THE APPARITION floated through the cold desert air, settled into
the ring and took its awful shape. It was a surprise, even to
Gabriel Ruelas, a man naturally given to omens and premonitions.
Ruelas had not dreamed of the dead man, not ever. And, in his
first fight since battering Jimmy Garcia in the ring six months
ago, he hadn't expected this. Yet, there was the face of Garcia,
a man buried in May, forming just beyond the referee's shoulder
at the conclusion of the fight, smiling terribly, giving Garcia
this ... look. "Like he was saying," Ruelas said later, "'See
what you get?'"
It wasn't right. It wasn't fair to be haunted in defeat as he
had been in victory. All those months ago, hadn't Ruelas crept
into a Las Vegas hospital, squeezed the dying man's hand, begged
his forgiveness? Hadn't he comforted Garcia's mother? Garcia's
death was no fault of his, even if it came from his clenched
fists; a fighter is responsible for nobody's safety but his own.
Still, hadn't Ruelas promised that his pay-per-view proceeds, a
sum his wife had assumed was going toward the purchase of a new
house, would be used to establish a trust fund for Garcia's
three kids? What more, really, could he have done? And now, with
Ruelas hunkered helplessly in the corner, aching after a veteran
champion had banged quite professionally at his liver, this
ghost comes to gloat?
It was, finally, too much. Ruelas had been desperately sick
going into Friday night's WBC super featherweight title defense
against Ghana's Azumah Nelson. He had keeled over in the little
tent he used as a dressing room in a parking lot next to the
Indian casino, just down the road from Palm Springs. He was
bloated, full of gas, nauseous, getting hot and cold flashes.
Joe Goossen, his trainer, asked him 10 times what was wrong with
him. In another tent, not 10 feet away, Nelson, twice a world
champion and on the comeback, was cheerfully singing tribal war
songs with his cow-belled entourage--"Something between Onward
Christian Soldiers and Take Me Out to the Ball Game," explained
one of the drumbeaters. And Goossen couldn't get a mouthpiece
into Ruelas at first because the fighter kept gagging.
A specter added to all this was undeserved. It was no stretch to
think Ruelas was preparing himself to lose, as if that was part
of the continued debt he owed to Jimmy Garcia. In this case,
though, visions from the grave were quite unnecessary. Whatever
the reason for Ruelas's sickness--the next day, sitting in a
hotel suite in Indian Wells, he said it would have taken a lot
of psychology to send him to the bathroom 20 times the previous
night--it was very real.
"I was sick, so sick I thought about not even doing the fight,"
Ruelas said last Saturday. "But there were too many people [in
attendance] and I thought if I only could get out into the fresh
air, and once the fight began ... well, that's what I thought.
When the fight started, and I didn't feel any better, I just
wanted to get it over with."
Ruelas, a rugged 25-year-old fighter who frustrated Nelson in
losing a 12-round decision to him more than two years ago in
Mexico City, came out winging wild punches. He looked like a
complete amateur, looping haymakers that played right into
Nelson's game plan. It was no trick for "The Professor" to avoid
those schoolboy punches. The 37-year-old Nelson, who hadn't
fought in 19 months, knocked Ruelas down in the first and fourth
rounds and was understandably grateful that Ruelas didn't bore
in on him. As Ruelas wound up, threw and missed, Nelson nimbly
stepped in to crack him where it hurt most, in the stomach.
"All I was thinking about was protecting my stomach," Ruelas
said. In the fourth round Nelson let fly a left to Ruelas's
liver, and he went down from the body shot, on knees and elbows,
and only by the grace of referee Marty Denkin, an admitted fan
of Ruelas, did he beat the count. "I was done," said Ruelas.
Nelson battered him into the ropes in the fifth round, moved him
into a neutral corner and laid into him. Ruelas was not hurt,
had not taken the kind of pounding Garcia had. But it was clear
that he was not in the fight, and Denkin stopped it at 1:20 of
that round. "Nothing to do with anybody's death," said Denkin,
who has refereed many shows featuring Ruelas and his brother
Rafael. "But he's a human being. I love that kid. I couldn't let
anything happen to him." Ruelas's corner protested violently,
but the fighter showed little more than a kind of sad relief.
And then, the indignity more infuriating than any stoppage. "I
know people will say it's just an illusion," Ruelas said, "but
when the ref said, 'No more,' I looked and saw Jimmy Garcia next
to Marty. I believe I saw him. Just saw his face. And I didn't
like his face. I didn't like the way he was looking at me."
In the days after the Garcia fight, in his repeated visits to
the hospital, Ruelas had often held Garcia's hand, hoping for a
sign from the comatose fighter. The doctors said he could move
no more than his fingers. But once, with Ruelas pleading for a
sign, Garcia's hand shot up violently. The doctors told Ruelas
this was indeed a good indication, but he remembers leaving and
a chill coming over him as he reached the door of Garcia's room.
Maybe he's mad at me, he thought. Maybe he doesn't forgive me.
Garcia died 12 days later.
And now this look, this leering image of Jimmy Garcia visiting
him after a promotion that was quite spookily named La Revencha!
Garcia's Revenge, more like it. Ruelas was simply not prepared
for this. He had worked it all out, talked it out, until he felt
"this big thing in my chest getting smaller and smaller." It
should have been over.
"But there he was looking at me, looking mad," Ruelas said on
Saturday. "And you know, and I don't mean this wrong, but what I
felt, seeing him look at me like that, was pissed off. I feel I
did more than enough." Sitting there the next day, his enormous
decency had been replaced by an odd defiance. And that seemed to
inspire him, even in his defeat. His sympathy had finally been
supplanted by anger. It was encouraging from a survivor's point
of view. He had been fair to Jimmy Garcia, more than fair. He
had done everything for the boy but die, and he didn't see the
use in that. It was time to take his own life back.
And as if by his words, he dissolved the unhappy face of Jimmy
Garcia, dissolved it again. "It's over," said Ruelas, with more
certainty than he had ever been able to muster. "It's over
between him and me."
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO A right jab to the head from Nelson sent Ruelas to the canvas in the opening round. [Marty Denkin counting as Gabriel Ruelas crouches on one knee]
COLOR PHOTO: HOLLY STEIN Despite a 19-month layoff, the veteran Nelson had no trouble nailing the younger Ruelas. [Azumah Nelson fighting Gabriel Ruelas]
COLOR PHOTO: HOLLY STEIN Goossen (right) said Denkin's fifth-round stoppage came too soon, but Ruelas knew he was finished. [Marty Denkin, Gabriel Ruelas, and Joe Goossen]