Published on Vice.com
Because it has always been a point of violence and contention, most folk heroes within Mexican culture come from the United States-Mexico borderland. During the era of Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush, there was Joaquin Murrieta. According to folklore, white miners took his land claim, raped his wife, murdered his step-brother, then publicly flogged Murrieta. Murrieta swore to attain revenge, and did. A few years later, in south Texas, Juan Cortina started his own war after defending Mexicans from the abuses of the Texas Rangers and other law enforcement entities.
There was Teresa Urrea. Before she arrived in Arizona in the late 1800s, her supposed miraculous healing powers inspired plots to overthrow the Mexican government. She was 19 years old when the Mexican government deported her. A few years later, again in south Texas, Gregorio Cortez shot a sheriff in self-defense. Texas Rangers and the hundreds of men involved in hunting him killed nine Mexicans in their search for Cortez.
And then there was Pancho Villa, who epitomizes everything these folk heroes were, not least of which is the divide between how they’re portrayed on the different sides of the border: as bandits or heroes, depending on who is judging, when, and where.
On the night of June 1st, Andy Ruiz Jr., who until that night was seemingly just another boxer disillusioned with the sport, became a folk hero.
In the third round, after he got knocked on his ass, Ruiz looked up at the referee counting to 10. He was down, and it felt unavoidable. And as his opponent, Anthony Joshua, the unified heavyweight champion of the world, waited with unnerving patience, that Ruiz would lose almost felt unavoidable.
The moment served as a reminder that Ruiz shouldn’t have even been there. As a late replacement, he had, as The Guardian put it, snatched the golden ticket, and was there to—if all went as planned—simply be the opponent in the highlights of Joshua’s first fight in the United States.
But Ruiz stood back up. He shook his head and raised his gloves to show he was fine. “Eight!” the referee yelled, inches from his face. “You alright?” he asked. “Yea,” Ruiz said. He looked alright. Then again, boxers train themselves to look calm and collected when everything inside them screams.
“Anthony Joshua is a composed and ferocious finisher,” the commentator said, expecting Ruiz’s end. “Watch this.”
The fight resumed and another of Joshua’s punches rocked Ruiz’s head back. Seemingly every bead of sweat flew from his head to the ring’s canvas and front rows. Ruiz kept fighting. And as Joshua threw an uppercut that—had it landed—would have knocked out Ruiz, the Mexican-American boxer responded with a left hook that staggered the boxing superstar.
A few seconds later, Joshua was on the ground. It was Joshua looking up at Ruiz standing above him. It was Joshua listening to the referee’s 10 count. And it was Joshua who looked vulnerable during what should have been his version of the British Invasion.
At that moment, it no longer mattered that Joshua and his team of managers, marketers, and promoters had come to Madison Square Garden to fight and, as he put it, “build up our name.” Nor did it matter that Joshua, a burgeoning global star, owner of three of the four heavyweight boxing titles, had ambitions of staggering wealth. “I need to be a billionaire,” he told GQ Magazine. That Joshua’s goal was realistic shows the shine of his star. But at that moment, it was all falling apart.
A few sitting ringside with a vested interest in Joshua’s success could do nothing but stare while wearing their expensive suits, like they were watching the feed of their home’s security camera through their phones. Helpless, they watched in anguish as a thief broke into their safe built to hold a billion.
Suddenly, Ruiz’s words before the fight—”Don’t underestimate this little fat boy,” Ruiz warned Joshua. “I’m coming for you.”—didn’t seem like the delusions of someone trying to sell themselves as a legitimate opponent.
Little fat boy. Compared to Joshua—6’6″ and 250 pounds of chiseled muscle—it was true. Joshua is built like a comic book superhero; Ruiz was his opposite in more ways than just physically.
As soon as he won the 2012 Olympic gold medal in front of his British home crowd, the charismatic Joshua looked like a star. He became, as his biographer explained, “Britain’s great heavyweight hope.” Everywhere he went, crowds followed. In what became the largest boxing attendance in Britain since World War II, he fought in front of 90,000 adoring fans at Wembley Stadium. Whatever city he fought in, the local economy spiked. And because one of boxing’s old adages says, “as the heavyweights go, so goes boxing,” it was only natural for Joshua to become the latest among those charged with returning the sport to its past glory. A few months before fighting Ruiz, ESPN the Magazine even featured Joshua on one of its last covers. That was who Joshua was.
