After The Gloves Came Off
Flamboyant manager Norm Stone and sullen world champ John Ruiz turned winning ugly into an art form, then wound up fighting with each other. The ballad of one of the most potent and colorful partnerships—and epic breakups—in Boston sports.
There was boxing at the Castle, the converted armory on Arlington Street, on a warm night in mid-July. Perhaps 500 people filled the building’s main hall, filing into the rows of folding chairs set up around the ring or hanging around in the back drinking beer. Norm Stone stood near the pizza table, receiving. A boxer he manages, Joe McCreedy, a 22-year-old light-heavyweight from Lowell with a 5-1 record, was scheduled to fight later that evening.
Everybody came by to say hello to Stone—reporters, cops, boxers, managers, trainers, fans. Men shook his hand, slapped him on the shoulder, introduced the family. A few unconsciously broadened their own Massachusetts accents to match his, which is of weapons grade. Women he’d never met before kissed his cheek, some diffidently, as if leaning into a cage to kiss a grizzly, and some boldly, as if they knew he was really a teddy bear.
A solid fellow with a paunch and a shock of white hair, Stone cultivates a down-curving piratical mustache that makes him look like Hulk Hogan’s smaller, smarter, dirtier-fighting brother. His epic bug-outs have made him a celebrity in the fight world. Boxing fans have grown used to seeing Stone in a red-faced choking passion, trading punches and grappling with the opponent’s cornermen, restrained by security guards, screaming curses (You cuocksackah!) that non–New Englanders require subtitles to comprehend. Over the past two decades he has turned getting mad on his fighter’s behalf into an art form.
From 1988 to 2005, that fighter was John Ruiz, a heavyweight from Chelsea with a dogged, mauling style. With Stone in his corner as manager, cut man, head cheerleader, sometime trainer, and full-time fount of contagious aggression, Ruiz rose from obscure Boston-area scraps to the world stage and a heavyweight title. Fans and the fight press and the TV networks all complained that Ruiz was boring in the ring and out, but he overachieved heroically, outworking and outlasting an impressive roster of opponents as he ran up a record that, as of this writing, stands at 41-7 with one draw. As much as for his unpretty fights, Ruiz became known for his and Stone’s rare mutual loyalty. Don King, the virtuosic maker and breaker of alliances who has promoted most of Ruiz’s bouts since 1998, told me, “They were like the Corsican Brothers. If you cut one, the other bleeds. When you got a person like Stone in your corner, the support is unparalleled and unprecedented.” But the fight world’s reptilian ethos acts as a solvent on any warm-blooded relationship, no matter how close. Even Stone and Ruiz didn’t stay together for good.
For Stone, this Wednesday night at the Castle was a long way from championship fights in Las Vegas and seven-figure purses. The promoter running the show had agreed to put McCreedy on the undercard and pay him $800 only after the fighter committed to selling 75 tickets to his supporters. Still, ESPN2 was covering the main event, and McCreedy’s four-round bout had a chance to make it onto the broadcast, which would be a nice break for the kid. The cameras represented the attention of the wider world, a reminder that what happened here could matter to an audience that extended far beyond the handfuls of rooters from Dorchester or Haverhill who’d come out to cheer on their own. Stone himself was living proof of the connection between local and global. A son of Kensington Avenue in East Somerville, he had gone out with Ruiz into the great beyond, conquered it, and returned to his people. Today, the toughest guy in the neighborhood; tomorrow, champion of the world. That, after all, is the story of Stone and Ruiz, regular guys who made it big together. King called them brothers; other fight people liken them to a father and son, or a married couple. Before they broke up, that is.
In 2005, not long after Ruiz lost his title by close and dubious decision to a plodding 7-foot Russian named Nikolay Valuev, Stone announced he would no longer manage Ruiz. He said he was retiring to spend more time with his grandchildren. One could imagine, of course, that he must have a life beyond boxing, and he was indeed married and had a son and daughter and two young grandchildren, but it was difficult to accept that Stone would relinquish his livelihood at the age of 54 to spend his days dandling little darlings who couldn’t walk or talk yet, let alone throw proper punches. Stone and Ruiz had come back from far more crushing setbacks than a controversial loss by split decision in Germany, where you have to decapitate a homestanding favorite and bury the head separate from the body in order to get the win. Ruiz was still a top-tier heavyweight, and he had lost and regained the title before. It seemed mysteriously out of character for Norm Stone to give up on him.
