THIS MOMENT IS the moment. It will not get any better. Yes, this large, round man will get richer, and he will get more famous. He will be recognized on more streets in more cities. But there will be more people wanting him to tell his story, and more who want to read or hear or see it. Soon he will begin to detect the bittersweet pull of expectation: Yeah, but can he do it again? He will be smothered so thoroughly in his small hometown, by both love and greed, that it will begin to feel like a box. And so -- no, it will not get better than this moment, this glorious and unexpected moment, the moment Andy Ruiz Jr. became somebody.
Nobody appears out of nowhere anymore, right? We're too savvy for surprises. We know everything before it happens, and if we don't, we claim we did. We've made an enemy of surprise; to be surprised is to be disconnected, and there is no worse indictment. Surprises are from a different age.
So the beauty of Ruiz is not limited to the obvious, that the current heavyweight champion of the world looks like a guy who wears a T-shirt in the swimming pool. No, it's the pure, uncut surprise of it, the way this 268-pound guy went from being a near-total unknown to most of America -- six fights removed from a bout at the Masonic Temple in Detroit -- to dominating previously undefeated, 6-foot-6, 247-pound Anthony Joshua in one of the biggest upsets in the history of boxing.
Just look at him now, walking past the pallets of Stella Artois and Bud Light and Rolling Rock on his way to a media conference in a beer distributor's warehouse in his hometown of Imperial, California. There are police everywhere: inside the room, outside the entrance, parked in cars down the street. Ruiz sits at a table, his title belts propped up by 12-packs and displayed in front of him, and listens to every question, in English and Spanish, with his head tilted slightly back and his chin forward, as if he's a little hard of hearing. His perfectly round face is stuck in a half-grin of permanent satisfaction, like one of Raphael's cherubs at 29. If expressions were words, his would say, "What do you think of me now?" -- followed by the plural form of a 12-letter word you're better off imagining than reading.
This guy, this one with the bouncy gut and the quick feet, is the heavyweight champion of the world and the first Mexican-American heavyweight champion of the world. He throws those five words -- heavyweight champion of the world -- around the room repeatedly and almost at random, as if repetition will make them more believable.
"Everybody was just laughing at me," Ruiz says. "Everybody would [tell] me, 'You haven't fought nobody like Joshua.' But in reality, he hadn't fought anybody like me."
HE GOT THE fight by messaging Joshua's promoter, Eddie Hearn, on Instagram. No middlemen, no have-your-people-call-my-people, just a fighter pleading his case to a guy who decided he was worth a shot. It was as old school as new school can get. It was late April, shortly after Ruiz had defeated Alexander Dimitrenko. Jarrell Miller, Joshua's handpicked opponent for his American debut, had been disqualified for failing repeated drug tests, and Ruiz took to Instagram to change his life.
He told Hearn to give him a chance, that he'd earned it, that he was better than all the other guys they were considering (Hearn didn't have many options, anyway). He didn't care that he'd be fighting twice in seven weeks, a ridiculous workload for a heavyweight, or that it would mean 15 straight weeks of training camp, away from his family and his friends and his favorite foods. Less than a year earlier, Ruiz had been at the bottom: weighing more than 300 pounds, unmotivated, unhappy with his deal with Top Rank, not making nearly enough money to take care of himself and his five children. "We were this close to losing Andy," says his trainer, Manny Robles.
So at this point, fresh off an impressive win over Dimitrenko, what did he have to lose?
"Of course they were thinking I'd be another easy win for AJ," Ruiz says. He pauses for effect. "They didn't do their homework."
He moved in with Alonso Flores, his chef and part-time landlord, before the Dimitrenko fight. He went on a diet of fish and chicken, and routinely asked Flores, "Dude, why you giving me all these greens?" He dropped close to 30 pounds. "He was a completely different person for the Joshua camp," Flores says. "Before he was a bit lethargic and lazy, and then he flipped a switch."
The transformation was thorough. Just look at him before the fight, staring across the Madison Square Garden ring at Joshua (whose physique is a sketch artist's ideal), thinking one thing: This man is trying to take Cheerios out of my kids' mouths. "That's really what I think before every fight," Ruiz says. "When they're announcing my name -- Annnn-dy Ruuu-iz -- I'm thinking, Man, this m-----f----- is just trying to take Cheerios from my kids."
