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Gabriel Ruelas’ Nightmares : Boxing: He returns to the ring Friday for the first time since the death of Jimmy Garcia in May.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No, Gabriel Ruelas kept telling himself, it was all wrong. Jimmy Garcia wasn’t supposed to die. He, Ruelas, was the one who was supposed to die young.

That’s the way it had always been in the dreams.

Night after night they would come to him in his restless sleep. The circumstances were different, but the result was always the same. Gabe Ruelas dead before his time.

Although he has been a boxer since age 12, he never died in the ring in the dreams. Often it would be in a car accident. Sometimes in a plane crash.

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“I’ve always been prepared for it to happen to me,” he said. “I was not prepared for it to happen to some guy I was fighting.”

But it did. Ruelas, the World Boxing Council super-featherweight champion, successfully defended his title May 6 by defeating Garcia in Las Vegas in a one-sided match that was stopped in the 11th round of a scheduled 12-rounder. Garcia collapsed in his corner and died two weeks later without regaining consciousness.

While Garcia was in critical condition, Ruelas said he’d never fight again. But after several days of reflection and mourning, Ruelas reconsidered.

He will finally step back into the ring Friday night at the Fantasy Springs Casino outside Indio to defend his title against former champion Azumah Nelson.

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But the road back to boxing has been a long and mentally torturous one for Ruelas.

In the days after Garcia’s death, Ruelas felt he had made his peace with his Colombian opponent, who died at age 23.

“It was a relief,” Leslie Ruelas, Gabriel’s wife, said of Garcia’s death. “I do not mean that to sound cold. But it’s like when someone dies of cancer. It’s a relief that they are not suffering anymore.

“For 13 days, we were on pins and needles. Every time the phone rang, we jumped. Was it the hospital calling?”

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Ruelas, 25, visited Garcia in intensive care several times and later met with Garcia’s mother, Carmen, who told Ruelas she would watch him fight and pray for him as if he were her son. Indeed, she said, when she looked at Ruelas, she would see her son’s face.

Ruelas saw only his dreams of death. He began to second-guess himself. What would he gain by going back into the ring? If time was really running out on him, why waste it there?

“I want to do everything fast,” he explained, “in case I don’t live long.

“I had already accomplished my goals. I wanted to win a title. I wanted to have a son. [He and Leslie have 15-month-old Diego]. So I have already done what most people don’t do in a lifetime. I already feel blessed to have gotten to where I’ve gotten. Every year that goes by, I feel lucky.

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“When I meet someone older than I am, I look at them and wonder if I’m going to get to be their age. I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen, but it’s not like I’m going to jump off a bridge to speed up the process.”

Ruelas took his family on a vacation to Hawaii and pondered his future. He didn’t watch boxing on television. He didn’t attend boxing shows.

But as summer came, he went to the Olympic Auditorium and the Forum and something began to stir inside of him.

“I could feel the adrenaline coming,” he said. “I could feel the blood flowing. I wanted to be one of those fighters in the ring.”

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Leslie already knew that her husband of one year was ready to resume his career. The giveaway sign: He was walking around the house throwing phantom punches.

“It was about time,” she said, “for him to go back.”

Joe Goossen, Ruelas’ longtime trainer, didn’t push his fighter to come back. But Goossen was confident it would happen.

“There is a time for mourning and a time for consoling,” he said. “But eventually you’ve got to get over it.

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“My dad [Al] was at the gym every day when he was alive. He died several years ago, so he’s not at the gym now, but he would want me to go on. Jimmy Garcia would be the first one to tell Gabe, ‘You’ve got to go on. This is your livelihood.’ ”

Leslie finds her husband’s fights so unbearable to watch that she stays at the hotel and waits to be told of the results.

But she wasn’t about to tell her husband to put away his gloves.

“Not many people get a chance to do what they do best,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful thing to do something so well, among the best in the world, that I want to tell him to keep going.”

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Ruelas has come up with some new goals to keep himself going. For one thing, he is seeking revenge against Nelson, who beat him on a majority decision in a title fight in Mexico City in 1993.

Ruelas also would like to unify the division by winning the World Boxing Assn. and International Boxing Federation titles.

“If I can do that in two years, or even a year,” he said, “I’ll get out.”

But first, there is the matter of the opponent at hand. While Ruelas has looked like his old self while training for this fight, “meaner than ever,” according to Goossen, how will he react Friday night? If Nelson should get hurt, will Ruelas be able to wade in and finish him? Do the words killer instinct cause Ruelas’ adrenaline to flow or his stomach to turn?

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“In the ring,” Ruelas said, “I’ll only be thinking of one thing and that will be to win the fight. I will hurt the guy if I can. I just want to end it as soon as possible.”

Nelson, a 17-year veteran of the ring, understands.

“If you have a child,” he said, “and that child drowns in the water, that doesn’t mean you don’t drink water anymore. May [Garcia’s] soul rest in peace, but it doesn’t mean you have to stop boxing.”

Nor does Ruelas’ return to the ring mean he has forgotten Garcia.

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Just the opposite.

Ruelas, who first attracted Goossen’s attention when he came to the door of the Goossen gym selling candy as a youngster, has turned salesman again, imploring any and all he meets to buy the pay-per-view telecast of the fight, even if they are planning on attending.

“I’m going to buy it,” Ruelas said.

Why?

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Because Ruelas has announced that he will donate his share of the pay-per-view money to a trust fund he is setting up for the three young children Garcia left behind.

Ruelas receives $2 for every pay-per-view order after the first 100,000. With estimates ranging up to 300,000 orders, that would mean $400,000 to the Garcia kids. Ruelas’ purse, separate from the television money, is $500,000, so he might be looking at splitting his profit.

That’s fine with him.

“Jimmy Garcia is part of my life,” Ruelas said. “I’ll remember him longer than all the people who ask me about him. I accept that. I can’t put it behind me.”

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Any more than he can put behind him those dreams that, he feels, warn him about his own untimely end.


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