'We represent both countries': the rise of Andy Ruiz, a cross-border champion

Bryan Armen Graham in Imperial, California
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Tribune Content Agency LLC/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Tribune Content Agency LLC/Alamy

The Sparta boxing club is hard to find, tucked behind a wall of blue corrugated metal between a tire outlet and a lawnmower repair shop along what used to be US Route 80 in El Centro, the county seat of Imperial Valley. It’s already dark on a recent Wednesday afternoon when director Jorge Munoz swings open the makeshift doors for the few dozen kids who have been waiting in the gravel parking lot facing the Union Pacific railroad tracks in the rear.

It’s been six months since Andy Ruiz Jr, the ramshackle gym’s most famous alumnus, became the first fighter of Mexican descent to win the world heavyweight championship in one of the biggest shocks in boxing history, stopping the undefeated Anthony Joshua in seven rounds at Madison Square Garden. If the agate-type outcome came as a surprise, the optics of the upset beggared belief. The doughy Ruiz, even at a svelte-for-him 268lb, hardly looked the part of a world-class athlete, and never less so than next to Joshua, the chiseled 6ft 6in, 247lb champion whose advantages in height (four inches) and reach (eight inches) portended a slaughter.

And a one-way affair it was, only not in the direction most expected. The unheralded Ruiz, a replacement opponent dialled in on five weeks’ notice who went off as an 11-1 underdog, battered perhaps the sport’s biggest global star with blinding flurries of punches. Joshua was knocked down four times before the fight was stopped on a night that turned the sport’s prestige division on its ear.

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The 30-year-old son of Mexican-born parents has since emerged as the everyman icon of a region located about 15 miles north of the Mexican border that’s often found in the crosshairs of the national debate over immigration. There was a trip around the late-night TV circuit. A parade down the main drag of his hometown of Imperial. A visit with Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And a $10m guarantee for Saturday’s rematch in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia.

Tonight, as on most nights lately, the semi-open-air gym is busy with youngsters. Intensely focused novices as young as six practice their footwork, throwing punches as they walk along strips of duct tape. Others thud away at the heavy bags hanging in the larger room next door, where a newly painted mural depicts Ruiz towering over the conquered Joshua.

<span class="element-image__caption">Andy Ruiz Jr lands a right on Anthony Joshua during is shock victory at Madison Square Garden.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Nick Potts/PA Archive</span>
Andy Ruiz Jr lands a right on Anthony Joshua during is shock victory at Madison Square Garden. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA Archive

The flurry of activity is a welcome sight for Munoz, a former boxer who helped open Sparta nearly a decade ago to give back to the Imperial Valley community. Membership nearly tripled after Ruiz’s victory, growing from 20 members to about 60 today. The monthly dues are $30, but Munoz doesn’t charge the many who can’t afford to pay. To make the $1,000 rent, the gym holds monthly pollo al disco fundraisers where people from across the valley come and get their plates.

“[Ruiz’s victory] did change everything here,” Munoz says. “It just went crazy for us. There were kids from everywhere coming here because of the champ.”

The border-straddling origins of boxing’s unlikely heavyweight champion were planted when Ruiz’s father emigrated from Mexicali at eight years old. Andy Ruiz Sr was 20 when he married and put down roots in nearby Imperial, where he started a successful business – purchasing lots, building houses and selling them – that he still oversees today.

The elder Ruiz, whose father owned a boxing gym in Mexico, steered his middle son toward the sport when he was five to channel a hyperactive streak that was getting him into trouble at school. Almost immediately he recognized the potential of his son’s size and speed. Ruiz won his first official fight aged seven in San Diego, though he was sent home from Ben Hulse Elementary School for countless other extracurricular bouts in between repeat viewings of the Rocky movies.

“I used to tell him you’re going to be the Mexican Rocky,” Ruiz Sr says. “Dreams do come true.”

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Ruiz was already 180lbs at nine years old, which led his father to put him in with older kids who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by his size and speed. The pair made endless trips back and forth over the Calexico border crossing to train at gyms in Mexicali, where he sparred with professionals often twice his age and became accustomed to problem-solving against opponents far larger than him.