Go on to the next page for more…
The highlight reel of Stone’s raging meltdowns—and there have been many—includes the prefight brawl in 2003 with Roy Jones Jr.’s trainer over the selection of boxing gloves, and the drama at the Andrew Golota bout in 2004, during which Stone threatened to throttle the opposing trainer, cursed out the ref, and finally got himself ejected. On his way out he declared, on camera, “This is a fuckin’ fixed fight.” Then there’s his swan song, the Valuev fight in Berlin. After the decision was rendered, Stone ripped the belt away from the hulking new champ and raised it in mock triumph. I like to revisit online a photograph of the ensuing melee in which Stone appears wonderfully intent on delivering a claw-handed shot to the face of some foreign SOB. In the image, Stone pulsates with anger, and yet he also seems strangely relaxed, even fulfilled.
Theatrical calculation went into these episodes, which Stone employed to protect his fighter’s interests, pump him up, and reinforce the bond between them (See how far I’m willing to go for you?). “If they’re on me,” Stone told me more than once, “they’re off him.” But the tantrums also brought Stone a great deal of attention. Once they became his signature, he seemed to feel obliged to satisfy the audience’s expectations.
While Stone provided the histrionics and zingers, Ruiz, dubbed “The Quiet Man,” played it strong and silent and ground out the wins. The arrangement seemed to suit them. When at a press affair an opponent would say he was going to kick Ruiz’s ass and everybody turned to Ruiz for a retort, slow-mounting ire would flicker around the corners of his mouth and eyes, but, after a well-timed beat, it was Stone who responded. Ruiz would nod along, receding in on himself, the drummer keeping time behind the horn player.
Whether managing Ruiz’s fighting career or conducting his own, more informal one in his roistering youth, Stone has never been an x’s-and-o’s man. He knows more about feeling than technique. I once asked him what attributes he values in a boxer, and he promptly answered, “First, the heart. Really, the balls.” Of “Irish, English, and French Canadian” descent, he grew up in Somerville, then left from 1967 to 1971 to serve in the Army in Germany and Vietnam. He had dabbled in boxing since first visiting a gym at the age of seven, but he was really a self-taught brawler. “I fought in the service,” he told me. When I asked what kind
of fighter he was, he said, “I was a drunk fighter.” When I asked whether he was more of a tactical boxer or a free-swinging puncher, he said, “Depends what I was drinking. When I went into a bar, I expected to get in a fight. I didn’t always win, but I always fought.”
After he got back home, Stone drove buses for the MBTA. In the early 1980s, he started hanging around with his friend Gabe LaMarca at the Somerville Boxing Club, where he first encountered Ruiz, then a reedy, close-mouthed teenager. “I was sober a while by then. I seen this kid was riding his bike from Chelsea to the gym. To ride by Charlestown when you’re Puerto Rican, that’s something. We became friendly. I talked to some people, set up a salary for him.”
Trained by LaMarca and managed by Stone, Ruiz started moving up and getting better. But even as he grew into a heavyweight to be reckoned with, he showed why he would always be difficult to sell as an attraction. “We’d drive six and a half hours to the fight and six and a half hours back, and not a word,” recalls Stone. “I knew what he was about. He wasn’t comfortable with people, and it was uncomfortable for everybody else. They complained about it. Made him a hard fighter to raise money for. But I knew he was gonna be good. He had it.”
Go on to the next page for more…
By 1996, Ruiz had put together a string of grueling victories that made it impossible to ignore him. He got his big break, a fight on HBO. The opponent was David Tua, a booming puncher well on his way to stardom. Beating Tua would set Ruiz on the path to a title shot. But Tua blasted him out in just 19 seconds, still the only time Ruiz has ever been knocked out. “A lot of people lost confidence in him,” says Stone. “Nobody wanted him on TV. HBO hated him. I couldn’t sell him to a fuckin’ glue factory.”
Humiliated, Ruiz sank into deep despair. He didn’t want to show his face at his own gym. Stone set to work on his fighter, convincing him that Tua had caught him with a lucky punch because Ruiz hadn’t warmed up enough before the fight. Stone promised he would never let that happen again. “I had to get him back into the gym to face his peers,” Stone says. “Took a couple of weeks. We sat down. We talked a lot. He didn’t do anything without me, I didn’t do anything without him. Finally, Johnny said, ‘Get me the toughest guy out there. Let me see what I got.’” Stone started him out with easy matchups, working him back up the competitive ladder. “I had to do the right thing. Build him up. Protect him, and my investment.” The loss to Tua had seemed like the end, but as Stone says now, “that’s the one that made us.”
