A whole new Ruiz?

The mere mention of his name causes some long-time boxing fans to recoil in horror. And, if the truth will be told, that reaction frequently has been for good reason.

John Ruiz has grabbed and held more than some of the contestants on "Dancing with the Stars." Ruiz refers to the process of throwing a punch, moving forward and wrapping his arms around his opponent as "falling in."

Whatever the terminology, it wasn't pleasing much of the time for those who actually expected boxers to punch each other.

Ruiz is 38 and has fought in an astounding 11 World Boxing Association heavyweight championship matches. He'll meet title-holder David Haye on April 3 at Manchester Evening News Arena in Manchester, England.

Ruiz has a hard time understanding the venom he has faced throughout his career, both from fans and media.

"For some reason, I'm the guy who always gets bashed," says Ruiz, an affable, low-key sort. "They all say, 'Oh, John Ruiz, he's nothing but a clincher. All he does is hold.' I'm stuck with that name plate. I don't like it, and sometimes, you want to tell people to go to hell, but I realize everyone is entitled to their opinion. Even if I don't like it, I understand that.

"I always try to treat people the right way, the way I'd want them to treat me, but they can get pretty vicious sometimes. I look at it like this: Some people have their minds made up, and nothing I ever do is going to change how they think. But there are other people who are more willing to watch and then make up their minds."

Ruiz suddenly has a very credible and very vocal advocate in his corner, however, to help him try to end the catcalls forever.

Miguel Diaz, the 1999 Trainer of the Year and owner of one of the game's sharpest minds, has taken over as Ruiz's trainer. He was as unlikely a choice as there could possibly be because Diaz pretty much had decided to cut back on training boxers and work nearly exclusively as a cut man.

Even more, the colorful Argentine doesn't watch heavyweight boxing.

"These guys, you see what they do, that's not fighting," Diaz said, disgustedly, of the current crop of heavyweights.

As such, he knew next to nothing about Ruiz. He hadn't seen him fight until Ruiz's attorney, Anthony Cardinale, phoned and asked him to train Ruiz.

Cardinale is a hard man to say no to – he's the guy largely responsible for keeping Ruiz so high in the WBA rankings that he spent the better part of the first decade of the 21st century fighting in WBA title fights – and he wouldn't let Diaz say no. Diaz agreed to take a look at Ruiz.

"I knew I was going to have a 38-year-old heavyweight, and you know what I thought I would be getting?" Diaz said. "I'm thinking I'm going to see a short guy, real fat, who didn't look anything like a boxer."

When the trim 6-foot-2 Ruiz sauntered into the Top Rank Gym in Las Vegas to meet his new trainer, Diaz didn't recognize him. When they were introduced, he patted Ruiz on the midsection and had something of a revelation.

"It was like iron," Diaz said of Ruiz's abdomen. "You could tell right away this guy was in very good condition. He hadn't been fooling around. He had to have been working his ass off to get that way."

The proof for Diaz, though, would come when he put Ruiz through a sparring session.

Those he had told of Cardinale's call had warned him against taking on Ruiz, telling him Ruiz did little more than clinch and was one of the game's most reviled figures. That's clearly not the kind of fight Diaz wants, but he was willing to evaluate Ruiz before making up his mind.

Early in the first round of sparring on their first day together, Ruiz threw a punch, leaned in and grabbed his opponent.

Immediately, the action was stopped.

Diaz was irate.

"I stopped the workout and said, 'What the hell is that?' " Diaz recalled. "That's not how you fight."

Diaz was astounded by what he saw as the days and weeks rolled on, however. Not only was Ruiz not holding and clinching but also he was becoming a better than fair offensive fighter.

Ruiz always has had a strong jab that made pressuring him a challenge. But Diaz suddenly saw a guy who used his jab and followed it with a straight right, then glided to the side and started another combination.

"This bad fighter everybody told me about, I haven't seen him," Diaz said. "What I've seen has been a very good fighter who is a young 38. He's clearly kept himself in very good condition and he's motivated. You don't have to tell him something twice. He wants to learn and he is learning."

They've had one fight together, a seventh-round stoppage of unheralded Adnan Serin in Nuremberg, Germany, in November.

Ruiz was impressive offensively in that fight, and it was Serin, not Ruiz, who was looking to grab and hold and slow the action.

"The things we worked on, I was doing them in the fight," Ruiz said. "It was like it was a long time ago."

Ruiz used to be trained by respected veteran boxing man Gabe LaMarca. But when LaMarca retired, Ruiz hired his then-manager, the controversial Norman "Stoney" Stone, as his trainer.

The pairing clearly didn't work, whether it was Ruiz' fault or Stone's.

"I wasn't being taught," Ruiz said.

He eventually had a bitter split with Stone and hired veteran Manny Siacca. And while things began to turn around a bit with Siacca in the corner, he didn't make the progress he needed.

Ruiz was living in Las Vegas and Cardinale thought it would be wise to hire a Las Vegas-based trainer. There are many excellent trainers in Las Vegas, but Diaz is among the elite.

Ruiz loves the fight game, if not the fight business, and was open to trying anything. Diaz, too, saw it as a no-lose proposition. He always could walk away if he didn't like what he was seeing, but it also is not every day one has the chance to train a heavyweight champion.

Ruiz finally was getting instruction that he could use. Diaz had gone back to his roots and was teaching fundamentals, which he loves best.

The proof will come when he fights a world-class opponent like Haye and not a tuneup opponent like Serin.

Ruiz, though, is optimistic. He already has won the belt twice and is feeling like he hasn't felt in nearly a decade. He accepts the blame for the mistakes he has made, but he hopes he'll be viewed with an open mind going forward.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it because there was a time there where I would fall in too much," Ruiz said. "I'd throw and fall in, and that just wasn't the right thing. But I was kind of in a trap. I'm a boxer who was looking to learn more, but I wasn't learning. I was stuck in that time frame, not learning and I was picking up a lot of bad habits.

"Now I feel good because I'm learning a lot. … People who haven't seen me for a while, I think they're going to be in for a surprise. I'm a completely different guy now."