Ruiz had also tried to become an Olympic hero. When he didn’t qualify for the Mexican national team, hurting, Ruiz almost lost his entire career before it began. He weighed almost 350 pounds by the time he returned to the sport. During various parts of his career, he appeared unmotivated. He’d cancel bouts and explain he was “not mentally prepared to fight.” From fighting on the undercard of Manny Pacquaio pay-per-view events to fighting, still as the undercard, in a Fresno casino, Ruiz wasn’t even treading water, but slowly sinking. When he at last got his break, a former manager sued him days before fighting for a world title. The manager said Ruiz owned him a third of his earnings. He claimed he had not made “one dime in profit from the six years” managing Ruiz through multiple drug-related suspensions. When Ruiz fought for the title—a fight he called the best opportunity of his life and would die trying to win—he lost. Fifteen months passed before he fought again. That was who Ruiz was.
What he became, after knocking down Joshua three more times, was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. And almost immediately after beating Joshua in the 7th round, as he jumped up and down in the ring’s center, Ruiz became an important symbol to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans on both sides of the border.
Part of the reason is because that label—HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING CHAMPION OF THE WORLD—has never been just a claim about someone’s prowess in the ring. It’s always meant more.
As Jack Johnson fought on the day after Christmas in 1908, he saw a man who stood out among the Australian crowd. The fight was so uncompetitive that Johnson focused on that man. Almost two decades later, Johnson still remembered seeing “one of the very few colored people present” sitting on a fence. The man’s mouth and eyes were wide open as if he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“I became more and more interested in him,” Johnson wrote, “he was fighting harder than I was. Whenever I unlimbered a blow, he, too, shot one into the air landing it on an imaginary antagonist.” When Johnson moved to avoid a punch, that man on the fence also moved. Mimicking every movement Johnson made, the man inevitably fell off the fence. Johnson laughed and then, on that day, became the first African-American to become boxing’s heavyweight world champion.
A few years later, when Johnson lost that title to Jess Willard, the New York Times noted “the satisfaction over the victory of the white man was general and obvious.” They said even those that didn’t follow boxing would feel it. A few days after defeating Johnson in Cuba, Willard landed in Florida, where police struggled to control the crowd running and cutting ropes and trampling fences just to get near Willard. His spokesman then vowed the new heavyweight world champion would never fight another Black man. And in the years after Willard became what the newspaper of record called “a ‘White Hope’ who at last made good,” the photograph of him standing over a fallen Jack Johnson became a common decoration in speakeasies and saloons.
After Johnson, 22 years passed before another African-American became heavyweight champion. That was Joe Louis. He was, as Gerald Early explains, the “anti-Johnson, not nearly so brash, his interracial love affairs hidden, his studied indifference to his white opponents a source of calm, unlike Johnson’s outspoken confidence which proved provocative.” Despite his carefully-crafted image, Louis was no less important to those who saw and recognized something of themselves in him. When he won, the streets of Harlem overflowed in celebration. Even on the darkest days, it was said, one man, sitting inside the gas chamber of a prison in the south, still evoked his name. Surrounded by deadly fumes, he used his last breaths to desperately plea for the heavyweight champion to rescue him. “Save me, Joe Louis!”
“The condemned young Negro,” Martin Luther King Jr., wrote of the possibly apocryphal event, “groping for someone who might care for him, and had power enough to rescue him, found only the heavyweight boxing champion of the world … In a few words the dying man had written a social commentary. Not God, not government, not charitable minded white men, but a Negro who was the world’s most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope.”
After Louis, it was Rocky Marciano, the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, who fought in the postwar prosperity of the 1950s. A time when, as historian Thomas A. Guglielmo says, “Italian Americans began to openly mobilizing around white identity.” With that, he represented an era which, as his biographer noted, was “simple on the surface but considerably more complex in reality.”
Part of that complexity involved great social change around issues of race and ethnicity. And as Floyd Patterson became world champion, none other than John F. Kennedy considered him the ideal representation of who should hold that honored title. Kennedy saw Patterson as an asset to the civil rights movement. It’s why he urged Patterson not to fight Sonny Liston, who was the opposite. Humiliated by Liston—twice, beaten both times in the first round—Patterson disguised himself with facial hair, glasses, and hat. If someone thought they recognized him and asked, “Say, aren’t you Floyd Patterson?” he’d deny it. “No,” he’d respond. “I’m his brother, Raymond.”
