LAS VEGAS — Carmen Garcia couldn't take her eyes off Gabriel Ruelas' hands. As he spoke and gestured, she kept her eyes glued to his fists.
It was last Monday, the first formal meeting between the two. Ten days earlier, Ruelas had fought her son, Jimmy, the Colombian junior-lightweight champion. Ruelas had won the bout when it was stopped in the 11th round.
Jimmy Garcia had been fighting for his life ever since, finally losing that battle early Friday when he died of brain damage at University Medical Center.
Ruelas had been uncomfortable meeting the family, and Carmen Garcia's behavior Monday in a Top Rank boxing office wasn't helping the situation.
Finally, her eyes moist from crying, she spoke to Ruelas through an interpreter, pointing to his fists: "I want to see you, but it's been hard for me, because those hands killed my son."
To Ruelas, the words were like a blow to the stomach.
"I understand what you say," he told her, "because I myself feel guilty, but nobody can change what happened. As fighters, I believe all of us know the risks when we get into in the sport. I didn't go in there to kill somebody."
Garcia said she had warned her son about Ruelas.
"I always told Jimmy not to fight you," she said to Ruelas, "because in Colombia, they say that you have knives in your hands. . . .
"They say that you cut up fighters bad in the face."
Ruelas, 25, insisted it wasn't true.
Carmen said her son wouldn't listen. "He kept telling me, 'Mom, I'm going to win the title, no matter what. I'm going to buy you a house. I was born to be a fighter. I would rather die than leave boxing.' "
At that point, Ruelas recounted, Carmen Garcia looked him in the eye.
"Why didn't you let him win, Ruelas?" she said. "You already won the title."
They talked for about an hour, the guilt-ridden fighter and the anguished mother, and slowly her rage dissipated. Finally, the small, middle-aged women with gray hair and pain on her face leaned over and gave Ruelas a hug.
"Whenever I see you fight," she told him, "I will see my son in you. And I will pray for you too."
It was supposed to be a glorious night for the Ruelas family. Brothers Gabriel and Rafael had grown up in such poverty in Mexico that they had no shoes as youngsters. After coming to California, Gabriel, then 12, was selling candy door to door in North Hollywood when he knocked on the sliding glass door of Ten Goose Boxing, a mom-and-pop operation trying to get off the ground on a suburban cul-de-sac. Within two months, both Gabriel and Rafael, who is a year younger, were regulars at Ten Goose, dreaming of careers of their own in the ring.
The night of May 6 was to be the high point of that dream. Rafael was fighting Oscar De La Hoya for the lightweight championship in the biggest bout involving Los Angeles fighters in two decades. And Gabriel would be on the undercard, defending his World Boxing Council super-flyweight crown. The whole family was in attendance.
Gabriel Ruelas was especially nervous.
"You always have butterflies," he said. "But this time, I was really nervous and I think it was because Rafael was fighting afterward. I wanted to get this guy out of there so I could go out and watch Rafael fight."
It didn't happen. Garcia, 23, absorbed all the punishment Ruelas handed out. "I was making it harder on myself," he said. "I was surprised at how well he took the shots. Just in the first round, I hit him 20 or 30 hard punches. Hard. I hit him on the jaw so hard one time I could feel the bone through my glove.
"But I never saw an expression on his face that would tell me this guy is hurt. I've fought many times and I've hurt guys. I'll see big expressions on their faces where I know they're hurting. But this guy, I didn't see any of that."
Finally, referee Mitch Halpern stepped between the fighters in the 11th round and ended the one-sided match.
"Usually when they stop fights, it's when you're throwing a barrage of punches and you don't get any punches back," Ruelas said. "But I wasn't doing what I usually do. That's why I didn't really think he should have stopped it at that time. I thought he should have waited. I wanted to get a devastating knockout. . . . I was kind of disappointed that he stopped it. After I learned what happened, I was glad. That's what referees are supposed to do."
Garcia collapsed after the fight and his condition quickly worsened. He underwent brain surgery because of swelling in his brain that night.
Ruelas tried to visit Garcia in the hospital that night and again the next day, but only relatives were allowed into his room. When Garcia's father, Manuel, and his brother, Manuel Jr., arrived, Ruelas requested permission to see Garcia.
"I felt bad asking them, because I felt so guilty," Ruelas said. "I wouldn't have even blamed them if they would have started punching me. But the father was very nice. He said, 'Sure.' "
Ruelas went into Garcia's room alone.
He began speaking to the fighter, who was in a coma.