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The Ruelases are as distinctive with gloves on as they are with them off. Gabriel, who's 40-2 with 22 knockouts, is not a macho man, and his punches don't go boom-boom, but he's smart and stealthy. "He's an effortless boxer who kind of wings it as he goes," says Goossen. "Rafael has to work harder and punch more." By employing a defensive strategy that amounts to absorbing as many punches as he throws, the younger Ruelas has built a record of 43-1 with 34 knockouts.
On Saturday, Gabriel decked Liberatore with the very first punch he threw—a left hook. After that the onetime Long Island fishmonger floundered along, his face hideously filleted by Gabe's blows. The end came at the close of Round 2 when the ring doctor stopped the fight because of a severe cut near Liberatore's left eye. Rafael, too, made mincemeat of his opponent. Staggered by a right uppercut in the second, Rafael straightened up and pounced on Schwer with a blizzard of straight rights and left hooks. By the fifth, Rafael's long pipe-stem arms had opened cuts above both the British contender's eyes. Awkward yet relentless, Rafael didn't let up until referee Mills Lane, swayed by Schwer's bleeding mug, called the bout. Both challengers had to be hospitalized. "You fight the Ruelas boys," offered promoter Bob Arum, "and, unfortunately, that's the way you wind up."
Though he can be extravagantly vicious inside the ropes, Rafael finds an almost Zen-like tranquility there. "When I'm boxing, I'm away from distractions, at peace with myself," he says. "It's like reading a good book." He especially recommends the autobiography of Mickey Rooney. "You'd be surprised at how interesting his life was," Rafael says earnestly. "He had eight wives. There are a lot of stories there."
Books, Gabriel doesn't care for. "I'd rather watch Barney Fife on the old Andy Griffith Show," he says. "I like Barney, but I hate him. He's so good at being stupid that he gets me mad." Edgy anger is what attracts Gabriel to prizefighting. "I like the feeling of wanting to tear someone's head off," he says. "And I like the tension of being best at something. Rafael was always the best at selling candy. He made lots of money and won a VCR in a national contest. Me, I never wanted to be a salesman. I had to buy my own candy to keep from getting fired. But boxing is different. I want to be the best fighter so I can sell my little house and buy a bigger house."
Frugal Rafael still lives with his parents in Sylmar, Calif. Lavish Gabriel lives only 15 minutes away, in West Hollywood, with Leslie, their infant son, Diego, and more than 200 pairs of shoes. "He's a regular Imelda Marcos," says Leslie. "He leaves shoes everywhere: in the kitchen, the trunk of his car, the baby's crib." The collection is limited to sneakers and work boots. "No dress shoes," says Gabriel. "That's Rafael's style, not mine."
Gabriel's style amounts to giving away shoes he no longer wants. He unloaded footlockers full at a December garage sale: Many pairs were identical, some had never been worn. "I don't keep buying shoes just to have more," Gabriel says sheepishly. "I buy them because when I was small, I never had any."
He and Rafael grew up with 11 brothers and sisters on a cattle ranch in Yerba Buena, Mexico, outside Guadalajara. The Ruelases lacked not only shoes but also phones, electricity and leisure activities. Gabriel and Rafael remember how they felt when they moved to Southern California and saw kids playing marbles. "We had never seen children playing anything before," Gabriel says. "Where we're from, all they did was work."
Chores began every morning at five, when Gabriel and Rafael went out to feed the cattle. Shoeless Gabe wore the huaraches his father made from the hide of one of his slaughtered cows. On very cold days Gabriel's toes would go numb in the sandals. "My father would have to slap my feet to get the circulation back," Gabriel recalls.
One morning a kid from Guadalajara came to visit. "Look!" Gabriel called out to his brother. "He's got shoes!" That night Gabriel dreamed the shoes were on his feet. "But when I woke up, the only thing on them was dirt," he says. "I've never been more disappointed."
Hoping his sons could escape grinding poverty and make something of themselves, Papa Ruelas packed them off to the U.S. when Gabriel was eight and Rafael seven. The brothers slipped across the border brandishing phony birth certificates and settled in Sun Valley, Calif., with their older sister Victoria and her family. It would be seven years before the two boys saw their parents again. "We had no photos of them," Gabriel says. "I remember crying in my bed because I had forgotten my mother's face."