Oquendo mean in ring, nice out of it

Updated: April 16, 2004, 11:49 AM ET
By Thomas Gerbasi | Maxboxing.com

It's kind of ironic that two of the nicer guys in the fight game -- Fres Oquendo and John Ruiz -- are two guys you would not want to meet in a dark alley late at night. Both are known for their willingness to take on all comers, and for finding a way -- whatever way that may be -- to win.

Oquendo, who will challenge for Ruiz's WBA heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden Saturday, is well aware of this contradiction between his lives in and out of the ring.

"It's kind of funny because I'm not one of those trash-talking, mean fighters, who go starting fights at bars, drinking and getting drunk," said Oquendo. "I'm a family man, no drinking, no smoking, and I'm just positive in my attitude."

And in the ring, to the tune of 24 victories (15 KOs) and only two losses (both of which raised his stock in the eyes of the fans), Oquendo has carved out a niche for himself in the boxing world, one he'd like to expand on come Saturday night.

"I'm on a mission right now," he says.

It's a mission that began in 1997, when the Chicago-born Puerto Rican started his pro career with little fanfare or expectations. By his 11th fight he was taking on then-unbeaten Duncan Dokiwari (whom he decisioned over six rounds), and suddenly, Oquendo, who has been tagged with the monikers "The Latin Assassin," "The Big O," and now "Fast Fres," was being looked at as more than just another faceless heavyweight in a sea of mediocrity. He was a comer.

"Not coming in as a member of the Olympic team, I had to work my way up hard and I had to fight the best challengers out there," said Oquendo. "In my 11th pro fight I was already fighting an Olympic silver medallist in Duncan Dokiwari, and after that I fought the Phil Jacksons and Bert Coopers. I was green and I was fighting all these home skillets, which is a figure of speech for a strong, experienced fighter. But I was blessed with this talent and this motivation."

Another one of Oquendo's early opponents was a young man named Bradley Rone. The two fought in March of 1999, with the 12-0 Oquendo stopping Rone in six rounds. Rone made headlines last July when he collapsed and died during a bout in Utah. Oquendo remembers Rone, and reflected on what can happen to any fighter who steps between the ropes.

"It can happen to me, it can happen to anybody," said Oquendo. "Brad Rone was a great guy and I had a great fight with him. He put up a great fight with me in Gary, Ind. I'll never forget it. When I read the story, it was sad that something tragic like that happened. A lot of these promoters don't care for anyone but themselves, and whoever's staging these events don't care about the fighters' health. Thank God I've been blessed with a great team and management, that brought me along the right path, and that's been the difference in my health and my career."

A key member of that team is also back, Oquendo's former trainer Don Felix Trinidad, who had taken a hiatus from training when his son Felix Jr. briefly retired. According to Oquendo, the fistic reunion is already paying dividends.

"He knows me and he's the one who made me who I am today, I definitely have to admit that," said Oquendo. "It brought a lot of motivation back into me and a lot of positivity. He knows my style very well; he knows I'm a technician, and he knows the ingredients I need to dissect John Ruiz on April 17."

To dissect the awkward Ruiz, Oquendo will need a sharp blade and a lot of elbow grease. Not a problem, says "Fast Fres."

"I can also get grimy with him," he admits. "It all depends on the position and the situation that I'm in. I'm in great shape, so I'll definitely have a plan B if that happens."

Plan A is to box Ruiz, to use movement, keep a jab in his face, and when he gets too close, shoot a hard right hand over the top. Yet many plans have gone awry when facing Ruiz, and this one is being anticipated as a stinker, even before the first bell rings.

Oquendo, 31, disagrees: "He will bring out the best in me."

The best we've seen of Oquendo may have been in his two defeats. Riding a three-fight 2001 knockout streak over Cliff Etienne, Obed Sullivan, and David Izon, Oquendo got his shot at the big time against former title challenger David Tua in April of 2002. For eight rounds, Oquendo nearly shut out the Samoan bomber, and was boxing masterfully. In the ninth, he dropped his hands, got cute, and got nailed by Tua. Game, set, match.

Two wins later, Oquendo was put on the big stage again, this time in an IBF title bout against Chris Byrd last September. It wasn't Lewis-Klitschko; it wasn't even Lewis-Akinwande, but at the end of 12 rounds, there was little doubt that Oquendo had done enough to win the title. Unfortunately, the three judges disagreed, and Oquendo was left out in the cold again. Luckily for him, when Don King is your promoter, you're never in the cold for too long, and an all-Puerto Rican clash for the heavyweight title was too much for King to pass up.

Which brings Oquendo to Saturday night in Madison Square Garden.

And though the money's great if he can win, and the title belt is nice to have around your waist, when Oquendo, a father of five, steps into the ring to face Ruiz, he will have more important matters on his mind, as he hopes to bring home the title for his nephew Johnny Solomon, who tragically passed away earlier this year at the age of 15.

"It was a story I heard while I was in training camp," remembers Oquendo. "My wife called me and was crying that her nephew had passed away. My wife used to babysit him when he was a newborn, and I saw him grow up. He was born with heart problems unfortunately. He was doing well, but they didn't tell me that he was having major heart problems where he could pass at any time. When I heard the news, it broke my heart because I'm a very sensitive person when it comes to kids. This fight's very important for me to dedicate to Johnny because he was a great overachiever in fighting for his life and going through all the heart surgeries. I had to do something; I had to feel complete. Thank God I've been blessed with this opportunity to fight for the world heavyweight championship, so I'm doing this in his honor and I'll have his name on my trunks."

And in his heart.

Fres Oquendo, a guy always quick with a smile, laughs when he's asked about his vocation in life.

"Growing up I was never a tough guy," he says. On Saturday, all the work, all the sweat, will come down to 45 minutes. If he performs, he wins; if he doesn't, he loses. It's all pretty simple, really, but when it comes down to it, anyone who can pull that off is a tough guy. Or as Oquendo puts it, "it's not all pina coladas and palm trees."