THE ASSIGNMENT WAS simple: Catch up with Andy Ruiz Jr. ahead of the anniversary of his stunning upset over Anthony Joshua last June. Maybe relive that fight, and the spiritless loss to Joshua in the December rematch. Pretty wild year, right? His arrival as the first Mexican-American heavyweight champion and his departure as a cautionary tale felt nearly simultaneous. Maybe see if he has come to terms with the twists fortune sent his way and find out what might come next. Standard stuff.
Then it got weird.
Numerous calls to his father and manager, Andy Sr., went unreturned. His attorney, David Garcia, answered two calls, said he was jogging and would call back both times, and never did. A spokesman for Ruiz's promoter, Premier Boxing Champions, said he didn't expect to be able to reach the fighter; PBC had recently set up an Instagram Live event for Ruiz's followers, and Ruiz had failed to show up. Manny Robles, Ruiz's former trainer who was fired in January by Andy Sr., said the only communication he has received from his ex-fighter since December was a single text message.
To be clear: Ruiz hasn't disappeared. He occasionally posts what can only be described as pseudo-workout video clips online -- "How many crunches till I get a six-pack?" he asks in one -- that fail as both information and inspiration. But even amid a pandemic, this level of seclusion felt different. Suddenly and without warning, this had turned into a mystery: What's going on with Andy Ruiz Jr.?
I told Robles, the man who helped guide Ruiz to his shocking title moment, that I was on a quest to find out what's happening with his former fighter.
"If you find out," he replied, "let me know. I'm wondering the same thing."
THE SAME PHOTOGRAPH appeared in almost every story of Ruiz's win over Joshua on June 1, 2019. Ruiz and Robles are in the middle of the Madison Square Garden ring, hugging. Ruiz's head is tilted back slightly, a gold glove raised at the end of his left arm, eyes closed, a blend of astonishment and bliss engulfing his face like a sinkhole. Robles, wearing a Mexican-flag bandanna, has a tenuous hold on Ruiz's formidable midsection, a normal-sized man trying to hold on to a tree during a storm. In the background, Joshua stands in his corner, arms at his sides, his face a knot of confusion.
In a hotel suite in New York later that night, Team Ruiz celebrated the win. "We cried, of course," Robles says. "We sang and screamed and we embraced." Andy sat on a couch, a dumbstruck look on his face, repeatedly saying, "I can't f---ing believe I won." At some point, Andy Sr. made an announcement: "This is going to be our team forever, and we're going to conquer the world."
Anything seemed possible. The win over Joshua -- who, in a convenient plot point, is built like a stock photo for the perfect human form -- felt like alchemy. Ruiz had revealed himself to be a repository of hidden talents: Despite his girth, his hands are incredibly fast, his feet delicate. When it's all moving in concert, when he's controlling the ring as if he designed it himself, it creates the impression of a dancing barrel.
He was the best story in sports, and the story got better as the layers got peeled back. Months before he became champion, Ruiz was despondent, unhappy with his career, evicted from an apartment in Norwalk, near Robles' Southern California gym. He was out of shape and severely overweight, close to walking away from boxing.
And then, in a kaleidoscopic series of events, he moved in with Alonso Flores, a chef who regularly provides housing for Robles' fighters. He left Top Rank and signed with Al Haymon's PBC. He got in shape and beat Alexander Dimitrenko, and nine weeks later -- not enough time to get out of shape, it should be noted -- he was dropping Joshua in Madison Square Garden and hopping into Robles' arms in the middle of the ring.
But even in his best moment, Ruiz seemed a bit out of place. He possesses a sort of artless charm: round face sweet as birthday cake; soft, almost warbly voice that seems to belong in a different body; just enough self-consciousness to be endearing.
"He made you believe you didn't have to look like Anthony Joshua," Robles says. "[Most of us] have more in common with Andy. We see him, and it's like we're looking in the mirror."
Ruiz became the first heavyweight champion of Mexican descent. His hometown, the tiny California border town of Imperial, held a parade in his honor. He went to Mexico City to visit with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. He went on Jimmy Kimmel. He found himself in the unlikely position of being hounded in public wherever he went.
He was supposed to take a month off before getting back in the gym, training for the rematch. He took three. "He just quit and checked out, I guess," Robles says. "Starting June 1, the day he beat Joshua, I didn't have the same fighter."
