The CBZ Newswire

Touching Gloves with… Joey Ruiz

by on Nov.03, 2015, under Boxing News

By Dan Hanley


Back in the mid-’80s, while working as an amateur boxing judge, I spotted a kid at a show whom I had been hearing about professionally. Dressed in a white blazer and looking like an Hispanic version of Sonny Crockett – hey, it was the ’80s – I found him very forthcoming on his career to date. Fast forward 30 years and I’m in a neighborhood restaurant tackling a steak with the intensity of a stray mongrel on roadkill, when I spot this dude with an unmistakable fighter’s nose. I was simply going to ask him if he had done a bit of boxing when I suddenly found myself sputtering, “Hey…are you Joey Ruiz?” Although – thank God – no longer sporting the Miami Vice look, he isn’t too far past his 140 lb. fighting weight of that era. And he is doing alright.


DH: Joey, are you Chicago born?

JR: Yes, I am. I was born in the Little Italy neighborhood and grew up in the Lawndale area.

DH: Tell me about family life growing up.

JR: There was just my brother Daniel and I and of course, my Mom and Dad, who were great with us. They really took an interest in us and kept us out of trouble. And that wasn’t easy growing up in Lawndale, which was gang-infested. There was a rule-of-thumb in that neighborhood. (laughing) When you get shot at a second time, it’s time you realize the first time wasn’t an accident.

DH: How did you get started in boxing?

JR: My father was about 11 years old when he came from Mexico and he did a little boxing. He then taught my brother and I how to defend ourselves and I just loved it. I was about 6 when I saw the first Ali-Frazier fight and I was hooked. I wanted to box then but my parents said I had to wait until I was 9. So, on my ninth birthday my Dad came home from work and I was waiting by the front door with my little gym bag. (laughing) I’m sure he wanted to relax but my mother said, “Will you please take him to the gym, he’s been driving me nuts all day!” I got started at Harrison Park, then Sheridan Park, then the Union League Boys Club and was eventually taught and trained by Primo LaCassa, who actually had a part in my training somewhat through my career.

 DH: How did you make out as an amateur?

JR: I did alright. I won 93 out of 107 fights. I won three National Silver Glove titles, three Junior Olympic titles and made it to the finals of the Ohio State Fair Invitational.

DH: Tell me about the decision to go pro so young.

JR: Well, I was about 14 when Chicago lightweight Johnny Lira was challenging for the lightweight title here against Ernesto Espana. I went down to Navy Pier where a lot of the fighters were training, just to watch. But I was asked to spar with future world champ Leo Cruz, who was fighting on the undercard. Well, he was recently coming off a challenge to Wilfredo Gomez, so I knew who he was and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip. I was already training with pros, but I did so well against Cruz that I knew I could handle myself and compete at the higher level.

DH: When did the opportunity come about?

JR: When Pancho Rosales entered the picture.

DH: Pancho Rosales? Ruben Olivares’ manager?

JR: That’s right. In June of ’80 Olivares fought a 10 rounder here in Chicago against Carlos Serrano and like before, I went down to watch him train and my Dad managed to get me in as a sparring partner for Olivares. Well, Pancho was very impressed and left us two tickets at the box-office for my Dad and I. I fought a ‘smoker’ that night against a fighter named Cliff Jacobs and just couldn’t make the Olivares fight, but it didn’t stop Pancho from offering to turn me pro down in Mexico. My parents did everything to try and discourage it, but there was no holding me back. Pancho assured them he would take care of me and I turned pro at the age of 15 in July of ’80 against Juventino Solis in Mexico City.

DH: Although 15 year old pros are commonplace down in Mexico, did you feel thrust into a man’s world?

JR: Well (laughing), I had to grow up fast down there. To tell you a funny story, they put me in sparring with future world champ Daniel Zaragoza, who had just come back from the Olympics and was getting ready to turn pro. Well, he was being trained by Mexico’s world famous trainer Cuyo Hernandez, who treated Zaragoza like a prized possession. Now, I’m just a kid who doesn’t know any better and I go right at him and they end up suspending the session when I hurt him along the ropes. (laughing) You should have seen the look I got. It’s not good for your career when you piss off Cuyo Hernandez. Also the crowds down there were something else. For one, I thought I was turning pro in a four rounder, but they upped it to a six rounder. And the odds would actually change between rounds down there, so you had to be up on your game with that crowd. But I won my fight and was on my way.

DH: You fought again the following month down in McAllen, Texas – knocking out your opponent – but then seemed to take a break after the McAllen bout. What happened?

JR: During this time I had actually sued the State of Illinois to get a boxing license. See, although underage in Illinois, my case was that I was licensed in Mexico and Texas – two very big commissions – so why not here? But Illinois stalled the suit until I was 17, so it didn’t matter at that point and I just resumed my career in the Chicago area when I reached legal age.

