By John J. Raspanti
Boxing is the ultimate survival sport. Pugilists put their lives on the line for money and glory. Most just want a fair shake. One loss can send their career into a death spiral where recovery is difficult.
A boxer’s record is his or her lifeline. Promoters, managers, and fans see a few losses and make a decision about a fighter. Sometimes, they’re right. More often, they’re wrong.
Michael Ruiz Jr. has been fighting perception his entire career. Ruiz, 28, from Fresno, CA., won his first seven professional fights. Late promoter Dan Goossen signed him to an exclusive contract. Then, in 2011, everything changed when he lost a few bouts.
“You lose a fight, and you fall down a few levels,” said Ruiz from inside a prehistoric gym in Fresno where he is training for his fight against Jonathon Arturo Torres to go down this Saturday.
The gym is old and rickety. The ring creaks with every movement. There’s no glamour here. Only a dream of better things.
Ruiz has earned everything the hard way. He’s been the opponent brought into lose, and the underdog nobody has heard of. Fighting on the road is tough. The disadvantage of meeting another man in his backyard is obvious—especially in boxing where a “fair-shake,” usually doesn’t exist. Instead of complaining, Ruiz found being the underdog made him more determined. But fighting in someone’s hometown is tough.
“It’s a struggle to have to fight the opponent and also the judges who already have a pre-conceived notion on who they want to win,” Ruiz told this writer a few years ago.
The judges have let Ruiz down on a number of occasions.
In 2013, he went to San Diego to face local prospect Khabir Suleymanov. The WBA and USA bantamweight titles were on the line. To most at ringside, Ruiz did more than enough to win the fight. To the shock of many, Suleymanov won the fight by decision.
“That was heartbreaking,” said Ruiz. “I thought I won it. His fans had left. He looked discouraged. When they gave him the decision-- that one hurt me the most. For them to say he won, that told me that I have to be stronger.”
Ruiz fought seven months later against amateur rival Bruno Escalante. The fight had a familiar feel to it. Escalante was the house fighter. Ruiz thought he did enough to win.
This writer, sitting ringside, had Ruiz winning the fight by two points. The judges had a different take, giving Escalante the win by a majority decision.
Ruiz muttered to himself and shook his head. The loses were eating him up. He needed to work harder and change some things.
He hasn’t lost since.
“I got away from boxing for a little while,” Ruiz said “Soon after, I started eating right and training the way you should.”
In 2014, Ruiz faced hard-hitting southpaw Jonathon Gonzales. Ruiz was expected to lose. Instead, he fought impressively, only to be let down once again by the judges.
The fight was declared a draw. Undaunted, Ruiz won his next match, and then faced Escalante in a rematch.
Primed and ready, Ruiz fought with passion and grit. Revenge can be a great motivator. He outworked Escalante in almost every round. The only suspense was how the judges would score the match. This time, they got it right, with Ruiz declared the winner.
“There was no way they (the judges) were going to take it away from me that time,” said Ruiz. “Nothing against Escalante, he’s a good guy, but I dominated.”
Last April, Ruiz faced hard-hitting Rodrigo Guerrero for the IBA junior bantamweight title. Guerrero, who once fought for the IBF super flyweight title, received all the pre-fight press. His face has plastered on a boxing poster—while Ruiz was barely mentioned. He noticed the discrepancy.
“I knew he was a good fighter,” Ruiz said. “He fought (Vic) Darchinyan seven years ago and almost beat him. He’s got a couple of titles, but I was ready that night.”
That he was. Ruiz floored Guerrero with a body shot in round two, and was dominating until an unintentional headbutt forced the fight to be stopped. The bout was declared a no-contest. Lady Luck had bit Ruiz again, but he felt he had proved something.
“Everything I did in there, he (Guerrero) had no answer for,” said Ruiz. “I could see it in his eyes when I hit him. He was like, ‘I’m in for it.’
Though he didn’t officially win his fight against Guerrero, Ruiz won something more important. For the first time in his seven-year career, Ruiz will be the hometown fighter on September 23. The result is a culmination of a dream.
“I’m finally getting to fight at home in front of my friends and family,” Ruiz said with a smile. “It feels great.”
Boxing is all about hard knocks. Michael Ruiz Jr. has taken more than most. He fights on, giving it everything he has.