By Scott Clevenger
Many sports (outside of such whispered-commentary spectacles as golf or snooker) have a frankly atavistic appeal, and the potential to reduce their spectators to hooting mobs held in check solely by the weight of the 32 oz cups of concession stand Budweiser in their laps. But of all contact sports, boxing is perhaps the most primal. Like nature, it’s populated by predators and parasites, its lives are often nasty, brutish, and short, and its passions are as fierce as they are fleeting.
But sometimes a sport, even boxing, will germinate a principled oddball who holds to a code of honor older than the sport itself. Usually these outliers earn a baffled or pitying shake of the head from their more ruthless colleagues, but occasionally – not often, but every once in awhile – the nice guys finish first.
FOR SOME PEOPLE, IT’S LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT. FOR JOE GOOSSEN, IT WAS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT OF BLOOD
Joe Goossen had the typical Los Angeles upbringing. Seven brothers and two sisters; Irish Catholic mother; mountain-sized father who was one of the few Jewish homicide detectives in the LAPD.
Okay, maybe not so typical.
At 16 Joe snuck past a cop and into the Olympic Auditorium to see his first fight. Without a ticket he wandered down the aisle, scanning the dark, smoky rows for an empty seat and had gotten nearly close enough to reach out and touch the ring apron when one fighter suddenly jerked to his full height courtesy of an uppercut and toppled majestically toward Joe, trailing a cometary tail of blood and spittle in his wake.
“He was knocked out and my eyes were opened.” By the time that long-forgotten pugilist had hit the canvas, Joe knew what he wanted to do with his life.
A half century later, he’s still in the gym; and now also a three-time inductee of the Hall of Fame.
The Ten Goose Boxing Gym began as a hand-built ring under a tree in a Wiffle ball field. Joe and his brothers started training fighters in their off hours, stringing lights in the branches because they all worked during the day. Eventually they laid cement, put up walls and a roof, and varnished every surface, because the whole interior – right down to the speedbag racks – was crafted from wood. Sugar Ray Leonard once walked inside and declared “This is the greatest gym I’ve ever been in! It’s beautiful!” Resembling a Catskills training camp from the golden age of prizefighting, the hand-made gym had no plumbing, not even a changing room, just a wooden box grafted onto the back with barely enough room for a couple of fighters to sit on a bench and change their clothes behind a curtain.
Today Ten Goose is housed in a small, bright, modern space tucked away on a side street in Van Nuys, and frequented by both hungry neophytes and boxing royalty. The day I first met Joe there was another Hall of Famer in the house – former World Welterweight Champion Carlos Palomino, who had brought along a prospect to spar with one of Joe’s up and coming boxers.
Former World Champion Carlos Palomino watches from the corner.
A LABOR OF LOVE THAT STARTED WITH ONE PUNCH
They’d never worn shoes until they came to this country.
It took an hour by truck to wind up through the jungle to the village where they were born. “Walk out the back door of any adobe, you see nothing but fields stretching to the next mountain,” Joe remembers. “Their water comes from the river. They kill something every day to eat.
“No phones, no electricity. Just one street with ten adobes on one side, ten adobes on the other, and a church – the nicest structure in the village. A tiny community centered around God, family, and food.”
Gabriel and Rafael Ruelas had grown up in this isolated environment, two of fifteen children, picking garbanzo beans on their parents’ land. At ages 8 and 7 they were both sent north to live with siblings in the San Fernando Valley, where they were expected to continue working.
Juan Ruelas, the boys’ elder brother, was a boxer, and had spent time in Joe’s gym. When their father fell ill and Juan went home to help with the ranch, he told Gabriel, “While I’m gone, I want you to find this guy, Joe Goossen,” adding “If you go train, I’ll give you five dollars a day.”
Gabriel was selling candy at the time for an outfit called Junior Careers. A man in a van (never a good beginning to any story) would pick up a dozen kids and drop them off in a neighborhood, where they’d fan out to peddle their confections. One day Gabriel found himself outside Ten Goose Gym.
How long the boy stood there, Joe doesn’t know. But eventually Gabriel stashed his cardboard box of candies under a bush and approached the entrance.
“Certain things you never forget. It was really bright outside, and this elfin silhouette interrupted the glare. After hesitating, the figure moved inside and resolved into a skinny Latino kid…”
Joe watched from the back of the room as Gabriel made the long walk around the circumference of the ring to approach him, wondering, “What the hell does this kid want?”
Whatever it was, Joe had no time for it. He’d served his apprenticeship in the corner from 1970 to 1981, accompanying his friend Randy Shields on the long road from Amateur to Professional, picking up skills and absorbing the atmosphere and traditions of the game.
