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Journeyman in a Fight for His Life

Few had heard of Ruben Contreras before he got into the ring at Staples Center last week. Then he left the arena in an ambulance.

June 04, 2005|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

There were no autograph seekers when Ruben Contreras landed at LAX the night of May 25 for a fight three days later at Staples Center -- no media mob to hound him, no cameras or tape recorders.

Scant attention was paid when Contreras weighed in two days later outside Staples Center in the shadow of Julio Cesar Chavez, who was the main attraction in the fight show the night of May 28.

They share a homeland and profession, but little else. Chavez is generally regarded as Mexico's greatest boxer, still able, at 42, to headline a major pay-per-view event. Contreras is a 32-year-old journeyman from Ciudad Juarez who would soon lose for the 17th time in 29 fights in the flyweight division, where 112-pounders toil in relative anonymity.

Contreras arrived at Staples Center early that afternoon, before many of the vendors, ushers and parking lot attendants.

His fight against undefeated Brian Viloria was the second match on a 10-fight card, staged around 4:30 before mostly empty seats.

The fight was largely uneventful, ringsiders recalled, lacking the type of savage pummeling that might presage what came next:

Fifty-five seconds into the sixth of eight scheduled rounds, Contreras turned his back on Viloria and said he could fight no more. After returning to his corner, he complained of a headache. Wobbly, he made his way out of the ring, then collapsed after a few steps and suffered a seizure.

He left on a stretcher, taken by ambulance to California Hospital Medical Center, where he underwent 2 1/2 hours of surgery to remove a blood clot surrounding his brain, and remains unconscious.

Suddenly, people began paying attention to Ruben Contreras.

*

Contreras, who began his pro career in 1993 in Juarez, was someone promoters would call at the last minute to fill a hole in the card, knowing that he would be in good shape, but pose no serious threat to a bigger-name opponent.

Beginning in 1996, Contreras lost four consecutive fights and six out of eight. Twice during that run, he was stopped in the first round. From 1998 to 2003, Contreras lost five in a row. In all, he has lost eight times by knockout or technical knockout, half of those occurring in the first round.

He never made much money in the ring, typically receiving $2,000 a fight minus 15% for his trainer.

To boost his earnings, Contreras moved with his wife, 11-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter across the border six years ago to El Paso, where he moonlighted as a carpenter specializing in kitchen cabinetry.

Recently, Contreras' telephone had been cut off.

"I'd call him to tell him he had an offer to fight," Edgar Sanchez Aguirre, his Juarez trainer, said Friday, "but the call wouldn't go through."

Contreras rode his bike from El Paso across the border to Aguirre's Manuel Auza Prieto gym in Juarez to save the bus or taxi fare.

Contreras didn't have a formal manager, often arranging fights and travel plans himself.

"He didn't want to pay the percentage to a manager," Aguirre said. "I always accompanied him when the fight was close by, but not when it was far away because he didn't want to buy the extra ticket."

In the last year and a half, Contreras' fortunes in the ring seemed to turn, beginning with a split-decision victory in El Paso over Carlos Madrigal in November 2003. Madrigal was 20-4 heading into that match.

A year ago, Contreras beat Tony Valdez (5-1) on a third-round TKO; lost a decision to Hugo Ramirez (19-2); fought to a draw with David Martinez (12-0); and lost by decision to Will Grigsby (16-2-1), who would go on to win the International Boxing Federation light-flyweight title.

So when Top Rank Inc. matchmaker Brad Goodman was looking for someone to face Austreberto Juarez on a card held Friday night in Oxnard, he thought of Contreras, who had become a credible opponent.

Contreras agreed to the match but never made it to Oxnard.

Viloria, 24, a Hawaiian with a 16-0 record, was set to fight for the World Boxing Council's flyweight title in July and needed a tuneup bout. "We were looking for rounds," said Ruben Gomez, Viloria's trainer.

A Staples Center match was made with Alejandro Moreno, but Viloria had beaten him easily two years ago and "Brian needed to face a tough fighter," said Gary Gittelsohn, Viloria's manager.

Finding credible opponents in a sparsely populated division near the bottom of the weight scale can be difficult. Goodman pointed out that Contreras (9-17-3) was already training for the Oxnard fight, was maintaining his weight and had improved as a fighter.

Viloria's side agreed.

Contreras would be paid $4,000, double his normal purse, plus travel expenses.

The fight required approval by the California State Athletic Commission.

Dean Lohuis, acting executive director of the commission, took a look at his fighter data base -- a collection of three-by-five index cards stored in shoeboxes -- and figured Viloria vs. Contreras was a fair match.

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