Ruiz, his confidence painstakingly rebuilt, went on another impressive streak after the Tua fight, winning 11 in a row over the next three years, 10 by knockout, taking out several prospects and the fading ex-champ Tony Tucker. That earned him a title fight in 2000 with Evander Holyfield, a future hall-of-famer best known for defeating Mike Tyson. Ruiz lost on a debatable close decision, then beat Holyfield convincingly in a rematch, then fought him to a draw in a third fight. Ruiz emerged from this brutal trilogy with the World Boxing Association’s belt in hand, lost it, got it back, and defended it with honor, beating another series of talented big men—among them Kirk Johnson, Hasim Rahman, Andrew Golota, and Fres Oquendo—many of whom had been favored over him.
Stone handled Ruiz’s business with comparable bulldog valor. “Stoney was always on me,” Don King told me. “Always on me. In the morning, Stoney. In the afternoon, Stoney. I couldn’t breathe. ‘Jawny! You gotta think of Jawny! Do this for Jawny!’ Tylenol made a million dollars off me with Stoney.” King laughed his Old Scratch laugh. “Stoney was always fighting for Johnny. He just wants his man to win. That’s why he gets thrown out of fights. That’s why he yells and screams. He became more of an attraction than Ruiz. It made him look bad, but no one can deny the fervent passion and love for Johnny Ruiz. Even to his own detriment.” A note of wonder had crept into King’s voice. He couldn’t fathom loyalty powerful enough to trump self-interest, but he admired it. “They say of lawyers that they’re supposed to fall on their sword for their clients. He must have daggers all through his ass.”
Promoters and TV networks complained that Ruiz was a bad draw, but he still managed to earn some good paydays. With Stone at his side, he brought in more than $5 million in purses for the Holyfield trilogy, $1.5 million to wear out Johnson, another $1.1 million to soldier through a 12-round boxing lesson from the incomparable tactician James Toney. It wasn’t Tyson money, but it added up. “If you look back over the history of the heavyweights,” says Eric Bottjer, a respected matchmaker who worked for King during Ruiz’s championship run, “there are a lot of guys with John Ruiz’s abilities who didn’t make a tenth of what he made.”
Go on to the next page for more…
I met Ruiz for breakfast one summer morning in Copley Square. Watching him approach across the crowded plaza, what stood out most about him was how little he stood out. He was a former world champion, after all. Lennox Lewis, the last generally recognized preeminent heavyweight, had given up a belt to avoid fighting him. And yet Ruiz wasn’t particularly imposing; he somehow seemed smaller than 6 foot 2 and 245 pounds. He was out of training at the time, his face a bit pouchy under heavy stubble. In polo shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops, he projected no special aura of power or physical pride.
Over a spilled drink or some other typical provocation, your average weightlifter might well take a quick look at Ruiz and miss the mashed nose and air of bland competence and decide that it would be all right to confront him. Obliged to choose between facing down Ruiz or Norm Stone in a rage, such a guy might even choose Ruiz as the lesser problem. This would be a hideous mistake, but an understandable one. The popular ideal of a heavyweight boxer, inspired by Tyson, is a pop-muscled cartoon of menace. It would have been news to almost everybody who passed Ruiz on the plaza that at no time in the past decade would Tyson’s handlers have dared let him anywhere near this vaguely put-upon-looking guy with a fade haircut a little rucked up on one side from bed. Ruiz would have made Tyson cry and quit.
To understand why, you have to understand Ruiz’s fighting style, which minimizes his opponent’s advantages and maximizes Ruiz’s own advantages in conditioning and strength of body and will. Ruiz specializes in being nine miles of bad road, beating men who are bigger, quicker, and graced with more radiant athleticism by dragging them into a contest of wills. He can hit, but he also clinches and mauls, putting his body on the other man to wear him down rather than exchanging clean, crowd-pleasing punches.
“The best way I can put it,” Ruiz said over pancakes and fruit, “this guy I beat, Jerry Ballard, in the [post-fight] press conference he said, ‘Hey, man, you looked so skinny. I felt your jabs in the first round and I thought, No problem. But by the third round they were like cement blocks.’” The cunning application of brawn, the shoving and hauling, wearies a fighter to the point that he’s vulnerable to punches that didn’t hurt early on. “That’s what breaks them down.”