Joey Ruiz, at left, with Sylvester Stallone.

Joey Ruiz, at left, with Sylvester Stallone.

DH: Who was managing and training you by this time?

JR: By my seventh fight I hooked up with Sylvester Stallone and his Tiger Eye Promotions. He was managing Aaron Pryor and they were getting ready for the Arguello fight, so I had the benefit of training in the Aaron Pryor camp with Richie Giachetti as my trainer.

DH: I imagine you really benefitted with what Tiger Eye had at their disposal.

JR: Yeah, but I really needed someone looking out for me as well. To tell you a story, my first loss was to Mike Golden in Atlantic City and I was totally spent during the fight. They sent me to a doctor to see what was up and the results came back that I was suffering from a protein deficiency. So, some trainer in camp tells me to take these ‘vitamins’. I felt real good but my weight shot up from 140 to 150. Once I realized I was taking anabolic steroids I stopped and my weight came back down. So you see what can go on.

DH: Who were you working with in camp?

JR: Aaron Pryor, of course, and also Bruce Curry and Marco Geraldo.

DH: In September of ’83 you took on and beat Miharu Muto of Japan in a 4 rounder in the Inglewood Forum. Now, Muto was a solid 10 round fighter. Were you aware of his experience at the time?

JR: I was aware of it and I was also aware that he was a national champion back in Japan. But I think Stallone was playing a game with me to see what I was made of.

DH: How long did the thing with Stallone and Tiger Eye last?

JR: Actually, not too long. Maybe six months tops. My Dad didn’t like the way Giachetti was training me. He felt Giachetti was turning me into an arm-flurrying type hitter rather than sitting down on my punches. (laughing) I also think my Mom and Dad were a little worried about what I was up to on the west coast. And believe me, they were right to worry. Mom was getting tired of opening packages addressed to me from women containing their underwear. So it was time to come home.

DH: Was there any beef from the Stallone camp?

JR: A little. You know, the usual, ‘we have a contract’ type of thing. But they dropped it when my Dad mentioned the fact that he was not present when I signed the contract at the age of 17. But I have nothing but great memories regarding my time with Tiger Eye. Back in Chicago Jim Kaulentis then managed me from there on.

DH: You were on a great winning streak and in April of ’85 you beat Kevin Austin at the Congress Hotel in downtown Chicago. Now, I was ringside when he fought future welterweight champ Lloyd Honeyghan and he acquitted himself well in that fight. Tell me about your fight with him.

JR: I would regard Kevin Austin as a good, solid, dirty fighter. Like I said before, I felt unprotected. Kevin Austin bit me 3 times during our bout. I mean he really sunk his teeth right in. Once on the neck and once on each arm. He also was hitting me on the break and not one word from the referee. (laughing) You know I knocked him out of the ring and I actually got warned for not heeding the break.

DH: In June of ’85 you took on James Martinez of Texas. Martinez reminded me of ‘Lobito’ Montoya. It was no use hitting him and he was going to give you 10 hard rounds. Is that how you would sum him up?

JR: Yes, it would. And as far as I know I was the first to deck him and I did it twice enroute to a 10 round win.

DH: When did Angelo Dundee join your camp?

JR: I think it was around the time I fought Jose Rivera down in Miami. I gotta tell you, Dan, that was scary. Rivera was backed by some Columbian gamblers or drug mob because things got ugly when I got the decision. The only thing I had taken off were my gloves and handwraps when things started to heat up. My whole corner had to run out of the Jai Alai Stadium that night with me still wearing my boxing gear.

DH: Who were you working with in the gym when you were attached with Dundee?

JR: Well, it couldn’t have happened at a better time that Sugar Ray Leonard was training for his comeback against Kevin Howard. I remember the day before we sparred I sort of made a nuisance of myself yelling instructions to his sparring partner and such. But I was just getting into it, which was all. But Ray gave me a look from a clinch and said, “You’ll get your chance tomorrow!” Oh, man, (laughing) I just thought to myself, “Why did I open my fuckin’ mouth?” But when we sparred, I fought Ray like Duran did in their first fight. There was no finesse. I just went out and mugged him. Janks Morton had to end the session. But that’s why I was there.

DH: In October of ’85 you took on one of the top dogs at 140 in Harold Brazier in his hometown of Indiana, no less. Brazier was knocking the stuffing out of everyone at the time, yet, you held him to a split decision. Tell me about this fight.

JR: Dan, do you know this was the highest viewed fight in ESPN history? And with good reason. Because we went at it hard. But it was like everything was working against me in this fight. I always questioned why it had to go to Merrillville rather than Chicago. And why I requested one official from Illinois but ended up with three officials from Indiana. But most of all, why they needed to ‘adjust’ the scales when Brazier came in overweight. But not to take away from the fight, it was outstanding and I do believe I won.

 DH: Two months later you were back in Atlantic City against Hector Frazier. AKA Joe Frazier, Jr. Did he fight like his father?