After Patterson and Liston came Muhammad Ali. By the standards of professional boxers, he was an old man when he regained boxing’s heavyweight world championship. He beat a man who many thought was unbeatable. Ali did so while it sounded like all of Zaire chanted—”Ali Bomaye!”—for him to kill that man. That was George Foreman, who didn’t do himself any favors when he brought his German shepherd without knowing “that…type of dog had been used by the Belgian police for crowd control and had become a symbol of police brutality and colonial oppression.” Foreman lost. He said he felt as if his soul had evaporated.
Before the fight, Ali talked of retiring. After he won, walking away from being heavyweight world champion proved impossible. He fought until he couldn’t walk and talk like he once did. In his last fight, long after he had been the champion, Ali admitted what everyone already knew—that he also couldn’t fight like he once could. “If I could,” Ali said of his boxing, “I would be looking to get my title back.”
Mike Tyson beat the last man to beat Ali—Trevor Berbick—and became the youngest heavyweight world champion in boxing’s history. Years later, six fights after his release from prison on a rape conviction, when he appeared on the verge of losing again and with that, losing another chance to become heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear twice and spit a part of it across the ring. With that bite came the end of what journalist and member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame Jerry Izenberg called the Golden Age of Heavyweight.
As European heavyweights dominated the division for two decades, the United States’ white middle class moved on, content with calling boxing dead. With that, a title historically weighted with incredible symbolism lost its relevance.
Even when Deontay Wilder, from Alabama, won a slice of the heavyweight championship, the rest belonged to Joshua. And in the months leading into his United States debut, it was Joshua who was still being sold as boxing’s savior. “Detached from its American progenitors, the lineage of Johnson … and Louis and Ali and Tyson,” ESPN wrote while profiling Joshua, “heavyweight boxing suffered a lack of prestige, attention and money. It was desperate for an Anthony Joshua to come along.”
From across the Atlantic Ocean, Joshua traveled to get thoroughly beat. The man who beat him, Ruiz, suddenly mattered precisely for the same reasons past heavyweight world champions mattered: He served as a symbol of something greater than himself.
Ruiz, raised along the United States-Mexico border, represented a light during troubled days for those like him. It’s why, within days of his win, musicians wrote songs about him. It’s why Ruiz became a folk hero. And who becomes a folk hero has always said as much about the society in which they are born as just about anything else.
In the moments that followed Joshua’s first professional loss, his promoter, Eddie Hearn, was already talking about a contractually obligated rematch. That rematch landed in Saudi Arabia. But in the days and weeks that followed, as Joshua retreated from the spotlight, Ruiz basked in it. He was seemingly everywhere.
In Mexico, like no other Mexican-American before, Ruiz became a phenomenon. He met the Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who called him “an exemplary Mexican,” in part because he got knocked down and returned to his feet. He had a photo shoot with GQ Mexico. Everywhere Ruiz went, large crowds gathered and cheered. They called it “Andymania,” and it didn’t much matter that he was born in the United States. “I fought for my race and for Mexico,” Ruiz explained. He was—symbolically, culturally, in citizenship, and unapologetically—the first Mexican boxing heavyweight champion of the world during a time of increased violence in that country that now includes cartels warring to control avocados.
In the United States, Ruiz was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live. NPR’s All Things Considered spoke of his victory. Academics wrote columns about Ruiz as a disrupter of not just boxing but the “white European standards of beauty, health and fitness.” But more important than that, Ruiz, here, as boxing’s heavyweight champion, became an inspiration at a time of rising anti-Latino sentiment.
Anti-Mexican violence, specifically, has been omnipresent since parts of Mexico became the United States. In those first few decades, Mexicans here, per capita, faced mob violence comparable to that faced by African-Americans. Mexicans were lynched. In fact, the only woman, Josefa Segovia, ever lynched in California was Mexican. She stabbed a white miner a day after he tried to rape her. She was three months pregnant when authorities hanged her in 1851.
Decades later, the Texas Rangers—progenitors of the Border Patrol, first created to protect the property of white settlers coming into Mexico’s Texas—killed Mexicans with impunity. Decades after that, the anti-Latino acts became judicial. California’s Prop. 187—promoted by an ad showing people running across the border and a voice warning “They keep coming”—continued to portray Latinos as an invading threat. After that, there was Arizona’s S.B. 1070. Thirteen other states passed similar anti-Latino laws.