People who fetishize pumped physiques might not appreciate that the smooth-bodied Ruiz is the stronger and
better-conditioned man in almost every fight. “He is strong,” agreed Holyfield, who is so stacked with defined muscle that he resembles an anatomical doll. “He would hold, push, mess up my game.” Just talking about it on the phone made Holyfield tired. “If I had to choose to fight a guy, I wouldn’t choose to fight John Ruiz.”
After holding on for a while at the top, Ruiz appeared to begin a gradual decline from his prime as he entered his thirties. As he did, the symbiotic balance between fighter and manager went seriously off-kilter. Gabe LaMarca had quit in 2003, Ruiz says, after falling out with Stone over money, and Stone, who took on the trainer’s duties, was growing ever more operatic, as if trying to compensate for Ruiz’s waning aggression. All his grandest bug-outs date from this stretch. Ruiz, who had always relied on being in better shape than his opponent, began cutting corners in training. “Johnny would never miss a day’s work, but he started missing days,” Stone said. “Johnny lost it. It just wasn’t there.” By “it” he meant the essential will to fight. “Me, as close as I was to him, I tried pressing him and pressing him. But everything became an excuse, and Johnny wasn’t a guy to have excuses.”
Go on to the next page for more…
Ruiz acknowledges that he slipped. “Since I won the championship, it’s been nothing but a downslide for me as the team came apart. It affected me mentally and physically. It affected my training.” The problem, he believes, was Stone, who was never a good enough businessman to exploit Ruiz’s status as the first Hispanic heavyweight champion and didn’t have the boxing mind to help him adjust to top-flight competition as Ruiz entered fistic middle age. Telegenic emoting didn’t make up for these deficiencies.
Ruiz traces the beginning of the end all the way back to 1998. “Things started getting a little more crazy when we signed up with Don King. For Stoney, it was like the world was his oyster. The more he talked, the more he wanted to talk. The more he got on television, the more he wanted to be on television. In my mind he did too much, in his mind he didn’t do enough. The weird part is he actually felt he was the fighter and the trainer, the manager, the promoter. I was like a phantom that came in the ring and left; that was one thing that felt kind of awkward.” Ruiz can talk when he wants to, obviously. I asked if his Quiet Man persona had been exaggerated by Stone’s tendency to suck up all the available air. Ruiz smiled thinly and said, “I wanted him to get publicity, set me up with reporters, and they were calling Stoney and he wasn’t even telling me.”
Ruiz came to regard Stone’s dramatics as not just distracting and embarrassing but also dangerous. While Stone describes his ejection from the Golota fight as akin to a baseball manager getting himself thrown out to inspire his team—and Ruiz did win enough late rounds to squeeze out a decision—Ruiz told me, “Hey, he took the cut stuff,” the coagulants and other treatments that a corner uses to keep cuts and swelling from becoming so grave that the ring doctor stops the fight. “I asked him, ‘What would have happened if I got cut?’ There was no cut stuff. I would’ve lost the fight because he acted up.”
They also came to disagree about Ruiz’s fighting style. “In the gym, he never done that shit, grabbing and holding,” Stone told me. “He was flawless. But on fight night you get the fuckin’ grappla. That style was safe for him, so he kept doing it. Half of the things you tell a fighter, it goes in one ear and out the other. If he had done in the ring what he done in the gym, he’d have been making 25 million a fight.” Ruiz, for his part, now says Stone and LaMarca made him one-dimensional. “When I was a kid, my stepfather taught me all kinds of boxing styles,” he said. “He would watch a fight on TV, then we’d try to do whatever he’d seen. I was knocking more guys out when I was younger.” It was Stone, he said, who pushed him to clinch more and punch less, turning a fight into an endurance test. “My stepfather stopped coming around the gym,” Ruiz said, “and I wondered about that. Later I found out that Stone told him to stay away. He wanted control.”
The breakup of Ruiz and Stone has produced the bizarre situation in which each now blames the other for the very tactics that allowed Ruiz to knock off so many gifted opponents and become champion. Eric Bottjer, the matchmaker, told me that the former partners can’t yet fully appreciate what they accomplished together. “When a marriage ends, things are said, things you regret, but then later you let that anger go. Right now they’re mad, but when these guys are older and they sit back, they’ll see how much they did for each other.”
Go on to the next page for more…
Stone and Ruiz disagree, of course, about who broke up with whom. When, over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Wilmington, I asked Stone for his version of what happened, he turned to his lawyer, who sat silently across from us in the booth, and asked, “Can I say I didn’t retire?” The lawyer considered, then nodded. Stone turned back to me and said, “I didn’t retire. Tony Cardinale fired me.” He was referring to Ruiz’s longtime lawyer and adviser. Stone said he asked Ruiz why he had been fired. “Johnny said, ‘You got a little crazy.’” Then, according to Stone, Ruiz told him to say he was retiring, rather than that he’d been let go. “‘That’ll soften the blow.’” Stone says he ended up going along with the sham as one last sacrifice for his fighter.
