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Sweet Success : Rafael and Gabe Ruelas Went From Selling Candy Door to Door to the Boxing Ring, Where They Have Become World-Class Fighters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As best as the Ruelas brothers can recall, here is how the conversation went the day they were hauled off to the Santa Barbara Police Station.

At the booking desk sat a sergeant. The two Arleta teens standing before her, Rafael and Gabe Ruelas, had been brought in for practicing salesmanship without a license.

A policeman had caught them red-handed, selling candy door to door.

Sergeant: “OK, what’s this about. Selling candy?” Rafael Ruelas: “Yes, we sell candy door to door.”

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Sergeant: “OK, we need to know how much money you make.”

Rafael Ruelas: “I make about $400 to $500 a week.”

Sergeant: “What? That’s more than I make. Tell me more about this.”

The brothers didn’t draw time, or even a fine. But they were told, in effect, to either move along or buy a business license.

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Now, seven years later, the brothers have licenses. Boxing licenses.

Rafael Ruelas, 21, a world-class lightweight (he is ranked 10th by Boxing Illustrated) with a 33-1 record, meets former Mexican champion Jorge Paez on Friday night at the Forum.

Gabe, 22, a junior-lightweight with a 32-1 record (and ranked fifth by Boxing Illustrated), is expected to have a championship fight in 1993.

Gabe Ruelas, by his own admission, wasn’t much of a candy salesman. But brother Rafael, he says, was world class.

They worked for Junior Careers, a work/recreation program that teaches sales to mid-teens.

“I wasn’t good at it, because I’d get into an argument when someone wouldn’t buy any candy,” Gabe said.

“Like, if there was a Mercedes parked in the driveway and a guy wouldn’t buy any candy, I’d say something like: ‘You mean you can afford a car like that and you won’t help me out by buying a box of candy?’

“But Rafael was great. He could talk nonstop for 10 minutes if he had to. We worked for a company that gave us a typed speech on a 3x5 card that we had to memorize.

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“But Rafael made up his own speech. People hated to say no to him. He won trophies, he was so good. He was very patient with people, that was the key.”

Ron Barks, who was the Ruelas brothers’ supervisor, recalled recently that both brothers started slowly in the business.

“I remember both were terribly shy, but that Rafael blossomed very quickly into a very good salesman,” Barks said.

“Rafael was outstanding.”

It was through selling candy that the Ruelas brothers literally walked into boxing. Their older brother, Juan Ruelas, had boxed for Ten Goose Boxing in Van Nuys, but Rafael and Gabe had had no exposure to the sport.

One day, they discovered the Ten Goose Gym and knocked on the back door. No sale. They were sent away.

“But we saw guys boxing inside, so we went back the next day,” Gabe recalled recently.

“At the time, we didn’t know it was the people Juan had boxed for. Juan was much older than we were. We didn’t even know what boxing was.

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“So we kept going back and they let us come in and punch the bags and stuff. That’s how we got started.

“At first, I didn’t like boxing much. I’d rather have sold candy, even if I wasn’t very good at. But Rafael liked boxing a lot. And he was a great salesman.”

In a rural village in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the two brothers were made to feel like kings.

A year ago, the Ruelas brothers traced their roots, back to the remote, cattle-and-corn village of Yerbabuena (pop. 400). Their trainer, Joe Goossen, accompanied them.

“It was the first time we’d been there in 13 or 14 years,” Gabe Ruelas recalled.

“We learned that practically everyone in the village was related to us. They had a big fiesta for us. They even killed a bull. They had a lot of food, bands, and all the area politicians had their pictures taken with us.

“It was strange, to go there and learn we were famous.”

Young men from the village, who had gone to the United States to work, often sent back money for civic projects. One of the projects funded was a new water system for the villagers. But another civic project was a satellite dish--so the people of Yerbabuena could watch telecasts of the fights of Rafael and Gabe Ruelas.

It was from this mountain village--reached only by a four-hour drive from Guadalajara, the last part on a dangerous, cliff-hanging dirt road--that the sons and daughters of Rafael and Concepcion Ruelas, the boxers’ parents, began heading north, to the United States, years ago.

“Our older brothers would go to California to work in restaurants for years, and send money back to us,” Gabe remembered.

“There are 13 kids in our family, and the oldest ones would go to the U.S. first, the youngest ones last. Our parents were the last to come.”

Rafael and Gabe grew up in Arleta, and both graduated from North Hollywood High.

Today, as both boxers begin to earn larger purses (Rafael will earn $40,000 Friday night), they have rewarded their parents for their sacrifices.

Today, the two brothers and their parents live in a new, five-bedroom house in Sylmar.

Joe Goossen talked about the day Rafael Ruelas became a man.

It was the evening of last July 7, at the Hollywood Palladium. The opponent: Mauro Gutierrez, a one time Mexican champion who had stopped Ruelas’ unbeaten streak at 27 in the summer of 1991.

Ruelas had hurt Gutierrez in the second round of their first match, but was caught by a punch that floored him. He was unhurt, but lost track of the referee’s count and was counted out.

A year went by.

“Rafael was terribly disappointed over that fight, and he wanted Gutierrez again real bad,” Goossen said.

“That fight changed him. After that, his mental outlook was much more mature. After that, he was very serious about boxing.

“When he fought Gutierrez again, he went in there and beat him soundly (by a decision) and he did it with a sense of great confidence.

“He was a boy when he lost to Gutierrez the first time. After he beat him, he was a man.”


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