The Sweat Science

Postmodern boxing's hype & politics

There are times when Miami Beach smells like Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean in Kenya. A warmish, dampish camel-flop smell, an old horse blanket, or last year's sweat socks, curled and grimed from 10 months in the trunk of your Toyota. As Johnny Ruiz, the World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion galloped up and down the enclosed sandy rectangle on the beach at 21st and Collins a couple of Sundays back, he gave off something comparable in the olfactory sense: "Eeew!" squealed Sofia, a pretty Latina who'd dragged her sated boyfriend off their hotel beach towels to check out the fight crowd. "It's just like Metrozoo!"

But really it was only honest male sweat. Ruiz goes 6-2, 220 lbs. now, a medium heavyweight, down from his usual 230 to 235, so that he'd be able to keep after the quick and mobile Roy Jones, Jr., the lightheavyweight (175 lbs.) champion from up in Pensacola. Two weeks before their "historic battle" at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas last Saturday (March 1), Ruiz had hit his lightest competitive poundage ever. So he was happy, snuffling at the sea air -- snuh-uh, snuh-uh-- pounding by on a two-beat rhythm, pleased to be training in Miami again, scene of his earlier Mohawked terror fights, where he would blast guys out of the ring with awkward combinations and fuel-injected lefts . . . well, let's say no more about the chemistry of MIAB. That's why Alton Merkerson, Ruiz's trainer, and Don King, his promoter, moved Johnny up to Chelsea, Mass., where you can breathe the ocean air, too, but without all the pricey stimulants . . .

Don King was there, in his jumpstart haircut: "Ruiz will knock Roy Jones cold! He look like a movie star! He healthy! Don't matter what the odds imply [the Vegas line was 5-3, Jones], Johnny's time is nigh!" Then King quoted (and misquoted) Jesus, Lord Acton, Karl Marx, John Wayne, and George W. Bush: "If Roy Jones, Jr. refuse to disarm, Johnny Ruiz will disarm Roy Jones, Jr!"

The crowd laughed and clapped, and Johnny, still running windsprints but so deeply concentrated that he thought they were applauding him, rumbled like a mountain dislodging some boulders up near the snow line: "Tanks!" he said. "I'll getum!"


On February 22, Mike Tyson appeared to be dispatching Clifford "the Black Rhino" Etienne's head from his shoulders. He did it in 47 seconds of the first round, which is the way it used to happen back in the day. So naturally his erstwhile manager (nobody "manages" Mike), Shelly Finkel, who was more comfortable in Black Sabbath's era, booking metal bands into Astrodomes, began piping about a Tyson/Lennox Lewis rematch. That's Finkel's job of course -- no one would blow $49.95 pay-per-view again to see a repeat of last June's thrashing, in which the 6-5, 248 lb. World Boxing Council champ Lewis, humiliated Tyson before stopping him on a TKO. A couple of "knockouts" like "the Rhino," though, will get the suckers back in their seats (Etienne couldn't help taking his mouthpiece out on the way down, something truly unconscious boxers rarely do). Still, Tyson, the most hated figure in sports, has real drawing power, while Lennox, a handsome, well-spoken Brit, is about as exciting to watch as a man whitewashing cinder blocks in Opa-locka.

The same can be said of Ruiz's opponent, Roy Jones, Jr., who represents the ennui of perfection, like Mikhail Baryshnikov did in ballet, or Margaret Thatcher did in politics. The awful truth about Jones, which HBO's color commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and George Foreman labor to deny, is that he can drain the joy out of a firecracker, put you to sleep faster than Nytol. He punches fast. He hits hard. But he's only fought two opponents who had any chance of beating him, James "Lights Out" Toney, and Bernard "the Executioner" Hopkins, both of whom battled to a standstill but lost, and neither of whom got a rematch.

That's because the potential scores in big-time championships dictate matchups, without regard to who really deserves a fight. So once you've developed a brand name -- Tyson, Jones, Oscar de la Hoya -- you "protect" it, ensure its longevity. Thus bad, boring noncompetitive bouts litter TV and closed-circuit, and you have spectacles like Jones fighting a series of mail carriers and auto body repairmen, and then being declared "pound for pound best"; or Tyson matched with guys he feels he doesn't have to roll out of bed to train for; or de la Hoya's opponents coming from Central Casting (until he was finally shamed into facing "Sugar" Shane Mosely, who kicked his ass).