There he caught the attention of Cuban trainer Fernando Ferrer, who took him on as a pupil and introduced the skill and technique to complement the teenager’s innate power and toughness. Even then, Ruiz Sr recalls, his son was underestimated due to his chubby physique, which belied his hand speed and ring intelligence. His career took off from there as he won all but five of his 110 amateur fights on both sides of the border, capturing a handful of national titles after leaving school at 16 to focus on boxing full-time.

“I always put in Andy’s mind that he’s a Mexican and an American, that we represent both countries,” Ruiz Sr says.

He signed a professional contract with leading promoter Top Rank and spent three years working with famed trainer Freddie Roach at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment where his father slept on the couch. But even as he continued winning fights, Ruiz’s career failed to progress and self-doubt festered.

“He was depressed because he had 31 or 32 fights and he was making $25,000,” Ruiz Sr recalls. “A lot of those heavyweights were making $250,000. He didn’t have enough money to support his sons.”

After six years, the mounting frustration with Top Rank’s lack of investment in Ruiz’s career prompted Ruiz Sr to buy out his son’s contract for $200,000. After a realignment with powerful advisor Al Haymon and a fifth-round knockout of Alexander Dimitrenko in April, Ruiz lobbied Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, for a shot at the title after the champion’s original opponent, Jarrell Miller, failed a series of dope tests.

The rest is history.

“We know their struggles,” says Munoz, who helped oversee Ruiz’s early training at the Sparta gym while accompanying him to countless amateur tournaments. “We know how many times they wanted to give up. And the people in the boxing world, they understand how much you go to tournaments and you sacrifice, sometimes you don’t have food, you come back and you try to raise the money to go somewhere else and all these struggles you go through with one goal that you might never get the chance for.

“That’s what everybody relates to. They understand that struggle. It wasn’t given to them.”

<span class="element-image__caption">A child looks through the border wall between Calexico and Mexicali, where Andy Ruiz Jr fought at the start of his career.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters</span>
A child looks through the border wall between Calexico and Mexicali, where Andy Ruiz Jr fought at the start of his career. Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Ruiz’s improbable rise mirrors the rebound of Imperial, a dusty agricultural community framed by the mountain ranges, flat deserts and sprawling lettuce, sugar beet and onion fields of southeastern California. In 1979 an earthquake destroyed most of the downtown business district, and the rebuild was slow until recent years. According to the US Census Bureau, Imperial has swelled in population from about 8,000 in 2000 to nearly 20,000 today, making it one of California’s fastest growing cities – a growth that has been driven by an increase in government jobs, expanded housing and the allure of a good school district. Now in Ruiz, one of the city’s own has made an international mark.

“It does put the city of Imperial on a worldwide map, that he came from a small community with meager beginnings in life, and has risen all the way to the extreme top in his field of sports,” says county supervisor Mike Kelley. “It is a feather in the cap for the community. It might not result in a windfall of economic growth here, but it’s had a windfall of pride within Imperial County.”

Kelley, who awarded Ruiz the city’s order of merit at a June parade in the champion’s honor and lives in a house that Ruiz Sr helped him build, describes Imperial as a close-knit place where everybody knows each other. While national headlines tend to only focus on the region in the context of Donald Trump’s much-hyped wall, on the ground the border exists only as a vague idea in a community where locals routinely travel between countries to work, shop, visit family and receive medical care.

“People are aware of the political issues that are going on,” Kelley says. “It’s discussed, but there’s no one out parading and picketing. We live right next door to Mexico.”

Ruiz Sr believes the family’s story can offer an important counterpoint to the fiery rhetoric over immigration coming from the White House, saying they’d gladly accept an invitation from the president if it’s ever extended.

“Our family is stable here, but we want to help the immigrants,” Ruiz Sr says. “We want to make people informed that immigrants come to work, they don’t come to steal. The president of the United States should let our people work, because that’s what they want to come and do.”

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