YOU CAN EARN $75 A WEEK AND MORE.
That was the come-on printed on the leaflet 12-year-old Rafael Ruelas found nailed to a North Hollywood tree in 1984. He dashed home and told his older brother Gabriel about it. "What do we have to do?" asked Gabe.
"Sell candy," said Rafael.
And so from door to door the two Mexican kids went, huckstering boxes of peanut brittle and caramel nut clusters in a Spanish-flavored English, until one day Gabriel stumbled into a boxing gym. Stashing his candy in the bushes, he asked a big guy on a stool, "Who's the coach?"
February 6, 1995
"Me," growled the big guy. "Whaddya want?"
"To be a fighter."
"Sorry, son. I don't train amateurs. I can't help you."
Just as Gabriel was about to shuffle out the door, one of the regulars in the gym said, "Give him a shot. I like what I see in his eyes."
So the big guy, Joe Goossen, gave him a shot. And as soon as the 13-year-old Gabe put gloves on and threw his first punch, Goossen says, he knew he had a fighter. A month later Goossen let Gabe bring his kid brother in as a sparring partner. Rafael turned out to be a good one, himself. So good that last Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas the $75-a-week Candy Kids earned more than $550,000 for about a half hour's work. Gabriel picked up $250,000 for defending his WBC super featherweight crown, earning a second-round TKO over Fred Liberatore. Rafael got $300,000 for his defense of his TBF lightweight belt, annihilating Billy Schwer by an eighth-round TKO. They also get a piece of the pay-per-view take. No wonder they call it the sweet science.
Separated by a mere nine months, the Ruelas boys—Rafael is now 23, Gabe, 24—represent two sides of the same peso. Rafael is smoother than a Hershey's Kiss, says Goossen, and Gabriel's nuttier than a Payday bar. The former is a somewhat reticent lad with a passion for two-door BMWs and three-piece suits; the latter is chummy, casual and louder than his flannel shirts. An excellent student, Rafael finished North Hollywood High a year early. The class clown, Gabriel dropped out in his senior year. After overpowering James Leija last September to win his title, Gabriel returned to visit the school, expecting a hero's welcome. "Unfortunately, none of the teachers remembered him," his wife, Leslie, says. "Why should they? He never went to class."
The Ruelases are as distinctive with gloves on as they are with them off. Gabriel, who's 40-2 with 22 knockouts, is not a macho man, and his punches don't go boom-boom, but he's smart and stealthy. "He's an effortless boxer who kind of wings it as he goes," says Goossen. "Rafael has to work harder and punch more." By employing a defensive strategy that amounts to absorbing as many punches as he throws, the younger Ruelas has built a record of 43-1 with 34 knockouts.
On Saturday, Gabriel decked Liberatore with the very first punch he threw—a left hook. After that the onetime Long Island fishmonger floundered along, his face hideously filleted by Gabe's blows. The end came at the close of Round 2 when the ring doctor stopped the fight because of a severe cut near Liberatore's left eye. Rafael, too, made mincemeat of his opponent. Staggered by a right uppercut in the second, Rafael straightened up and pounced on Schwer with a blizzard of straight rights and left hooks. By the fifth, Rafael's long pipe-stem arms had opened cuts above both the British contender's eyes. Awkward yet relentless, Rafael didn't let up until referee Mills Lane, swayed by Schwer's bleeding mug, called the bout. Both challengers had to be hospitalized. "You fight the Ruelas boys," offered promoter Bob Arum, "and, unfortunately, that's the way you wind up."
Though he can be extravagantly vicious inside the ropes, Rafael finds an almost Zen-like tranquility there. "When I'm boxing, I'm away from distractions, at peace with myself," he says. "It's like reading a good book." He especially recommends the autobiography of Mickey Rooney. "You'd be surprised at how interesting his life was," Rafael says earnestly. "He had eight wives. There are a lot of stories there."
Books, Gabriel doesn't care for. "I'd rather watch Barney Fife on the old Andy Griffith Show," he says. "I like Barney, but I hate him. He's so good at being stupid that he gets me mad." Edgy anger is what attracts Gabriel to prizefighting. "I like the feeling of wanting to tear someone's head off," he says. "And I like the tension of being best at something. Rafael was always the best at selling candy. He made lots of money and won a VCR in a national contest. Me, I never wanted to be a salesman. I had to buy my own candy to keep from getting fired. But boxing is different. I want to be the best fighter so I can sell my little house and buy a bigger house."
Frugal Rafael still lives with his parents in Sylmar, Calif. Lavish Gabriel lives only 15 minutes away, in West Hollywood, with Leslie, their infant son, Diego, and more than 200 pairs of shoes. "He's a regular Imelda Marcos," says Leslie. "He leaves shoes everywhere: in the kitchen, the trunk of his car, the baby's crib." The collection is limited to sneakers and work boots. "No dress shoes," says Gabriel. "That's Rafael's style, not mine."
Gabriel's style amounts to giving away shoes he no longer wants. He unloaded footlockers full at a December garage sale: Many pairs were identical, some had never been worn. "I don't keep buying shoes just to have more," Gabriel says sheepishly. "I buy them because when I was small, I never had any."
