Report and Photos by Gayle Lynn Falkenthal with Communities Digital News
World heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz, Jr. has enormous affection for his high desert hometown in the Imperial Valley. And the feeling is mutual.
The City of Imperial, with a population of about 15,000 just north of the larger city of El Centro sitting a half hour drive from the Mexican border, could not be prouder to be the home of the man who pulled off a stunning upset victory over Anthony Joshua of Great Britain on June 1st. Imperial pulled out all the stops to salute its hero, starting with a news conference this past Friday and culminating Saturday morning with a parade and rally ending at Imperial High.
Imperial City Councilmember Darrell Pechtl said residents started contacting him within moments of the historic victory of Ruiz Jr. as the first Mexican and Mexican-American world heavyweight champion. “When’s the parade? We’ve got to have a parade!” said Pechtl.
“It’s a blessing man,” said Ruiz Jr. at the rally in his honor following the parade. “I’ve been on so many roller coasters in my life. So many things have happened. But I never gave up!
“I love all the Imperial Valley man, love you guys! I was born and raised here and having this celebration here means so much to me. Until this day, I’m still pinching myself to see if this is true you know. I just want to thank everyone!”
The parade kicked off around 9:30 a.m. on what passes for a mild summer day in the Imperial Valley (under triple digits). High school bands and cheerleaders, groups of kids from local boxing gyms with their own dreams, mariachis and folkloric dancers led the way, followed by fire trucks and flatbeds, one featuring Ruiz Jr.’s trainer Manny Robles and his team, all leading the guest of honor and his girlfriend riding in a shiny convertible.
Several thousand admirers watched the parade thread its way from Imperial Avenue down a residential street with neighbors sitting under trees in their front yards.
In small towns like Imperial, everyone knows everybody. People become like family, and Ruiz Jr.’s Imperial Valley family has embraced him and everything he stands for. People like Esmeralda Gonzalez of El Centro, who stood along the parade route holding an artistic poster she created featuring Ruiz Jr.’s face in the Mexican tri-color red, white and green. “I’m so proud of him, he’s one of us!” she said.
Gonzalez got the thrill of her life when Ruiz Jr. spotted her poster from his seat in a shining Rolls Royce convertible, and called her over. She handed the poster to him as a souvenir. It likely means more to him than all the formal civic honors.
Parade goers then filed into Imperial High School’s football stadium, joining more fans waiting to celebrate their most famous resident. After hearing the American and Mexican anthems, and cheering a video of fight highlights on large screens, the man of the hour stepped onto the stage.
After receiving proclamations and an impressive Key to the City, Ruiz Jr. heard a surprise message from his former principal at nearby Ben Hulse Elementary School, Madeleine Willis. Speaking via a video message from Maine, Willis said “Andy, I heard you’ve been in another fight. But this time you won? I think you won all your fights at Ben Hulse. Honestly, you were a great kid. You got picked on, and you took care of it! And now you fight and get paid. How cool is that!” she said as Ruiz Jr. and the crowd laughed. “Always remember to stay humble and put God first, love you Andy.”
“I really appreciate everybody here. Heh heh! Wooooo, yeah baby! We brought the belts back home,” said Ruiz Jr. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. And now that we got, we got it baby!”
As he frequently does, Ruiz Jr. then turned his attention to his youngest fans, many from the Sparta and La Gente Boxing Gym youth programs.
“All the kids that have big dreams, dream big. Everything is possible. All the hard work and dedication, All the kids right here that have dreams that are boxers that want to be like me, or even better. You can do it. Just train hard, Listen to the coach, stay disciplined, dream big – and always pray to God for help.”
Ruiz Jr. said he would like to establish his own youth boxing gym in Imperial County, suggesting the names ‘Andy’s Academy’ or ‘Destroyer Academy.’ The new champion believes he can nurture local talent. “This is where I grew up, this is where I was born and raised. I would love to do that, be a role model here in Imperial Valley.”
Even two decades later, he vividly remembers the name calling and bullying he received, and the solace he found in a boxing dream at age six – a dream that came true not by luck, but because Ruiz Jr. put in the hard work and kept the faith while his family stood by him despite the doubters.
“Everybody telling me that I was going to do nothing, because of the way that I look,” said Ruiz Jr. “To come this far, it means a lot. It brings tears to my eyes- but I don’t want to cry right now.”
Ruiz Jr.’s one big purchase since winning was a new car to thank his mother, Felicitas Ruiz. “I bought my mom a car, because I messed up a lot of her cars when I was growing up,” laughed Ruiz Jr.
Trainer Edgar Jasso said he and Robles will get Ruiz Jr. back into the gym next month to keep him focused while awaiting details about the anticipated rematch later this year with former champion Anthony Joshua, likely to return to the scene of Ruiz Jr.’s win at Madison Square Garden in New York. Win or lose, his Imperial Valley family will support him, and be inspired to dream their own dreams for years to come.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal is a veteran boxing writer based in San Diego, California covering the Sweet Science for Communities Digital News. Read Gayle’s “Ringside Seat” at CommDigiNews.com or follow Gayle on Instagram and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.