During a lull between fights at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas in July, where Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman were scheduled to fight for the WBA welterweight title in the night’s main event, a crowd suddenly gathered near what would be Thurman’s corner.
A knot of maybe 75 people gathered in a space big enough for possibly 30. Phones were held aloft, documenting the scene with still photos and videos.
It was a familiar scene for Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., the Hall of Fame boxer who is one of Mexico’s greatest sporting icons and one of the boxing-mad nation’s most beloved figures. This time, though, the crowd didn’t gather to document Chavez’s arrival, as so often happens.
Instead, Chavez was part of the crowd who walked over to greet Andy Ruiz Jr., the IBF-WBA-WBO champion who on June 1 became the first fighter of Mexican ancestry to win a version of the heavyweight title. Chavez stuck his right hand out to Ruiz, who took it with a huge grin on his face. The men then embraced as Chavez patted Ruiz on the back and whispered in his ear.
As Chavez walked back to his seat, Ruiz had an ear-to-ear grin creasing his face.
“I love that guy,” Ruiz said of Chavez to no one in particular. “That’s royalty right there.”
That, though, is the way Ruiz has come to be regarded these days. He’s the everyman who slayed the giant, the fat guy who loves his cold beer and cheeseburgers who stared down the toughest, roughest guy in the room.
Ruiz’s stunning seventh-round knockout victory of Anthony Joshua at Madison Square Garden in New York is a part of boxing lore, along with famous upsets pulled by the likes of Muhammad Ali, Buster Douglas, Hasim Rahman, Max Schmeling and Oliver McCall.
What followed was a summer of parties, toasts, back slaps and a spending spree to rival anyone this side of Floyd Mayweather: He bought a mansion in San Diego, a Rolls Royce, a Mercedes-Benz SUV and plenty of jewelry. He was invited to visit Los Pinos, the official residence of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
But true to his roots, Ruiz also made regular visits to Walmart to pay for the groceries of less fortunate people and he visited schools and performed countless other charitable acts.
Through it all he remains soft-spoken, self-effacing and humble, the kind of guy it is easy to rally around and cheer.
But Ruiz’s moment of truth arrives on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, DAZN) in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, when the partying and celebrating ends and he gets back to business. He defends the belts in a rematch against Joshua in which he’s an underdog again despite the stunning victory in June.
That fight perfectly encapsulated Ruiz’s career: He took it on short notice, when Jarrell Miller, who was supposed to fight Joshua at Madison Square Garden, failed multiple drug tests and was yanked from the card. Ruiz went in as a massive underdog, mocked for his flabby midsection but respected for his fast hands.
He more than held his own in the first two rounds, but then was dropped hard in the third. But Ruiz, as a metaphor for his career, got off the deck and came back to drop Joshua four times en route to winning the title.
Long before he was ever remotely considered as a Joshua opponent, Ruiz hoped he’d somehow find his way onto the champion’s radar, because he liked the way he matched up with him.
“I don’t think he's ever fought a short guy that pressures, and is pretty slick,” Ruiz said. “I felt like I was boxing him around even though I was the shorter guy. I was counter-punching him. When he would throw, I would throw back with more punches.
“He saw something that he’s never seen before. People said before, ‘Who would you rather fight, Joshua, Deontay Wilder or Tyson Fury?’ I always said Joshua because of his style. Styles make fights. His style was perfect for me to become the unified heavyweight champion.”
From the time Ruiz turned pro, it was clear he had talent. He had fast hands and quick feet, knew how to set up his punches and had proven repeatedly he could take a punch. The question that always existed was whether the spare tire around his midsection was proof of a lack of dedication or simply just his genetic makeup.
He’d won his first 29 bouts and earned a championship shot in 2016 against then-WBO heavyweight champion Joseph Parker in Auckland, New Zealand. Parker, who was also unbeaten, won a majority decision that was there for the taking for Ruiz, but his showing wasn’t enough to silence the doubters.
Coming close may have even made it worse because it fed into the narrative that Ruiz was lazy and wasn’t willing to put the effort in to be great.
Few paid attention as Ruiz rebounded from the loss to Parker with victories over Devin Vargas, Kevin Johnson and Alexander Dimitrenko. It was the win over Dimitrenko, though, that showed what could be. Dimitrenko is a massive fighter who at 6-foot-7 is an inch taller than Joshua, and with a reach that is only two inches less than Joshua at 82.
The physical disadvantages he faced were no issue to Ruiz, who had gotten into great shape for that fight because it was his first back after a contract dispute with Top Rank had ended and he ended a lengthy layoff.
He pummeled Dimitrenko and made him quit on the stool after five one-sided rounds. He got the call a few days later to face Joshua, and so he’d gone right back into training.
The timing couldn’t have been better for him. He’d gotten a free tune-up for Joshua and knew what he needed to do to win.
And while plenty of doubters still exist, fueled in part by his midsection, in part by his summer celebration and in part by difficulty in believing what had occurred, Ruiz insists he’s as motivated as ever for the rematch.
“Of course, I don’t want these beautiful belts to go away,” Ruiz said. “Remember, I’ve been doing this since I was 6 years old. It’s finally paying off and no way I’m going to let these belts go. I’m going to die trying, and do anything that’s possible to get that victory. It’s been a long journey, a long roller coaster in my life, and no way I’m going to let these go Dec. 7. Let the best man win.”
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