John Ruiz: 'Holyfield came to fight'

John Ruiz, 39, who became the first (and remains the only) Latino heavyweight champion in boxing history when he bested Evander Holyfield in a 12-round unanimous decision in 2001, went 44-9-1 in a commendable 17-year professional career. Since retiring in April 2010, he opened the Quietman Sports Gym (a nod to his ring nickname) in Medford, Mass., near his hometown of Chelsea. As part of our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, ESPN.com recently caught up with Ruiz (who is of Puerto Rican descent) to discuss his boxing career and his latest venture.

Which Hispanic fighter did you watch the most when you were growing up, and why?
I never really watched boxing at that age. I started [training] when I was 7. My main focus was to watch cartoons, when I had the chance. I was always getting up in the morning and running, and then going to school, and then from school going to the gym, and from the gym going home to do my homework and then going to bed. It was kind of a full schedule. I couldn't even see my own friends because I was so busy. My only way to get away from things was to watch cartoons.

I guess I feel like I was always being -- I don't know -- I guess pushed, in a way. My stepfather was always a big, big boxing fan. If he decided to take me to the gym, I could never say no. If I said no, it wouldn't matter. If I said no at the beginning of the ride, at the end of the ride, I'd be at the gym. So he pushed me along in boxing. I also did some running, too, so we did some marathons. That's my memories: Sundays doing marathons, hanging out with my family, my sister was always there, my mother, my stepfather -- eating those free yogurts they give out after a road race, the ones with the fruit. That's my memory of childhood -- that, I did enjoy. But I wasn't too thrilled with the running.

Later in your career, were there any Hispanic fighters you identified with, or were there any who your stepfather identified with?
With him, every time we went to the gym, he'd always mention Alexis Arguello, [Ray] "Boom Boom" Mancini -- all those great fighters back then and all those wars they used to have. He'd be like, "I saw this fighter yesterday, and he fought this way, so I'm gonna try to teach you that today." So I never really watched boxing, but I heard the names. Like I said, [my stepfather] was a big fan, and that's what he did -- he watched boxing, and any chance he got to, he took it. If it wasn't for him mentioning those names, I would never know who was out there in boxing.

Later in your career, were you aware of some of the other Hispanic fighters, Puerto Ricans in particular?
As I kept growing up, eventually I started doing other sports. I started doing baseball, doing basketball, doing some football and, of course, some cross-country, stuff like that. I started boxing up again, turned more serious, when I was 16. And from there, I had a family when I was very young -- when I was 18, I already had a child -- and my focus turned to fatherhood and making a living to support the family.

Tell us about your travels touring around the world.
Boxing saved me. Saved me from a city where, of course, crime was everywhere. It was big back then, where I was at -- drugs and everything else. Through boxing, I managed to see the world. I went to Sweden, I went to Australia, I went to Italy -- things that opened my eyes to see what's out there other than just where I'm from, a little city called Chelsea. That's what I want to pass on to these kids now. They come up to the gym that I just opened in Medford, Mass., and I want to let them know, "Look, there's another world out there. You just gotta work hard to go see it." So that's what I'm trying to do now -- work as hard as I can to get the funding to help get these kids [to see] even just another state, or another country.

How were you able to do this -- Golden Gloves, U.S. Olympic trials -- and how were those travels to Sweden and Italy and other countries?
I went to the national PALs [Police Athletic Tournament] -- I went to New Jersey to do that, and that's what got me to Sweden. That was the first national tournament that I won. And from there, I went to the [Golden] Gloves. ... I did the Golden Gloves, I placed second. From there, I did the nationals for national ranking [in U.S. boxing], and I won those -- I won a gold medal at the Olympic festival. And from the Olympic festival, they put me on Team USA. ... In 1991, I went to Australia for the world championships. But before that, I went to Italy to fight with the U.S. team, [and then] I fought in the states with the U.S. team. We hosted Germany. At that time, in Germany, the No. 1 guy in the world was in my division, so I fought him there in Florida, and I managed to win that fight, which was a big win for me. And when I [eventually] went back to Germany, I met up with him. We said hello, we talked, and it seemed like he was doing well himself; he opened up a gym over there.

Those amateur years probably honed your fighting style. But is there any one fighter or any one trainer you can point to who helped hone your style more than others?
Well, like I was saying, my stepfather tried to teach me as many styles as he could -- he was a big boxing fan and he watched every fight he could. It was like, the night before, he'd teach me one thing one way, and then the next day he'd teach me something else.

I loved one fighter, one who always stands out in the back of my mind -- and I managed to meet him -- and that was Roberto Duran. The sad part was, I never got to watch any of his fights. But I used to see some of his clips. He basically was a guy who seemed like he was in the same position as I was: He just wanted to go out and do his best, and when he fights, it's with his heart, you know what I mean?

Aside from your stepfather, was there anyone else in your career, a trainer, who held that kind of influence on you in terms of fighting style?
My next trainer [after my stepfather] was Gabe Mari, who was a fighter himself before. And one trainer I would have to say who got me back to basics was Miguel Diaz. The thing is, with him, I realized I wasn't doing the right things. That's the sad part: I met him at the end of my career. I wish I would've met him a little sooner.

In addition to Roberto Duran, are there any other Hispanic fighters you would say you admire?
The other person I'd say is Alexis Arguello. Definitely. I saw him -- I think my stepfather used to force me to watch some of his boxing, and a couple of times it was Alexis Arguello. Tall frame, basically try and keep guys at bay with his jab, and those wars that he took with "Boom Boom" Mancini.

You've had a long career in boxing -- a long amateur career, which you don't see too much anymore, and an extremely successful professional career. If you had to break it down and pick the top two or three moments of your career, what would they be?
Of course, No. 1 for me is winning the world [heavyweight] title. I could never put words to it. The man himself, the legend himself, Evander Holyfield. ... He came to fight.

The other one was winning nationals [in 1990], being No. 1 in the country, winning the gold medal at the Olympic festival in California.

That had to have been a big moment for you. It was a glory time for boxing: Oscar De La Hoya was a fighter in the amateurs, the U.S. had a competitive team, Cuba and the Soviet bloc countries had strong teams -- amateur boxing was still pretty revered internationally.
Yeah, definitely. I fought the Russian [Andrey Kurniavka] in Australia. He hit me with a shot that woke me up. And that's when I started fighting.

That same Russian, he always beat every American. Back then, they had the points system -- they had just started it. I lost on points, but at the same time, it didn't seem like I lost. I thought I was doing more, but if you don't throw the right punch at the right time, not every [judge] is going to push that button.

Are you currently training any kids in the amateur system?
We've got some kids who have come in, and they're very new to the sport. Some of them are going in more for self-esteem. Others are going in to actually compete. We try to do our best for them to see what they want to do. One thing's for sure: If they want to learn boxing for self-esteem, that's fine. It's a perfect time, too, because of all the stuff going on in this world.

Do you see any potential in your town, now that you've opened the gym, for kids that maybe you could take through the amateur program that you so benefited from?
My main goal is to [foster] self-esteem, but also to help create the next Olympian. I've got another five years [looking to the 2016 Olympics] to get this going. ... I'm trying to get back to how we were at one time, with [U.S.] boxing being in competition with other countries. Nowadays, I don't know, I don't really hear too much about USA boxing anymore.

Gabrielle Paese is a deputy editor for ESPNdeportes.com.