Heavyweight contender Andy Ruiz Jr. figured to still be a fight or two away from a world title opportunity. But then champion Tyson Fury, dealing with myriad personal problems -- including drug, alcohol and mental health issues -- vacated his world title belts in mid-October and suddenly Ruiz was thrust into position to fight for one of them.
And now, with his big chance at hand, Ruiz is excited about the prospect of making boxing history as the first fighter of Mexican descent to win a heavyweight crown.
"That would be a blessing," said Ruiz, who was born in Imperial Valley, California, raised in Mexicali, Mexico, and then returned to Imperial Valley. "It's something I've been waiting for my whole life. It's what we've been training for. We're ready for whatever comes, but it would be big for all Mexican people. I would love to be the first Mexican heavyweight champion of the world and we're going to be. I can't wait to bring that belt home."
If Ruiz is to carry that title belt through customs when he returns home it will be at the end of a long trip. Ruiz leaves this weekend for Auckland, New Zealand, where he will face hometown hero Joseph Parker for the vacant title on Dec. 10 at Vector Arena in what New Zealand media are calling one of the biggest sports events in the nation's history.
The bout will be televised in the United States on HBO on same-day tape delay at 9:35 p.m. ET/PT and will open a three-fight telecast that will also include a pair of live bouts, unified junior welterweight champion Terence Crawford (29-0, 20 KOs) defending his belts against John Molina (29-6, 23 KOs) in the main event and lightweight veteran Raymundo Beltran (31-7-1, 19 KOs) taking on rising contender Mason Menard (32-1, 24 KOs) at the CenturyLink Center in Crawford's hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
With Mexican fans so much a part of the lifeblood of boxing, a heavyweight to carry the torch in the sport's marquee division has been something of a holy grail for promoters.
The late Dan Goossen thought he had found one in Chris Arreola, a Mexican-American with a big punch and larger-than-life personality. But Arreola has had three opportunities to fight for a world title and was knocked out all three times, by Vitali Klitschko (2009), Bermane Stiverne (2014) and Deontay Wilder (this July). In fact, there has been only one Latino fighter to win a heavyweight world title: Massachusetts-born John Ruiz, whose family was from Puerto Rico, twice claimed belts in the early 2000s.
Top Rank's Bob Arum has promoted Andy Ruiz for his entire seven-year professional career and has made catering to Hispanic boxing fans -- Mexicans in particular -- a major part of his company's mandate. He has promoted a who's who of popular Mexican boxers, including Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., and has for years promoted the "Solo Boxeo" cards on Spanish-language network UniMas.
Arum knows how big of a deal a Mexican heavyweight titleholder would be. He can practically hear the cash register ringing and sense the pride the fans would have.
"As far as Top Rank is concerned, if we had a Mexican heavyweight champion, he would be huge with the Hispanic fans in the United States and Mexico," Arum said. "Andy is a Mexican-American who speaks perfect Spanish and English. He would be a tremendous attraction on either side of the border. We can do big things with him both on premium cable television and also on pay-per-view.
"I also think it's good for boxing if he beats Parker. There would be a lot of good matches for him, and because of his Hispanic heritage, he'd probably become a bigger attraction in the U.S. than any other heavyweight."
Ruiz (29-0, 19 KOs), 27, is nonchalant about having to travel such a long way in an attempt to achieve his historic quest.
"I don't mind. It's really not a big deal for me," Ruiz said. "At the end of the day we'll do what we got to do. Doesn't matter if it's in the U.S. or somewhere else in the world. I know once I step into the ring in his place I'm already two points down on the cards. That's our mentality. I know I have to work even harder to fight the best fight I can fight. But traveling overseas is not a really big deal for me. I like traveling. I look forward to going over there. They say New Zealand is a beautiful place, so we're very excited to go over there."
Arum, who will be making the trip to New Zealand with his wife, Lovee, and Top Rank head matchmaker Bruce Trampler, made the deal for the fight with Parker promoter Duco Events. One of the stipulations they agreed to is a panel of neutral judges, meaning none from New Zealand, Australia, Mexico or the United States. They also all agreed on American referee Tony Weeks, long one of the best in the sport.
Ruiz and Parker are familiar with each other. They have both spent a lot of time training in Las Vegas and sparred with each other a couple of times in 2013.
"I think he underestimated me. I was chubby and fat, but he didn't see the speed and punch I had," Ruiz said. "He knows what I got and I know what he has got. We're both going to try our best. We're cool. I don't have anything bad to say about him. He's a good guy, very humble, but inside the ring it's all business when we have to turn our switch on and we have to fight each other and try to kill each other to get the world title. May the best man win."
Ruiz, the underdog against Parker, has fought overseas twice on Top Rank cards in Macau, China, in 2013. He scored knockout wins against Tor Hamer and Joe Hanks on those shows, and Arum said the experience of traveling such a long way can only benefit him in preparation for the bout with the 24-year-old Parker (21-0, 18 KOs).
"I think Andy has a real chance to win because, based on what I've seen, there's no question he has the fastest hands of any heavyweight by far and he also has ring intelligence," Arum said. "He also takes a tremendous punch. He has been hit and not wobbled by good fighters. We also finally got him in a place where there's no f---ing around in training."
"If we had a Mexican heavyweight champion he would be huge with the Hispanic fans in the United States and Mexico. Andy [Ruiz Jr.] is a Mexican-American who speaks perfect Spanish and English. He would be a tremendous attraction on either side of the border." Bob Arum, Top Rank promoter
After years of lackadaisical training habits and poor conditioning, Ruiz parted ways with longtime trainer Jeff Grmoja and hired 2015 Boxing Writers Association of America trainer of the year Abel Sanchez, who trained Hall of Famer Terry Norris for years and now is best known for his work with unified middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin.
Ruiz has been at Sanchez's Big Bear Lake, California, training camp since early October. Sanchez has said Ruiz showed dedication throughout camp, and Arum said all of his reports have been positive.
"All these guys work really hard in Big Bear," Arum said. "They're stuck up there in the mountains. All they do is train and think boxing and condition themselves. Abel told me [last week] that Andy is in great shape. He said Andy has listened to everything he has said. He thinks Andy not only will win but won't have much trouble with Parker.
"I think that even though [Grmoja] is a good guy, he was not capable of bringing out of Andy what Abel is."
Ruiz was 17 when he first met Sanchez, and he said the recent decision to go with him full time as his trainer was the right one.
"He is one of those trainers who pushes you to the limit and he makes you do more than you think you can do," Ruiz said. "He gets you in shape. Never in my life have I sparred so much. I'm running 5-6 miles a day. That's what I need to do. Before I was with Abel, I was kind of lazy and wouldn't push myself to my limit, not to blame my previous coach. I needed them to push me to the limit. It has been a blessing to be here in Big Bear with Abel. I think I will stick around here for a while. I've been training my ass off in Big Bear. It's my time. I feel it's my time to prove to the world who Andy Ruiz is.
"The hard work I've been doing will be worth it. The sacrifice for a few months will be worth it because then I can go back home and celebrate our victory."