Discriminatory attitudes were even academic. In 2004 Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard professor, wrote essentially a 400-page lament for the United States’ future. His argument and concern can get reduced to two clichéd sentences: “Assimilation is particularly problematic for Mexicans and other Hispanics. Their immigration poses problems unprecedented in America.” This sort of thing had a long history; academics, more than 80 years before, were already fretting over what they called “the Mexican problem.”
“The United States could rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, [and] more attached to music and art,” a eugenicist warned of what would happen as more Mexicans came north of the border. He also said crime generally would increase, and that drunkenness and rape would specifically.
The tension has always been there. At its best, it quietly simmers. At its worst, it boils over and explodes into violence. You could even say anti-Mexican violence is what binds the history of law enforcement agencies across the Southwest.
But the election of Donald Trump—who announced his presidential campaign by claiming that Mexicans coming to the United States were rapists and bringing drugs and crime—freed that which before largely existed through coded language and laws. Since his election, anti-Latino hate crimes continue to rise.
It was also during his presidential campaign that Trump promised to build a wall—paid for by Mexico—along the United States-Mexico border. To hear Trump talk, one would think the border is a wide-open space. But, again, before Trump there was George W. Bush who signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 to “help protect the American people.” Contractors built 700 miles of fence to separate the United States from Mexico. Before Bush, several Border Patrol policies and operations further restricted crossing.
Operation Gatekeeper focused on the border’s urban areas, places like El Paso and San Diego. The result was that it forced those who still sought to cross into the desolate borderlands, places like the Imperial Valley desert where summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees.
There, in the desert, bodies littered the barren ground. “Death by sunlight, hyperthermia, was the main culprit,” Luis Alberto Urrea explained. “But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattle snakes, had heart attacks. The unofficial policy was to let them die where they were found, resting in peace where they fell.”
A few days before he fought Joshua, Ruiz recalled Trump visiting his hometown and how he spoke of the border wall. “There are people who are not letting Mexicans come over,” Ruiz said. “We are the backbone of this country.”
Considering many professional athletes remain apolitical, the statement may have surprised some. But Ruiz—born in Imperial Valley, CA and raised by Mexican immigrant parents from Mexicali, directly across the border—didn’t need a deep political involvement to understand better than most what was happening. You can’t live in places like the desert borderlands without seeing your entire history, present, and foreseeable future as inextricable from the tension that’s always been there. And you can’t ignore what’s happening when those who came before you speak on their experience.
“Latinos, we can do something for America,” Andy Ruiz Sr. said. Like his son, Ruiz Sr. grew up boxing because of his father. “We don’t come here to take the place of the white people. We come here to work, to establish our sons, so they can do something in life.”
Ruiz Sr.’s son did something, and as he put it, he wanted to “[help] out my people.” Ruiz wanted to build a boxing gym to help the kids who, like him, grew up fighting around Imperial Valley—kids who, if they accomplish anything great, will have to overcome incredible odds. When Ruiz did that—becoming boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world—he returned home to celebrate.
At a parade, on the day the Imperial Valley said would always be “Andy Ruiz Jr. Day,” the champ waved and smiled while riding in the back of a borrowed Rolls Royce. “He’s one of us, so this is a big deal,” a parade attendant said. She had tears in her eyes. “People might not understand. He’s representing our community and he’s the first Mexican heavyweight champion. We’re so proud of that.” Similarly, another person at the parade felt overcome by emotions. Asked to put into words what Ruiz’s victory meant and before he could answer, his bottom lip trembled. He took a deep breath to steady himself. “It hits at the heart,” he finally said. “A lot of us in this country had real humble beginnings.”
Later that day, Trump—who increasingly referenced an invasion when discussing immigration, at one point even threatening to close the border—said he was delaying planned ICE raids. “At the request of Democrats, I have delayed Illegal Immigration Removal Process…,” Trump tweeted. However illogical, he wanted what he wanted. “If not, Deportations start,” he warned.
Six weeks after the parade, a white supremacist drove 10 hours from north Texas to El Paso. He calmly walked into a crowded Walmart and opened fire. Targeting Mexicans, he killed 22 people.
“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” the killer wrote in his presumed manifesto.
On Saturday, about six months after Ruiz made history and altered the trajectory of his life, he will rematch Joshua. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, will host what promoters are calling “Clash on the Dunes.” And though it may seem odd that what’s perhaps the most important boxing event of the last several years will occur in Saudi Arabia, boxing has staged important heavyweight title fights in unexpected places: Jamaica, Venezuela, Japan, and Malaysia, among other infamous sites.