“I never fired Stoney,” Ruiz told me, “and Tony didn’t fire him, either. I did tell him, ‘I want you to be part of the team—we stick together from the beginning to the end—but I want you to be more in the background.’” Stone couldn’t handle that, Ruiz says. “Look, if he could’ve been around the fight and said everything and not got paid, he would rather have that than get paid and be in the background.”
Stone’s exile was a 15-month nightmare of seething tedium. “I just sat home and didn’t do anything. Got up, had a coffee and a muffin, that was my day.” He knocked around the house, aimless, gagging on anger and shame. “John was like my son. I gave everything for that kid. I had a bad taste in my mouth.” Throwing himself so completely into the partnership now felt like a sucker’s mistake. “I made an asshole of myself and then I’m looking for the train and they’re on it and it’s gone. Him and the lawyer are riding the train, and I’m still at the station. John made a lot of money. I didn’t get paid for the work I done. That’s the bottom line.” The manager got his contracted cut over the years, but, as he sees it, Ruiz has at least a couple of million additional dollars that Stone should be passing on to his own grandchildren. “Johnny Ruiz was part of my family. I robbed Peter and gave to Paul, and Paul to give to John. I took out three mortgages on my house. I could have gotten a full pension from the T. I could be on easy street. How could he be so ungrateful? But people start whispering in his ear. When that happens, the guy closest to you is the first to go.”
Fight people sue each other all the time. It’s how they get paid, get even, register strong feeling, or demand respect. The breakup of Stone and Ruiz will end up in court, where money provides the means to keep emotional score. Whatever the ou
tcome of the case, each man will need to go on with his life. Stone, who is 56, says people call all the time asking him to manage this fighter or that one. Ruiz is 35, “old for a fighter,” as he says, but the younger heavyweights at the top of the division strike him as eminently beatable. He’s going to make one more run at a title.
Manny Siaca’s gym is under the bleachers by a running track in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, outside San Juan. Its concrete ceiling rises overhead in stairstep fashion; in the cavelike gloom below, heavy bags, sit-up benches, a speed bag, a rickety weight bench, and other tools of the trade are crammed into the margins around a single ring with unpadded ropes that burn a fighter’s back when he sags against them. Worn, stained mats and sheets of plywood cover the concrete floor. Mosquitos abound. The walls sweat in the wet heat. On one of them is painted a list of the world champions Siaca has trained.
Go on to the next page for more…
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-September, Ruiz was the only fighter on the premises. He looked good—bulkier than ever in the chest and shoulders, and already close to his prime fighting weight of 235 pounds. Stripped to the waist, slicked with sweat, he toiled through a two-hour workout: shadowboxing, jumping rope, hitting pads held by his trainer, hitting the heavy bag and speed bag. Ruiz, who lived briefly in Puerto Rico as a child, had gone back to basics there: weights in the morning, boxing in the afternoon, roadwork at night; eat heartily and sleep well; repeat. He seemed pleased with the simplicity of the daily life he woke up to. Living in a rented condo in Old San Juan with his second wife and newly christened baby, he worked hard every day, honing himself. “I feel rejuvenated here, training, going into a fight prepared,” he said as he stretched, rotating his body at the hips and bending from side to side. It was a relief to be with a veteran trainer. Without Stone on hand to egg him on, he was taking a quieter, almost contemplative approach. Concentrating on refining his technique had rekindled his love of craft.
There was something different about the way Ruiz carried himself in the punching drills. Siaca had altered his balance, resetting it so that Ruiz stayed back on his feet a bit more and was less inclined to dive forward at an opponent when he threw a punch. He also turned his hips and shoulders more than before, improving the leverage of his blows. Siaca, lumpy and bespectacled, said, “You see? The punches, the power? Shorter, more chop.” It was a subtle shift, but potentially an important one, as it could well denature the headlong style he and Stone had developed together. He would hit more crisply, but it’s far from certain that a more conventional Ruiz, standing back to throw more punches that might well win over more fans, could still break a man down. “We have seen Ruiz with Norm Stone,” as Don King put it. “Now we will see him without.”
