fox-woods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn., bemoaning the decline of the sport he cherishes. Ruiz, a pensive 29-year-old with a distaste for trash talk and a fierce love for his two children, had just returned from the weigh-in for his bout against Evander Holyfield. The event had been dominated by promoter Don King, who held court on everything from Native Americans (he likes their casinos) to Mike Tyson (a nobody without the Don) to England's prime minister, Tony Blair (best Brit since Ringo). Ruiz, the WBA heavyweight champion, stood by as King ran on and on and on. Finally, back in his room, he'd had enough.
"The more I know boxing, the more I want to get away from it," said Ruiz, who, after losing to Holyfield in August 2000 and beating him last March, was set to fight him yet again. "At one time, when you became heavyweight champion, it was like becoming president. The sport is losing its image around the world. Boxing needs integrity."
The very next night Ruiz had the chance to give the sport what he says it needs. In a fight that saw his face turn from fleshy pink to abraded purple, the 6'2", 232-pound Ruiz was exposed for what he is (overweight, slow, predictable) and what he is not (particularly skilled). Holyfield forced the action from start to finish. He sent Ruiz to the canvas in the first (referee Steve Smoger ruled it a slip, but a Holyfield left hook helped the process), pounded his body in the middle rounds and, in the 11th, transformed Ruiz's nose into a gushing tap of Hi-C fruit punch. Yet as soon as the 12-round bout ended and was, shockingly, declared a draw, Ruiz lifted his arms, pumped his fists, shouted for joy and embraced King, his new best friend. The title was still his. So much for integrity.
The injustice of the decision was made vivid as soon as Ruiz entered the postfight interview room and joined Holyfield at the dais. Holyfield, unscathed, looked as if he had just emerged from a spa treatment. To his right, Ruiz appeared as if he had caught a few Pedro Martinez fastballs with his face. Red welts were below his eyes, his lip was cut, and blood continued to trickle from his nostrils onto a no-longer-white towel. Given the opportunity to admit that maybe, just maybe, judge Donald O'Neill (who scored the bout 115-113, Ruiz) had been generous, Ruiz struck out. "It was a tough battle," he said, "but I believe I won."
At that point Norman Stone, Ruiz's trainer, begged reporters to wrap up their questions. "We've got to get John to a hospital," he said. "It's important."
Fortunately, the fight was not. The WBA crown lost whatever luster it had last April, when Lennox Lewis, who was also the WBC and IBF champ, was stripped of his WBA title after he signed to face Michael Grant rather than Ruiz, the organization's mandatory challenger. That's partly why last Saturday's bout took place not in Las Vegas or New York City, but before a crowd of 4,500 in a converted bingo hall in majestic Mashantucket.
Holyfield-Ruiz III was originally scheduled for Aug. 5 in Beijing, then postponed when the financing collapsed. It was rescheduled for Nov. 24 but again postponed when, concerned about employee safety in the wake of the terrorist attacks, HBO refused to fly its staff to Asia. King searched for a U.S. host but failed to secure deals in Providence and Atlanta. Finally Foxwoods proffered a bid that would help cover Ruiz's guaranteed $3.2 million and Holyfield's $2 million.
Even though he beat Ruiz into tomato paste, the 39-year-old Holyfield is a rusted remnant of the fighter who brawled with Rid-dick Bowe and twice tattooed Tyson. Against the Holyfield of 10 years ago, Ruiz would have lasted three rounds. Although he is secure in finances and legend, Holyfield insists he will not quit until he unifies the heavyweight titles. Considering that he owns none of them, that Lewis appears set to meet Tyson in April and that Ruiz ruled out a fourth fight (saying he plans to take on mandatory contender Kirk Johnson of Canada in March), it could take a while.
"To be a champion means you have to retire as a champion," Holyfield said. "I won't be finished until I get all three belts. I'll get back in line and wait my turn. I've still got a lot left. There's still hope."
Maybe so. Saturday night, however, it took a beating.