He and Rafael grew up with 11 brothers and sisters on a cattle ranch in Yerba Buena, Mexico, outside Guadalajara. The Ruelases lacked not only shoes but also phones, electricity and leisure activities. Gabriel and Rafael remember how they felt when they moved to Southern California and saw kids playing marbles. "We had never seen children playing anything before," Gabriel says. "Where we're from, all they did was work."
Chores began every morning at five, when Gabriel and Rafael went out to feed the cattle. Shoeless Gabe wore the huaraches his father made from the hide of one of his slaughtered cows. On very cold days Gabriel's toes would go numb in the sandals. "My father would have to slap my feet to get the circulation back," Gabriel recalls.
One morning a kid from Guadalajara came to visit. "Look!" Gabriel called out to his brother. "He's got shoes!" That night Gabriel dreamed the shoes were on his feet. "But when I woke up, the only thing on them was dirt," he says. "I've never been more disappointed."
Hoping his sons could escape grinding poverty and make something of themselves, Papa Ruelas packed them off to the U.S. when Gabriel was eight and Rafael seven. The brothers slipped across the border brandishing phony birth certificates and settled in Sun Valley, Calif., with their older sister Victoria and her family. It would be seven years before the two boys saw their parents again. "We had no photos of them," Gabriel says. "I remember crying in my bed because I had forgotten my mother's face."
Before they had a chance to see their folks, Goossen became the boys' surrogate father, advising, exhorting, protecting. "I had a deep affection for them," he says. "They were unlike any kids I knew. They were as cute as puppies, yet they trained as if they were challenging for the undisputed championship of the universe." The boys would show up at Goossen's gym every afternoon at 3:30 sharp. "I told them if they were a minute late, I'd send them home," he says. "Well, they were never a second late."
When strapped for cash, Gabriel scrounged up bus money by selling his school lunch pass or by ironing clothes. Rafael, who at age 16 had applied for and obtained green cards for himself and Gabriel, found work with an attorney who wanted him to recruit immigrants seeking citizenship. After bringing in more than 100 applicants over three months, Rafael decided to go into business for himself. At 17 he helped dozens of aliens, including his brothers, sisters and parents, apply for green cards.
To this day, he and Gabe continue to champion the rights of their countrymen. Gabriel has been a vocal critic of California's Proposition 187, which would deny all benefits except emergency medical care to the state's estimated 1.7 million illegal immigrants. He supports the current WBC boycott that prohibits him from fighting in California. "I am grateful for what the U.S. has done for me," he says. "But I'd rather see Prop 187 hurt me than a lot of other people."
Sticking to principle has further endeared the Ruelases to the state's Latino population, a point seemingly lost on Governor Pete Wilson. Before last year's elections Wilson planned to award the brothers special citations. To avoid embarrassment, however, Wilson's staff requested that they fax in copies of their green cards. Gabriel and Rafael were modestly miffed. To date, their green cards remain unfaxed, and the citations have gone unawarded.
The same stubborn streak nearly ended Gabriel's career. Six rounds into a 1990 fight a scaring pain shot through his right elbow. Though Gabriel's arm hung limply between rounds, he wanted to continue, and Goossen encouraged him to keep fighting. "I figured he had hyperextended the joint," Goossen says. "It was one of the greatest blunders of my life." Midway through Round 7, Gabriel's arm was twisted badly in a clinch, and the elbow snapped in two. When Gabriel swooned into his corner, the ref halted the bout.
Gabe's elbow required one bone graft, five screws and 10 months to heal. Three inches shorter and slightly bowed, the arm no longer packs a mule-kick punch. Yet it's no less effective. Gabriel used identical right uppercuts to knock down Leija in the second and 12th rounds of their '94 title fight. "The injury has made Gabe a more patient, intelligent fighter," Goossen says. "He couldn't remain a brawler and survive. He had to learn to box."
Rafael, on the other hand, had to learn to count. Floored in the second round of a '91 fight with Mauro Gutierrez, he stayed down on one knee and waited for his trainer's signal. But Rafael lost track of the count. "Get up!" screamed Goossen. "Ten!" screamed the ref. "——!" screamed Rafael, who suffered his lone defeat. "Rafael got a ton of publicity for the mistake, and I got a ton of ridicule," says Goossen. "At least it taught him that getting knocked down isn't necessarily the end of the world." That lesson came in handy last February during Rafael's phone booth war with lightweight champ Freddie Pendleton. Felled twice in the opening round, Rafael, a 3-to-l underdog, never quit advancing, outworked Pendleton and won a 12-round decision. "Even in camp, Rafael brutalizes his opponents," Goossen says. "He's on them like a soup sandwich."
Goossen's own approach to training borders on loosey goosey. He keeps a mascot—a pet Chihuahua named Pippin—in his coat pocket. He has fighters alternate fight tapes with videos of the Comedy Channel's Mystery Science Theater 2000 (George Foreman's performance against Michael Moorer is as hotly debated as Bela Lugosi's in Plan Nine from Outer Space). And he emcees endless rounds of Balderdash, a game of bluff and counterbluff in which players try to guess the correct definition of an obscure word. Goossen and his goslings spent last Tuesday evening bobbing, weaving and feinting over the meaning of terms like bobabza, flummadiddle and schlenter.
"Schlenter?" repeated Rafael. "Is that a brand of kosher salami?"
"I say it means 'champion,' " offered Gabriel.
"What's wrong with kosher salami?" someone asked.
"Nothing," said Gabriel. "I just like the sound of champion."