THE STORY OF Ruiz's six-month rise and fall isn't unique to boxing, but it feels remarkably specific to it. Through the first decade of his professional career, Ruiz faced mostly journeyman fighters and battled to keep his weight under control. And then, in a compressed period of time, he made close to $20 million. Doors opened. The shy fat kid -- a lifelong underdog who was bullied as a child -- suddenly found himself surrounded by admirers. He bought a mansion in San Diego and a Rolls-Royce, all from money he rightfully earned. He then fell back into his bad nutritional habits and treated trips to the gym as strictly optional. The work ethic atrophied. It's nothing new; lottery winners often quit their jobs. A good percentage of them also go broke.
"I had control when he was there, but I don't live with the guy," Robles says. "I can show up at the track, but if he's not there, what can I do? Sometimes people say, 'It's your fighter; how come he's not being disciplined?' Hey, I'm his coach, not his dad."
When it became clear Ruiz wasn't serious about training, Robles moved the camp to Mexico City for a month to distance the fighter from his family and what Robles terms "his new friends." He played up Ruiz's responsibility as the first Mexican heavyweight champ. He appealed to his pride. Nothing worked.
"I was always trying to get him to look at the bigger picture," Robles says. "I would say, 'You need to be a good role model for all the kids who look up to you.'"
When those entreaties went unheeded, Robles changed his approach. "If money's what motivates you," he told Ruiz, "then let's go make that money. But you've got to work hard. That money's out there if that's what motivates you." Robles pauses and emits a groan that sounds like pain. "That didn't work either," he says. "Apparently, he was content. It was like he said, 'I know I'm going to make so much for this fight, and I'm good.'
"I still scratch my head. I can't figure any of this out. You're the first Mexican heavyweight champ, right? You got to go see the president of Mexico, right? What other motivation do you need than the responsibility you have to the Mexican people -- and really everybody? Because this went way beyond being the first Mexican champ. This transcended borders and reached people across the world. He made people believe. He was the feel-good story of the year. I did everything I could to convince him to look at the bigger picture and leave a legacy, but not everybody has the same drive or the same priorities."
Ruiz weighed 268 for the first fight, 283 six months later for the rematch in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Nobody really knows Ruiz's ideal fighting weight -- Flores, the chef, suggests 250 to 255 -- but there's universal agreement that it's not 283. Those 15 pounds he gathered from June to December all seemed to land in the same spot: his belly. He lasted 12 rounds but never posed a threat.
Flores waited for Ruiz to leave the ring as security ushered the rest of the team to the dressing room. When Ruiz saw him, he hugged him and said, "I'm sorry, dude. I let people down." In stark contrast to that celebratory night in New York, Ruiz sat forlornly at the lectern in the postfight news conference and admitted he didn't train properly. He apologized to his team and the promoters. He begged for a third fight.
"It was so hard for me to sit there," says Robles, who felt Ruiz should have simply congratulated Joshua and relinquished the stage. He mimics Ruiz, adopting a whining tone: "'I didn't train. I didn't prepare.' The way he handled it, it was embarrassing."
A month later, Andy Ruiz Sr. requested a meeting with Robles. The team would not stay together; it would not conquer the world.
"I knew what was coming," Robles says. "They needed a villain. But I'll be honest with you: I'm better now. I don't want to be a part of something like that. I want to be able to sleep at night. There was a lot of stress -- with the dad, with David [Garcia, the lawyer], with Andy. It's not worth my health."
Will Ruiz become lost to history, just another remember-that-guy from boxing's dustbin? Robles sighs through the phone. "I wish Andy nothing but the best," he says. "I want to see him succeed. I care about him. How could I not? We made history together. I believed in him, and I still do -- I just don't know what's going on with him. I worry about him -- absolutely. I just know money isn't everything, and I don't want to see him end up in a dark place."
Robles tells his fighters, "Remember where you came from," but not out of perceived loyalty to the folks left to bob in the wake of fame. "The moment you forget where you came from, you lose direction," he says. "How do you know where you're going if you forget where you've been?"
THE CALL INTRIGUED Teddy Atlas. Train Andy Ruiz Jr.? The idea was tempting. "If he was in better shape, he'd be the best damned heavyweight in the world," Atlas says. "He'd beat everybody." So sure, the man who used to train Mike Tyson and now handpicks his fighters with utmost care was interested.
But Atlas wanted everyone on the phone -- Ruiz, his father, Garcia -- to know that there were conditions. Atlas, an ESPN commentator, needed Ruiz to make a trip to his gym in New York and train for a weekend to see if the two were compatible. Ruiz would also have to check himself into an inpatient weight loss facility because, as Atlas says, "if you just want me for weight loss, call Jenny Craig."
