SAN DIEGO – You ever wonder how long Americans need to keep taking note of the first this, or the first that?
I have a simple answer: Until there’s a second.
So, as a Mexican American who loves boxing, let me explain why it matters that 29-year-old Andy Ruiz Jr. – who hails from the Imperial Valley, a rural desert region on the California-Mexico border – is now the first Mexican American heavyweight champion of the world.
But first, let’s think about what it means to be the first.
In 2008, we were right to celebrate the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president. That was a huge breakthrough. But when we elect another African American male, we won’t need to make such a fuss. That barrier is already broken.
Notice I said “male.” The election of the first African American female president will also be huge, and also worth celebrating.
Furthermore, though the Beltway media tends to forget it, diversity doesn’t just mean black. Groundbreaking achievements by Latinos, Asian Americans, Indian Americans and Native Americans should also be noted.
For example, in 2005 Antonio Villaraigosa was sworn in as the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since the late 1800s.
It’s also worth noting and celebrating – especially at the outset of LGBTQ Pride Month – that Pete Buttigieg continues to thrill crowds in his bid to become the first openly gay president. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has made his sexual orientation part of his campaign, and some conservative critics have even foolishly accused him of playing the “gay card.”
Ever notice how there’s never talk of a “straight white male card”? I guess you don’t need your own card when you control the deck.
We should all cheer those who break barriers, because the road to being the “first” anything is often long and difficult. It’s also complicated. Even when things change, some folks will want to change them back.
Look at the mixed-up Democratic Party. On the one hand, you have pioneers like Obama and Hillary Clinton – who, in 2016, became the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party. On the other, you have white males like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb – both defeated by Clinton – griping about “identity politics.”
It makes you want to switch the channel away from politics to another contact sport that can be much less brutal – professional boxing.
The men in my family have long revered Latino boxers. But those fighters tend to be in the lower weight classes. My grandfather’s favorite boxer was Jose “Pipino” Cuevas. My dad loved Roberto Durán. And for me, the gold standard was Oscar De La Hoya. All of them fought in the welterweight class.
But, as a heavyweight, Ruiz is in a different league – one where historically you haven’t seen many Latinos. Fighting as a heavyweight means having to battle bigger and stronger opponents and taking much more punishment.
In his career, Ruiz has taken – and delivered – his share of punches. When he stepped into the ring last Saturday night at Madison Square Garden to face British fighter Anthony Joshua – as a last-minute substitute for another boxer who failed multiple drug tests – the Mexican American had already amassed an impressive 33-1 record with 22 knockouts.
Yet Ruiz doesn’t look like he just stepped out of central casting. More like Krispy Kreme. At a flabby 268 pounds and 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Ruiz stood in stark contrast to Joshua, whose chiseled physique weighs in at 247 pounds and stands at 6 feet, 6 inches.
It’s no wonder the oddsmakers at Caesar’s Palace had the big man as an 11-1 underdog.
But what counts in the ring isn’t low body fat. It’s stamina, power and heart. And Ruiz marshaled all three to defeat Joshua with a seventh-round knockout and win a spot in the history books.
Talking to reporters after the fight, Ruiz referred to himself as a “Mexican warrior.” The fact that he’s proud of his culture and heritage will inspire other Mexican Americans to be proud of him.
“I have that Mexican blood in me,” he said. “Talking about the Mexican fighting style, I just proved it.”
Ruiz is correct. Mexican Americans do like to fight. Most of the time, we fight our hearts out to arrive at the American Dream.
And what do you know? One of us just got there.
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