And then, in the third round, Joshua connected with a hard right and Ruiz went down. This followed the script: Joshua gets the easy win, Ruiz gets a payday, everyone moves on with their lives. Ruiz was down for a few seconds, his head never hitting the canvas, and said to himself, Please, God, help me. Give me your strength.
"And what do you know?" Ruiz says now. "I got up with a mean face and ready to exchange because he was trying to finish me off."
Ruiz started firing punches, practically launching himself toward the taller Joshua's face and head. The trajectory of his shots were like an airplane on liftoff. Joshua looked baffled. This man was supposed to stay down. Instead, Joshua spent the rest of the fight wearing a look of confused detachment. He was dropped four times before the fight was stopped in the seventh round. Afterward, there was talk of a bad knockdown during training camp, and maybe a prefight panic attack in the locker room, both unverified claims made by people other than Joshua, who simply said his "performance did not go to plan."
"You can look for a million different excuses," Robles says. "You think Andy didn't have challenges?"
When Ruiz returned to Los Angeles the day after the fight, he went to the house of his chef, Flores, proprietor of what he calls a "boxing orphanage." He sat on the couch and said, "Dude, let's watch the fight." It was the first of eight or 10 viewings -- Ruiz has lost count -- and when the fight was over and he was bouncing around the ring like a little boy, and his family was barging through the ropes with tears in their eyes, he looked up and said to Flores, "Dude, I'm pinching myself. How did I do that?"
WHAT DO YOU do with instant fame? Ruiz and his crew, which consists mostly of his family, woke up Sunday morning in New York after the Joshua fight and headed for the airport, leaving extra early in case there was traffic. It hadn't occurred to them to stick around and maximize the moment, maybe spin through the morning shows for a few days or meet with a literary agent to line up a book deal. The new heavyweight champion of the world, the first Mexican heavyweight champion, the big guy who pulled off an even bigger upset -- one of the biggest upsets in boxing history -- just wanted to get home.
Whether Ruiz knew it or not, the rush to tell his story began immediately. Bookers for Jimmy Kimmel's L.A.-based late-night show scrambled through their contacts, trying to find someone who might connect them to Ruiz. They called a boxing publicist, who put them in touch with another boxing publicist. Eventually Ruiz ended up on the show. Among the guests that night were several stars of "X-Men: Dark Phoenix," and they were lining up to shake hands and take photos with Ruiz.
"I was literally watching an overnight sensation," says Lisa Milner, a boxing publicist who accompanied Ruiz to the show. "Nobody knew who he was two nights before, and now movie stars are lining up for pictures." An employee of another promoter says, "He was just thrilled they brought a car to take him to the studio. It was like his prom." Asked at the media conference to describe how it felt to be on Kimmel's show, Ruiz said, "It was cool. I didn't want to do it at first, but it was cool."
The edges haven't been filed down, and the responses have yet to be lobotomized. "People were talking smack about me because I said Joshua fights like a robot," he says. "I didn't care. I just knew I could beat this guy." Danny Ruiz, his little brother, says, "Everybody kept thinking the fat guy couldn't do it. It's like a family secret. Friends or their parents would always ask me about Andy, and they could never see what we all saw. We know he has it."
There remain hints of the boy who was bullied through childhood. Andy Ruiz Jr. is circumspect, looking around to gauge the reaction to his words like someone who is acutely aware of how he is being perceived. He was mocked for his weight as early as he can remember, especially when he was 7 and 8 and forced to fight boys nearly twice his age because of his weight class. Other trainers would look at Ruiz and scoff, telling his father, Andy Ruiz Sr., "Your kid's not going to do that, man. Get real." His friend and part-time publicist, Jose Avalos, tells the story of a kid on the playground flipping a tire over Andy and pinning him there until a teacher arrived to rescue him. "His weight has always made him an easy target," Avalos says. "He fought back, but it was hard." So, no, Ruiz is not the big, jolly guy you might be expecting.
"It took a long time, and a lot of years, for me to get comfortable with myself, like the way I am now," Ruiz says. "There have been a lot of roller coasters. No matter how you look or how you are, the only thing that matters is yourself and what you're trying to accomplish in life."
Ruiz made more than $5 million for the fight -- his family made around $10,000 betting on him -- and the first purchase he made was a dark red Buick Enclave for his mother, Felicitas. "I messed up a lot of her cars when I was young," he says. Everyone laughs, even though the line is delivered more as an apology than a boast. The car, the exact model Felicitas had wanted for five years, sits in the parking lot, no more than 50 yards away. When the laughs die, the bullied little boy shows himself again. Almost under his breath, and with no prompting, he says, "People thought I wouldn't do nothing."