Even small-time sideshows like this Ruiz/Jones tête-à-tête generate serious bank account credits. Jones got $10 million, for example, while the lesser-known champion Ruiz, a good journeyman, received $6 million. But the seriousdough, the numbers that make King and others beam, are $30 and $40 and $50 million to the winner, $10 million to the loser, and $30 or $35K after overhead for the promoter . . .

Those are Swiss and offshore islands backup figures, against the day when the feds finally get it together to prosecute promotional machersfor malfeasance, misfeasance, and all points in between. This actually happens once in a while, like the time antitrust suits broke up James D. Norris's International Boxing Club (IBC), a "ratings" organization similar to today's WBC and WBA, with a malevolent stranglehold on the sport. Of course, that was 45 years ago.

King has pretty much outlasted all of his promoter rivals -- Bob Arum, Murad Muhammad, Butch Lewis, etc. -- and so controls the silly current "Heavyweight Elimination Tournament" that the Ruiz/Jones fight is part of. The bouts Evander Holyfield lost to Ruiz and Chris Byrd last year and this year, and that led to Ruiz/Jones, for example, were the bounty of King having contracted rights to Holyfield after Tyson (then Don's fighter) lost to Evander in the infamous ear-biting scandal of June 1997; when King deigns to accept you as a challenger to one of his champions, one immediate price is multifight contractual options to let him promote you should you beat his client. This is probably restraint of trade, but in manfighting as well as dogfighting, the law seems to have other priorities. (Don is under federal indictment on various charges again, but has been found not guilty in three other cases so far.)

And so we'll have accommodating workmen like Chris Byrd and Johnny Ruiz cluttering up the heavyweight title picture for a while. Why? Chiefly to extend King's profitable participation in championship boxing. What should be happening is that Tyson, off his quick "Black Rhino" kayo, next gets it on with Jones, expected winner over Ruiz. Both are 5-11, with big punches, but Jones hasn't survived this long by taking chances. If that fight somehow did happen, the winner should next get Lewis, for really big $$$.

Don officially has no power over either Lewis or Tyson at the moment, but in boxing, as King has infamously said: "Everything is grit, wit and bullshit!"


Johnny Ruiz was finishing up. He'd kayoed the heavybag, knocked the fastbag loose from its mooring with his staccato punching, and chased a couple of proxy lightheavies around an improvised ring. The crowd loved it, and since this was Miami Beach, Latin pride had asserted itself: "El que le gane al Ruiz se muere!" (He who beats Ruiz dies!) chanted four boys who were deep into a pint of Bacardi Orange. Sofia had beaten her nasal aversions too, and was chatting Ruiz up (her boyfriend had collapsed back onto his towels):

"Doncha ever get scared?"

"Nah. Um bigga than him."

"But he's pound-for-pound best . . ."

"This is da answer to that!" He flexed his bronzed biceps, then popped a right at the girl, pulling it short at the last second.

She shrilled with the thrill of all that power, and the sheer authenticity of the sound she made drew three more chicas into Ruiz's orbit. He looked very happy.

Norman Stone, another of Johnny's trainers, smiled indulgently: "He's been wearing lightheavy sparring partners out. We used 12 guys! He's [Jones] gonna try to be cute, stick and move, and then explode on us with those flurries of punches. But we're gonna crowd him into a corner and kill him. We'll break him down by hitting him everywhere-- arms, elbows, gloves -- we'll break the blood vessels like [Rocky] Marciano used to . . . Jones can't take a heavyweight punch. He'll feel like he's in a pants press . . ."


But things didn't go that way. On Saturday night, Johnny followed Roy around the ring as if they were on tracks. He absorbed all of Jones's peppering without getting hurt much, endured his boorish taunting, and lost a 12-round decision.

Only once did he seem to forget the script, wobbling Roy in the third.

Johnny looked apologetic.

*For Mark Kram, who knew the game.

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