In 1974, Zaire hosted the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s president who ruled as a dictator and was then forced into exile wanted the fight to show Zaire as a positive example of what an African country could become once pried from the grips of European colonialism.
A year later, Ali again fought in a place eager to use boxing’s heavyweight championship fight as a distraction. He fought Joe Frazier in the Philippines. Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s president who ruled as a dictator and was then forced into exile, wanted the fight to show the Philippines as a stable country despite placing it under martial law.
And even though no agreement ever came between government and promoters, the propaganda boxing and its boxers provided had also enticed Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the country’s president who ruled as a dictator and was then forced into exile.
Governments have always used sports as a way of legitimizing their rule and country. Sports have never been apolitical. Sports can even project a specific self-image. Saudi Arabia hosting the rematch between Ruiz and Joshua is no different. And like Zaire and the Philippines before them, they paid a lot of money, “in excess of $40 million,” to host the event. That inordinate amount of money is jarring—more so when considering Saudi Arabia hadn’t sanctioned professional boxing until last year.
That fight, along with the country hosting WWE wrestling, European Tour golf, all-electric Formula E motor racing series, soccer’s Italian Super Cup, and what will be the world’s richest horse race—with a purse worth $20 million—is part of Saudi Arabia’s increasing focus on sports. It’s part of Vision 2030, a plan introduced by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman.
“Our nation is ambitious in what we want to achieve,” the Vision 2030 plan said. At its introduction, the plan detailed the programs and reforms that will ostensibly lead, by 2030, to Saudi Arabia as a vibrant society promoting culture, entertainment, city development, environmental sustainability, and healthy living. On healthy living, the government intends to “encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities.” Saudi Arabia is modernizing and hosting world-class sporting events is part of the plan.
The social media announcement of Saudi Arabia hosting the rematch included a 40-second video—not of the boxers, but of a brand-new 15,000-seat arena built in what looks like the middle of the Arabian Desert. It shows a rising structure, like it just grew out of the desert floor, that would not only host the fight but also the Diriyah Tennis Cup. Both events, boxing and tennis—two sports diametrically opposed in terms of what they represent in terms of class—would be part of Diriyah Season, a month-long event combining “world-class sport, global entertainment, and culture.”
As soon as the fight’s announcement came, Amnesty International—”citing human rights violations, the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen”—criticized the decision. They said the fight, like the previous sporting events the country has hosted, provides Saudi Arabia with another opportunity to “sportswash” over the country’s human rights violations.
“Sportswashing” is bread and circuses but at a larger scale. So long as millions watching at home—enjoying events like the Olympics, World Cup, NBA, boxing’s heavyweight championship fights—get entertained, everything else is secondary. So long as we can see Ruiz “show the greatness of Mexican boxing in Saudi Arabia,” as he promised during the fight’s press conference, he can continue as a symbol against anti-Latino oppression.
Ruiz is that. He’s someone who won and made others like him cry because his accomplishment meant something more than a title belt, someone with future goals of starting his own promotional company to help Mexican boxers exploited by managers and promoters—boxers who, according to Ruiz, get forced into signing contracts written in English even when they only speak Spanish.
But with this fight, Ruiz is also someone taking a great deal of money from a country that is itself an oppressor. Just like Joshua did. Just like Eddie Hearn—who negotiated the fight and justified it as having an “obligation to grow the sport of boxing to new areas and regions”—did. Just like Ali did.
The thing about folk heroes is that they must be pliable enough to symbolize different things at different times. Murrieta was eventually portrayed as someone who tried to regain California for Mexico after the United States-Mexico War. Cortina is still called the “Robin Hood of the Rio Grande.” Urrea became an icon, someone like La Virgen de Guadalupe, among some Chicanos. Cortez ultimately fought in the Mexican Revolution on the side of Victoriano Huerta, one of the country’s most treacherous figures. Folk heroes evolve.
Today, Ruiz is boxing’s unified heavyweight champion. With that title, he became a folk hero in a way that matters because of the past. What Ruiz will mean years from now depends on what happens this weekend and in the days that follow—not just with him, but with United States society at large, and what place Latinos, especially Mexican and Mexican-Americans, take in it. Boxing has always said something about society. Who its heavyweight champion is says something more.