Later, Felicitas says she thinks Andy wrecked two of her cars. "I think that's it," she says, pausing a moment to see if she has forgotten any. Danny, the 19-year-old brother, gently interrupts. "Remember Dad's car?" he asks. "He wrecked that one, too."
THEY DON'T WANT to tell the whole story -- someone out there has told them not to tell the whole story. The whole story could derail a movie deal or something, I'm told.
"There has to be a movie," Danny says. "From all the things that have happened, it definitely will be a movie. I'd love to tell you the whole story, bro, but I can't. They don't want us to tell everything."
Robles trains Ruiz and about 50 other fighters at Legendz Boxing in Norwalk, a city that typifies the indistinguishable horizontal sprawl of Los Angeles. The gym is hot in a way that only boxing gyms can be, the sweat and desperation merging in the air to create a rank humidity. Robles' heliated voice rises above the dull thud of halfhearted smacks of the heavy bag as a stream of young men filter into the gym and greet -- eye contact, handshake -- every person in the room. A promising welterweight is warming up on the one treadmill, its belt wheezing like an infected lung.
"Can you imagine what Andy went through?" Robles says. "Being overweight and bullied his entire life? It must have been tough. We all have more in common with Andy than Anthony Joshua. He gives people hope. He's the people's champion. He's an inspiration."
Ruiz describes himself as "one of those chubby kids that would do something athletic and everybody would look at me and say, 'What the heck? Did that kid just do that?' That's the kind of chubby kid I was."
The Imperial Valley, about 20 miles from the Mexican border near Mexicali, is a tough place. There are plenty of tributaries off the straight and narrow, and Ruiz says he traveled more than his share of them.
"I was hanging out with the wrong crowds, doing stuff you're not supposed to do," he says. "Doing the gang thing. Boxing gave me the discipline and took me away from the streets and away from the corners. It changed my life, you know. Boxing dragging me away from all the bad potential I had."
There is a story his mother tells, quietly and sadly. Once, when her son was a teenager, he went with his father to watch a fight in Mexicali. Word spread in the crowd that he was an up-and-coming boxer. Nobody believed it, and the predictable taunts followed. On their way home, Andy and his father stopped to get something to eat and a group of men jumped out of a car and hit Andy over the head with a pipe.
"He was so bloody," she says, "but he never fell down."
Her eyes drift away. More than decade later, she can still see the blood on her son's head and hear the anger in her husband's voice on the call from the hospital.
But it's what they yelled at her son that stays with her:
Come on, Gordo, let's see how tough you are.
She says those words and grows quiet. Everything has changed, and nothing has changed. She shakes her head sadly. Her eyes return.
"Why would they do that?" she asks. "He was just a little boy."
THE IMPERIAL VALLEY is where the sun goes to let loose. On the day of the media conference, the first official day of summer, it's a below-normal 104 degrees, the wind searing out of the southeast to lift the top inch of every onion and carrot field into the air, spreading a thin film of grit over everything -- buildings, roads, cars, clothes, skin, hair, teeth. The heat is so intense it starts in the marrow and works its way out.
After the interviews are over, after the police officers double-check every room and head for their cars, Ruiz is tired. Instant fame, he's learning, can be exhilarating and exhausting. He has obligations now, and a scroll of requests to accept or decline. His mom tried to throw a simple family gathering two weeks earlier and 300 people showed up, all wanting pictures, all claiming they saw this coming, all eager to call him Champ. Robles wants him back in the gym July 1, and there's big talk swirling around the next fight -- a $50 million payday for the rematch with Joshua. "Now we have a megafight," Ruiz says, "and if something happens -- I hope it doesn't -- and I lose by decision in the next fight, we can have another fight and it can be a huge trilogy."
First things first: Tomorrow there's a parade through town. It'll wind past Johnny's Burritos and El Zarape Restaurant and finish at the football field at the high school where Ruiz never graduated. He will sit with his longtime girlfriend, Julie, in the back of a brand-new maroon Rolls-Royce while most of Imperial fights for shade at the side of the road. He'll sit there and look out over all those people, waving and smiling, and know that many of them laughed at his dream. This is his moment, though -- the best moment -- and nothing can ruin it. He'll be wearing that same expression from beginning to end: head lifted, chin pushed forward, a smile curling up ever so slightly at the bottom of that round face. What do you think of me now, m-----f-----?