Ruiz would fight somebody soon, but he didn’t know who, where, or when. Maybe King would line up a marquee bout for him with a highly ranked contender, the short path to another title shot. Or he might meet a make-work opponent or two first, while Cardinale angled for a bigger fight. All he could do was train hard and try to be ready.
A former champion who fights past his prime runs the risk of hanging on too long and becoming reliably beatable. Then he becomes a trial horse, a name that younger contenders can put on their résumé to establish their bona fides on the way to their own title shot. Such men in decline typically say they feel great. They always believe they’ve still got it, even as they absorb too much late-career damage. Ruiz would have to fight in order to find out which he was: a rejuvenated craftsman or a bereft singleton Corsican Brother who couldn’t beat the best without his foaming soul mate.
Ruiz finished his workout at the speed bag. Its familiar clatter rose and filled the gym. He rocked from one foot to the other, alternating wrapped hands, in his rhythm, entirely consumed in doing it properly.
Go on to the next page for more…
After the split with Ruiz, Stone was sure he could never work with another fighter. “I was depressed, missing the gym. It was my life. I was in a bad state. But I didn’t realize alls I had to do was get off my ass and go to an AA meeting. It was ‘Poor me.’ Luckily, a friend of mine got out of jail and said, ‘C’mon, let’s go to a meeting,’ and bingo, I’m back in the life, at the gym. Guy called me, told me to take a look at Joe McCreedy. He needs a lot of work on his defense, but he’s a good kid, hard-workin’ kid. Doesn’t drink, no drugs.” Still, it was only after a great deal of hesitation that he agreed to manage the young boxer. “I wasn’t sold on it,” he said. “It’s here,” he said, pointing at his chest. “Gettin’ over Johnny.” Eventually, he talked himself into one more fling. “I’ll give it all I have, but I don’t know how much I do have. It’s been a long road.”
McCreedy’s mid-July bout at the Castle was supposed to help Stone figure out what his fighter had. In McCreedy’s last fight, in October 2006, his jaw had been broken on both sides. They had to find out if the repaired bones would hold up in the ring, and also whether disaster could inspire McCreedy to discover a deeper toughness and desire in himself, as Ruiz did after being knocked out by Tua. That was the plan, anyway, until the state boxing commission informed Stone shortly before the evening’s first bouts that McCreedy’s had been canceled. The opponent, a bearded guy from Maine with the bright-eyed, questioning look of a psycho, hadn’t gotten the required signatures on his medical paperwork.
Suddenly Stone and a tall black man from the commission were exchanging looks, stiffening, going into head-tilted pre-beef attitudes. “He threw me out of two fights,” Stone muttered to me, still holding the prospective opponent’s gaze with a hard little come-and-get-it smile. “I don’t know what his fuckin’ problem is.” Suits and uniforms intervened, and Stone let himself be steered away from trouble, but he and his nemesis continued to exchange yearning gazes.
The moment passed, though, and Stone just as swiftly regained his good humor when a two-year-old boy with a gorgeous head of tumbling dark golden ringlets ran up to him. Stone scooped him up in his arms, where he settled with regal familiarity. This was one of those grandchildren he had supposedly retired to spend time with. After a while Stone put the boy down, took him by the hand, and said, “Let’s go tell Joey he can’t fight.” To me, he said, “Joey’s gonna be bullshit.”
Fighters and their cornermen were getting ready in the basement, a dingy, cluttered space broken up by crumbling once-white brick columns. The crews were scattered around folding tables strewn with jars of Vaseline and rolls of white athletic tape. Satiny robes on hangers dangled from exposed pipes.
Stone found McCreedy, took him aside, and broke the bad news. The young man stared at the floor, miserable. “Things happen for a reason,” Stone said. “We don’t always know what the reason is. You got all your people here, you go up and see them. And you get your money. You get paid.” Stone put his arm around McCreedy’s sweatsuited shoulder and gave him a bucking-up squeeze. “Thank God nothin’ happened,” he went on, gently insistent. “We didn’t lose the fight. I’ll make some calls, see if we can
get you a fight quick. Okay? That’s why I hate this sport, but I love it, too. It’s bullshit, but it’s the greatest sport there is. So be a man. Go on up.” The grandson took it all in, wide-eyed.
This could be a bitterly wasted night for McCreedy, or it could turn out to be a small but telling moment for him—and for Stone, who forged his bond with Ruiz out of shared disappointment as well as hard work. The bond, more than anything else, is what brought him back. “What I’m lookin’ for now,” Stone told me, “is someone that’s gonna work hard, be at their own level, and not change.”