"I can make a guy lose 30 pounds with my eyes closed, but he needs to make sure it becomes a condition of life," Atlas says. "I think [Ruiz] is subconsciously undermining himself with the weight. It's about his relationship with food, what he depends on food for and how he uses it sometimes as a way to hide from something. If you're heavy, no one expects you to win, so you're protected a little bit. It's a subconscious-level excuse."
Atlas cautioned Ruiz's team that he had not yet agreed to train him, and both sides agreed to a follow-up call to firm up the details. In the meantime, Atlas studied film of Ruiz's fights and put together an eight-page list of suggestions to bring the fighter back to prominence.
There was no second call, no intensive weight-loss program, no trip to New York to judge compatibility. "It was a test," says a close friend of Atlas. "I think Teddy just wanted to see if he'd get his ass on a plane." Atlas doesn't know whether Ruiz was insulted by his demands or simply uninterested in carrying them out. He never got to share his eight-page list with Ruiz or his team. He never got to tell them he believed the win over Joshua didn't feel sustainable, that -- in Atlas' words -- "it felt temporary. It didn't feel like he arrived through great preparation and a readiness to stay." He never got to outline his reasons for demanding a comprehensive lifestyle approach to training.
"It's potentially going to be a sad ending," Atlas says, "and I'm careful with my thoughts on those things. I hope I'm wrong."
MORE THAN A month after my first contact with the Ruiz camp, and only after I gave Garcia a drop-dead deadline and emphasized the need to include Andy's voice -- or one close to him -- a call is arranged with Andy Ruiz Sr. He says Andy is enjoying life with his five children and training at home. He has gone nearly six months without any formal training but is almost ready to begin working with new trainer Eddy Reynoso, who trains Canelo Alvarez. The idea is to fight Chris Arreola -- not ranked among The Ring magazine's top 10 heavyweight contenders -- in November.
"Andy's the same person," his father says. "He's never stressed about money because I've always backed Andy. He was driving a 2006 [Dodge] Hemi Charger and now he's driving a Rolls-Royce, but he's the same person."
I ask him why Andy has been so silent lately, at a time when he has a new trainer and supposedly a new outlook. Wouldn't it make sense for him to be more public as he attempts to rehabilitate his image and career? His father says that part of his son's problem after becoming champion was "too much publicity." And the break with Robles was "nothing personal," necessitated by the lack of communication between fighter and trainer.
"I think Manny should have been more strict with Andy," he says. "It shouldn't be about what the fighter wants. You can't let them get on top of you. It has to be, 'We're going to do this, and this is the way to do it.' Manny learned something, and we learned something too. Eddy Reynoso is going to say, 'This is the way we're going to train, like it or don't like it.' That's what Manny needed to do."
Robles says, "I didn't give up on Andy. He gave up on himself."
On the phone with Ruiz Sr., I mention Robles' frustration with Andy, a 30-year-old professional, and the trainer's contention that he can't train a fighter who doesn't show up to the gym. "What would you say is Andy's responsibility in all of this?" I ask.
I wait for an answer that never comes. The phone goes dead. Subsequent calls immediately clicked to voicemail. The mailbox was full.
BACK IN DECEMBER, two days after Ruiz lost his belt, a TMZ reporter interviewed him as he walked through baggage claim at Los Angeles International Airport after returning from Saudi Arabia. The reporter is a classic of the tabloid genre, egging Ruiz on with flattery while coaxing him to answer questions about his failure to train. It's a master class in passive-aggressive manipulation.
"It could have happened to anybody," Ruiz says. "You know, I was having so much fun. ... Celebrating too much, a few too many Coronas."
Here the interviewer laughs hyenically, and Ruiz joins in, clearly believing he has found someone -- finally -- who understands. "What was your favorite meal while you were training?" he is asked.
"Oh, I think I pretty much ate everything," Ruiz says, and the hyena goes turbo. Flores stands slightly behind Ruiz's right shoulder, the look on his face indicating he has reservations about the prudence of this interview.
Ruiz soldiers on.
"Even out of shape, even the way I was training, I did pretty good, dude," he says. "I did pretty good."
The interviewer agrees with a vigor not often found in human interaction. "You're a legend," the TMZ guy tells Ruiz, who smiles and nods and heads across the street toward a black Suburban. A man in a black suit is waiting, holding the door open to whatever comes next.