IMPERIAL, Calif. — On Andy Ruiz Jr. Day in Imperial, the temperature had already climbed past 90 degrees by 9 a.m. The cooler wind that had been blowing earlier in the morning had retreated back to the Laguna Mountains to the west, whose peaks were now shrouded in a marine layer that refused to push past to cover this ancient lakebed, now beginning its daily bake. People congregated in what little shade could be found, placing folding chairs almost on top of one another, as the sun continued to narrow the livable real estate. Things start early here in the summer, because as morning rolls on the heat quickly ensures that anyone who can stay inside, does. For the residents of the border cities in the agricultural powerhouse of the Imperial Valley, waiting for the guest of honor to arrive and the celebratory parade to start, this was actually pretty late in the day.
To call Andy Ruiz Jr.’s victory a shock to the boxing world doesn’t do it justice. A 16 knocking out a one-seed in the NCAA tournament is a shock. Ruiz’s win over the undefeated Anthony Joshua on June 1 by a convincing knockout in the seventh round, after beating up on Joshua for almost the entire fight, was strange and wonderful and altogether calamitous at the same time. How had this rotund, baby-faced fighter, a lunchpail boxer who had clearly eaten the lunchpail and asked for another, defeated a man with four inches on him, who appeared to be chiseled from stone as part of a work called “world heavyweight champion”?
Whatever aberrant rules of the universe that applied to Ruiz’s victory were still in effect in Imperial on Saturday, as not a soul in this desert city would admit they ever doubted him.
“If I didn’t think he’d win I wouldn’t have bet all my money on him,” Ronnie Gentry told me, explaining that not only did Ruiz Jr.’s victory raise everyone’s spirit in the Imperial Valley, it also padded their wallets. “He brought us all up with him.”
Gentry is also Ruiz’s tattoo artist, and it seemed like everyone I spoke with had some connection to the world heavyweight champion. Gentry’s wife is Ruiz’s cousin. Further down the block I found some more cousins, and further down, still more cousins. (Andy falls on the younger side of the cousin cohort.)
“He was always destroying things, man,” Hector Ponce told me, in front of another huge group of extended family. (Andy’s nickname is, unsurprisingly, “Destroyer.”) Hector was showing off a fresh tattoo of his cousin he had gotten on his forearm. I asked him he and Andy ever got into trouble growing up. “We got into some things but I’m definitely not going to talk about that in public,” he laughed.
When it comes to news out of the Imperial Valley, the range is limited. Reporters come out from San Diego only when the president threatens to shut the border or is unveiling a new old part of the border wall. Border politics and drug smuggling are usually the national headlines, but not the local ones. In the local press, sports still reign supreme, at pretty much every level. High school football of course, but softball and boxing are close behind. Because of its massive Mexican-American population, boxing in the Imperial Valley never experienced the decline it has elsewhere in the country, nor was it ever reborn as some sort of fitness trend. Kids still start sparring at a young age, and a boxer like Ruiz had already put in at least two decades of fights on either side of the border before he stepped into the ring in Madison Square Garden.
Max Necochea, whose clothing brand, Me Vale Madre, furnished the official t-shirts handed out to Ruiz family members (who might have been in the hundreds), fought against Ruiz when he was 22, and at the height of his athletic and boxing powers. Ruiz was just 14.
“The punches came from every direction,” Necochea remembered. He said that Ruiz, even at that age, had already ballooned to a massive size. “Just quicker than you’d even think was possible for a guy that size, but he’d already been fighting for years and years already.”
Ruiz’s grandfather ran a ramshackle boxing gym in Mexicali, just across the border in Mexico. Andy Ruiz Sr., the champ’s father, immigrated to the United States when he was a young boy. It’s not unusual for families here to reside on both sides of the border, to work on one side and live on the other, and Ruiz Jr. grew up going back and forth with his father, who kept a watchful eye on the young binational giant.
Ruiz Sr. said he pushed his son into the ring at an early age, after seeing that the kid wasn’t going to be a star in the classroom. The proud dad told me that he always knew his son was going to be the heavyweight champion, which he must have repeated ten million times on Saturday, although I’ve yet to find the beaming father who would say, “Honestly, I’m pretty surprised.”
Even though the parade was supposed to start at 8:00 to spare everyone the heat of late morning, it finally began around 9:30 with a procession of horses, mariachi bands, dancers, a high school mascot on a float with a tiny boxing ring, and a cheerleading squad behind a banner honoring the champ. (It was the banner that really drove home in my mind that here was a celebratory parade for a boxer in the year of our lord 2019). Then came the amateur boxing groups of all ages, sparring with one another across the hot streets.
Finally, the crowd began to pile into the streets. In a purple Rolls-Royce, with his wife seated beside him, the champion had arrived, beaming and looking just as stunned and delighted by the surging masses as he’d been in the oversized Knicks jersey during his post-fight press conference.
“Get back!” screamed the huge security presence surrounding Ruiz. “Get back!” they shouted again, but no one was in any mood to listen or have anyone interfere with their desire to take a close-up photo of the champ, the hometown boy. These weren’t the local police—these were Border Patrol agents, who, for whatever reason, were the ones protecting Ruiz, from whatever unknown threat could befall the most beloved man west of Yuma.
Because the Imperial Valley leads the nation in wildly expensive and relatively ineffective border security theater, from unmanned drones to motion sensors to roving Border Patrol agents given power to pull over cars whose drivers either look at them or look away from them, the presence of the Border Patrol here wasn’t novel, but it was tempting to consider the symbolism of Border Patrol throwing up yet another barrier between this community and a loved one.
But it didn’t matter in the moment because no one was paying attention to them anyway, and the entire community surged into the streets to congratulate Ruiz as his motorcade slowly drove the half-mile to the high school he had dropped out of. At Imperial High School, ICE agents roved the stands, on a weekend where they were allegedly being asked to round up thousands of immigrants across the country. Apparently the city had asked the federal government for security assistance, and they had sent ICE. They agents stood there with their hands lazily resting on their guns, as probation officers wearing “Blue Lives Matter” hats as if it was part of their official uniform ran the bag check. Sweltering residents stood under umbrellas blocking out the worst of the sun, completely unperturbed by the presence of law enforcement, either because they were inured to it, or just because nothing was going to ruin Andy Ruiz Jr. Day.
Both the Mexican and American national anthems were played before the ceremony (the crowd cheered noticeably louder for the former) and let out screams of delight as video screens blared the highlights of Ruiz’s impossible victory. A string of politicians and local dignitaries showered Ruiz with honor after honor until the champion himself stepped up to the microphone to close out the festivities. He told the crowd he was a warrior, that he did this for them, and that his power came from god. And then there was confetti, more photographs, and the Rocky theme played as the champ made his exit.
By noon, now past a hundred degrees outside, everyone had retreated indoors and the streets were deserted. Andy Ruiz Jr. Day had started early, then late, and now was pretty much over, a day more unlikely than most in this small city, where everyone will tell you they saw this coming.
Max Rivlin-Nadler is an investigative journalist currently based in San Diego whose reporting has appeared in outlets such as the New York Times, The Intercept, the Village Voice, National Public Radio, and Gothamist.