JR: Yeah, very similar. That was another tough fight. I was pissing blood for a few days after that fight. He just beat on my kidneys for 10 rounds. And something else went on at that time as well with the handwraps. I believe there may have been a recent tragedy in New Jersey and they were trying out less gauze on the wrap. It was literally half of what I was used to. When my gloves came off after the fight and they cut the wraps off, my hands just swelled up. (laughing) I’m not kidding you, my fingers looked like 10 purple cucumbers sticking out of my hands. The fight itself was called a draw, but there is no way I didn’t win that fight.

DH: Your next fight in May of ’86 was against the world-rated South African Brian Baronet in Indiana during Baronet’s American tour. Tell me about the fight.

JR: To be honest with you, Dan, this is the only fight I truly believe I lost. They originally were trying to get this fight for South Africa, but I turned it down, insisting it take place here. Y’know, (laughing) thinking back on it now, I probably would have seen some damn good money had I gone along with the original plan. As for the fight, Baronet dropped me good in the first round and I must’ve been in a cloud for a while, because the next thing I remember is sitting in my corner looking at the card girl walking by holding the number ’4′. I went the distance but lost the decision. But what really pissed me off with that fight was afterwards I was in the shower and Angelo Dundee stuck his head in and said, “OK, Joey, see you later!” That was it! I won’t say I took a thumping but do you think he could have at least hung around to see if I was okay? I didn’t like it and I was vocal about it. I told my Dad I was done with him. After that we parted ways and Frank ‘Pancho’ Arenas trained me to the end of my career.

DH: You had just fought three world-class fighters in your last three bouts. What kind of promises were made to you at this time?

JR: I was promised and was being groomed as the comeback opponent for Alexis Arguello, but Billy Costello got the fight instead. He had the name, the title of former champion and I watched that fight knowing I could have done so much better. After that my camp started to fall apart. Promoters and managers didn’t like my Dad’s involvement. But I didn’t care what they thought. My Mom and Dad were the only ones who cared what happened to me and I was always going to have them involved.

DH: Before the end of ’86 you had won the Illinois state jr. welterweight title from Chicago’s Ali Karim Muhammad, but then you drifted from the game. What happened? Did you feel burned out?

JR: No, boxing was always fun, but the outside pressures were not. It was just immaturity. I had got married and she wanted me out of the game. (laughing) Too bad the marriage didn’t last.

DH: You came back for one fight in ’89 and once more in ’93 when you were talking like the old Joey Ruiz again. Tell me about that last fight with Aaron Shockley.

JR: Dan, I never knew he was a southpaw until we got into the ring. But having said that, it shouldn’t have mattered. He didn’t have anything I hadn’t dealt with before. I should have been able to adapt to it, but I didn’t. It was no sense hanging on anymore. My prime had slipped and I was not going to end up being a club-fighter.

DH: What did you get into when the career was done?

JR: Dan, I’ve had all kinds of jobs, including being a sales rep for a lighting company. But right now I’m busy rehabbing my Grandmother’s old house and helping out at the Oakley Fight Club. My Dad and brother train several fighters there and I help out when I can.

DH: Joey, what regrets do have from the sport?

JR: Well…I regret losing out to Billy Costello on the Arguello fight. And I would have loved to have met some of the fighters that were knocking about when I was fighting like Harry Arroyo and Vinny Pazienza. But I think my biggest regret was the Harold Brazier fight. Dan, I’m not kidding you, I think of that often to the point where it’s not just a regret but real bitterness. I wish my manager would have piped up and got us neutral officials because I know I won that fight. That fight could have opened real doors for me. That was my time.

DH: Conversely, what were your better memories from the sport?

JR: Dan, through boxing I met people I could’ve only dreamed about meeting. And when I think of the time I spent in the Ruben Olivares camp, the Aaron Pryor camp and the Sugar Ray Leonard camp I can only shake my head, because at the time I took it for granted. But one memory in particular I will always savor. When I beat Miharu Muto at the Forum on the west coast I was leaning outside the ropes to shake a few hands when one gentleman came up to me and left me in shock. It was Sugar Ray Robinson. Now, everyone knew he was suffering from dementia by this time, but he knew enough to come up to me and say, “Son, you’ve got a beautiful left.” Wow! For the greatest fighter of all time to say that to me. I felt like a million bucks.

Dan Hanley, at left, with Joey Ruiz.

Dan Hanley, at left, with Joey Ruiz.

In boxing, the tag ‘Hot Prospect’ can be the most ambivalent of terms because success can be muted at any time by which way the promotional winds are blowing. Joey’s views on the game were a simple, all or nothing. And when the dream of the brass ring all but disappeared, he simply refused to be another footnote down pug-alley and packed it in. Character like that makes him a very successful man, and I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

See ya next round,


Dan Hanley



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