In his own words, Gabriel Ruelas looks back on his boxing roots, his career and the tragedy that effectively ended it
“I was 12 years old when I started boxing and I started because I was no good at listening in school and didn’t listen to my parents, either. They told me I had to get a job if I didn’t do well or graduate from high school, so I thought the only option was to fight. My older brother, Juan, used to be a fighter, and he taught me more than the basics in terms of fighting. He was good enough to where if I came across kids in school or on the street, I’d be able to beat them up real quick.
I thought, Wow, maybe I can do something with this, and then Juan suggested that Rafael and I go to the gym: the Goossen Gym (Ten Goose).
We didn’t know exactly where it was. But around that time my brother and I were selling candy door-to-door, so figured one day we would come across it on our travels, which is exactly what happened. One day I was working in the neighbourhood (North Hollywood, Los Angeles) and I saw the gym my brother was talking about.
The only problem was that I was worried about my box of candy because someone might steal it if I left it outside. I thought maybe it would be better if I came back another day without having to worry about my candy. So, I went home, I told my younger brother Rafael, and he thought it was a good idea. I then went back the next day.
I didn’t tell Joe (Goossen) that my brother knew him. I just told him I wanted to be a fighter. He was training Alonzo ‘Strongbow’ Gonzalez and also Frankie Duarte and some other fighters. He really paid no attention to me. I went there and he was like, “What do you want?” His voice was very strong and powerful. He was intimidating to me.
I was easily discouraged back then, so right away, when he said, “No, I don’t train kids,” I turned around and started to leave. My brother Rafael would have stood there and told Joe the reasons why he should train him, but I wasn’t like that. If someone said “no” to me, that was it.
I was on my way out and then Alonzo said, “Wait,” and Joe looked at him. He said, “What are you doing?” Alonzo told him to train me because he could see something in me.
“I know he’ll be a good fighter,” he said, and I heard Joe mumble something to himself. Later on, I found out he was saying to Alonzo, “Don’t be giving this kid false hope.”
He agreed to let me train at the gym but he said I had to be there at a certain time every day and I had to run every morning. I told him I had to go to school in the morning and Joe said, “I don’t care. If you want to be a fighter, and you want to train here, you have to do what I say.”
He said, “If you don’t listen to me or don’t do something I tell you to do, you’re out of here. I don’t train kids.” At that time, he was only training professionals.
I started training with him anyway and he started to teach me how to throw some punches. He said, “Where did you learn that?” He didn’t think I could be so natural. I told him I had an older brother – I didn’t tell him his name – and he had taught me a little bit. He taught me the basics. He said, “Okay, we’ll start tomorrow.”
Joe started having me train with professionals and paid more attention to me. After a few months, maybe four or five, I said to him, “Listen, I have a younger brother, can he come with me?” He was like, “Oh no, not another kid. I don’t train kids. I’m only training you because of Alonzo.” I said, “He’s very good. He’s only two months younger than me. We’re practically twins.” By that time, I had got to know Joe pretty good and knew he’d say yes.
Before boxing, I was careful not to pick fights with bigger kids. But after learning the basics and learning with Joe, I thought, Wow, I can do anything now. I felt more secure and confident. I felt better about myself. I thought that nobody can mess with me now. Nobody can tell me anything.
I was sort of like a troublemaker at school. I was very short for my age – all the kids were much, much taller.
I remember asking a girl if she would be my girlfriend and she thought it was cute. She patted me like a little dog and all my friends started laughing at me.
I’d pick fights in school because I wanted to show people I was good for something, you know? My family thought I was no good. They just thought I’d be good for work, nothing else. But you have to be careful what you say to kids because they never forget it.
Even when I started fighting in the amateurs, I would come home and the first thing I would hear from my sister or my brother was, “Did you lose?” That was all they expected of me. I’d say, “No, I won actually,” and the more fights I won, the more they started to believe I’d win each time.
I really liked that feeling of approval. I was always looking for approval. It was amazing to be in a fight and see people stand and applaud me. I had never before experienced something like that in my life.
I thought, If I am only good at boxing, I’m going to dedicate my life to it. That meant not getting into any more fights at school and not being a troublemaker, because Joe, from the beginning, put a lot of rules in place. He wanted to discipline me.
I had no more time to be out with my friends, my buddies, or just messing about like kids do. I had to grow up very quickly.
But it was the only good thing I had in my life, so I felt it was worth it. I wanted to show everyone I was going to be the best I could.
I started fighting, got more wins, and my family started to hear that I was winning more than losing. Eventually I made believers of them.
Where we come from, we didn’t even know what boxing was. We come from the outskirts, on the mountains, and we had no TV, no radio, nothing. We were four hours north of Guadalajara (Mexico). I call it a village, some people call it a ranch, but there were only about one hundred people there. We all knew each other. There were no bathrooms. The bathroom was the mountains. The shower was the river or the rain. It was very National Geographic. But it was beautiful, too. When you don’t know any better, it’s okay. You can make it work. Sometimes you don’t need everything. And when you’re used to having nothing, you know you can survive for the rest of your life without luxuries.
One time I was very cold and I told my dad (Rafael) this. I was crying and he said, “What do you want me to do?” Most kids think their father should be put in jail for something like that. At the very least they’d expect them to cover their child with something. But we didn’t live like that. It was very hardcore. It’s not that my dad was horrible, it was just an all-round lack of education.
I was eight years old when I moved to California but I remember so much of those first eight years. Over there the kids grow up very fast. My mum, for example, had her first kid when she was 14. They have no option but to have kids, the girls. There are no hobbies, no interests, no sports teams, nothing. You’re never a kid. I never played like a kid. I never played with action figures or toys or cars or anything like that.
When eventually I became someone, it felt good, and winning my WBC super-featherweight title (September 1994) was one of the best nights of my life. It was my second world title shot after I lost my first one against Azumah Nelson (February 1993). I thought I beat him in Mexico, but that was a great learning experience for me. After I lost to Azumah, Azumah fought Jesse James Leija and Leija beat Azumah. Leija was also undefeated when I boxed him for the title and, because he had beaten Azumah, they thought for sure he was going to beat me.
It was such a great fight. Leija fought a great fight, but I made him miss so many punches. He threw very good shots but he just couldn’t hit me. He had not been knocked down or anything in his career and I knocked him down twice. I felt I beat him decisively without the knockdowns, but they just sealed the victory. It was the best performance of my career, no doubt. Nobody could beat me that day.
We didn’t do dreams where I came from. One was more than enough and big enough for me. So, for me, it’s incredible that my brother and I came from that little village with no knowledge of sport or anything and we both won world championships (Rafael won the IBF lightweight title in February 1994).
A lot of kids in Mexico know everything. They know about sports, they know about politics, they know about other countries and other cultures. We, though, knew nothing. We were like wild animals. We were underdeveloped. My mum had so many kids that when we were born she had no milk in her breasts. My dad didn’t have the money to buy a cow, so bought a goat instead.
I remember this man then coming to buy the goat from my dad because my dad later needed the money. It went for something like 50 pesos. My brother and I were running after him crying, begging him not to take it. Those memories are worth more than a million dollars to me.
Another memory that never leaves me is the night I defended my world title against Jimmy Garcia in 1996.
During one of the rounds we shared I remember thinking he shouldn’t be in the ring with me anymore. He was just a punching bag for me. I was hitting him over and over again and my hands had even started to hurt. That was something I’d never felt in any of my other fights. I’d never had hand problems. I’d never had hand problems in the gym or in the ring. But I hit Jimmy so often and so hard that my hands were in pain. They’d gone sort of numb. I never in a million years thought I’d be in the ring one day worried about hurting a guy, but I was. It happened that night. I felt I was winning decisively but I couldn’t knock him out and the fight wouldn’t end unless I did so. I thought, Okay, I guess I’ll just have to keep beating him up, and that was a horrible thing to think.
I was worried because some of the shots I hit him with were sickening. I replay them in my mind even now and they seemed to happen in slow motion at the time. He just wouldn’t go down. I wished he would go down every time I landed a punch on him.
After Jimmy passed away, I went through that fight so many times in my mind and always put blame on myself. Maybe I shouldn’t have hit him with this shot or that shot. Maybe I shouldn’t have had such bad intentions before the fight and during the fight. We were taught to throw hurtful shots in the gym and to throw hurtful combinations, to the head and to the body, and I used all of that to hurt Jimmy Garcia. My intention going into the fight was to hurt him and make him quit so that I could defend my title.
Honestly, after that, I thought I’d never fight again. I thought that was it. But after days, weeks and months, and going through everyday life, you see the necessities your family needs and you realise you’re stuck with this. I had no choice but to fight. I had to fight because it was my job. You can’t just quit your job when something bad happens. It was what I chose to be. It was what I had dedicated my whole life to. I had to continue.
I knew I was a different person, though. I was now fighting with myself and before and during every fight I was trying to find something, some feeling, that I used to have and would never have again.
I used to go in there and want to beat these guys up so bad. I’d want to hurt them. Often, to motivate myself, I’d look at videos of Mike Tyson and watch his quick knockouts over and over. He’d go through guys and I’d think of him before fights. I wanted to hurt guys the way he hurt them.
But that completely stopped after Jimmy Garcia. It didn’t work for me anymore. I was too careful. I was careful of landing punches. That’s something you can’t do in this business because you can end up getting hurt yourself.
Truthfully, that’s why I wanted to fight on: to get hurt. I felt responsible, I felt it was my fault, and I felt I should be punished for what I did. I could only find peace by me getting hurt. I know that sounds crazy, but I wanted to get hurt in the ring just as Jimmy had been hurt. I needed to be punished for what I had done. I would fool everybody in training and look good but, when the fight came, it was time for what I wanted: I wanted to get hurt.