And now business was picking up. Within two months, the Goossens would sign their biggest catch, Olympian Michael Nunn, who four years later became middle weight champion of the world.
So it was a grim, not to say unwelcoming, but certainly unenthused face that greeted the boy who trudged nervously across that gym floor. As Gabriel later confessed, “I was so scared,” he told Joe. “You were scary-looking. You were big.”
“He said, ‘I want to be a fighter.’
“I knew I’d have to turn this kid away, which I didn’t want to do, but I had to make a living.
I said ‘We don’t train amateurs here, we just train pros.’
“He just looked at me, didn’t blink, and didn’t budge.”
That’s when Alonzo “Strongbow” Gonzalez, the number one flyweight in the world, peeked through the drape separating the changing room from the gym and piped up, “No, no, Joe. I want you to train him! I like what I see in his eyes.”
“Great,” Joe sighs. “So now I’m thinking, how do I get out of this?
“I say to Gabriel, ‘You want to train here? Okay. Where do you go to school?’
“’Sun Valley Junior High.’
“’When do you get out?’
“’Okay, you be here at 3:30. If you’re a minute late, don’t come in. If you miss a day, don’t come back.’”
Thirty minutes to get out of school and catch a bus from Sun Valley to Van Nuys? Impossible. Problem solved.
“When I saw him walk in on Monday, I looked at the clock, and it was like 3:28, right under the wire. (And he was never late once in 17 years. They never missed a day. And I rarely gave them a day off, even after a fight. I spent more time with those kids than I did with my own.)
“But a deal’s a deal. So I had him put on the gloves…
“People ask me why I took them on when everybody else in my life thought it was a waste of time; we were looking at six years before they could turn pro and even start to think about making some money. In fact, until then, I was spending money.
“But the first punch Gabriel threw, as soon as his hand hit the mitt, I thought, ‘I’ve got a world champion here!’
“It’s like handing a bat to a Little Leaguer who’s never played before. You start throwing to him and he knocks every pitch out of the park, and you go, ‘So you’ve never played?’ and he shakes his head. ‘Never even had a bat in your hand?’ ‘Nope.’
“I knew very little about working with kids, I only knew I didn’t want to start it. I’d already done the amateurs, and it was very unrewarding.”
But you don’t see that kind of raw talent walk through your door every day, and when you do, you don’t just turn it away.
“It took a little prodding from Alonzo, but it only took one day in the gym before I knew I was lucky. Nobody had to say another word to me after that.”
A month later, in July 1984, Gabriel brought his 11-year-old brother Rafael into the gym to train, and lightning struck twice. And what had started as a wild gamble gradually turned into a labor of love.
The brothers’ first amateur fight was in Oxnard that September, and they caused an immediate stir.
“Gabriel climbed in the ring and knocked this kid out cold. Which nobody was doing. No kid at that age knocks a kid out cold. And the coaches are like, ‘Who the hell is this kid? Where did he come from?’
The Ruelas brothers
“A month later I signed them up for the first PAL Blue and Gold, huge national tournament. And back then there was no Junior and Open; if you enter the tournament you could fight someone with a hundred fights, even if you had just three. Which is what happened.
“Gabriel and Rafael had barely any real gym experience, but they got an intense crash course, and started working their way through the brackets.
“Now we got guys from San Francisco to Arkansas to New York, and it was a two ring, three-day tournament at the Olympic Auditorium. Packed house, thousands of spectators. In his seventh fight ever, Gabriel ends up in the finals, fights a kid with a 101-1 record and destroys him. I’ve got a picture; when the referee raises the fighters’ arms, Gabriel’s opponent just collapsed. And this was a kid hadn’t lost since he was like, six.
“So Rafael gets to the finals and faces off against Shane Mosley, who, if I recall correctly, had 80 fights and 75 wins, against Rafael’s five. Mosley was the golden child, he was the guy; they couldn’t justify giving the fight to Rafael, because, who is he? He’s never fought before.”
The officials awarded the win to Mosley, a decision which did not sit well with the crowd. “It’s the only fight they booed over the whole weekend.”
“After that, there was suddenly a lot of interest in these two boys, and all the way through Amateurs, numerous people tried to lure them away from me.
“But they were loyal to me like no other fighter.”
That loyalty was reciprocated. Joe bought them their first pairs of boxing shoes. He arranged through a friend of the family, an Irish priest, for the boys to cut through the red tape to make their first Holy Communion. They lived together for years, in the gym, in the training camps, and gradually the trust between them grew and blossomed into something Joe had experienced with none of his other fighters. And over the years he’s trained many.
But it wasn’t easy.
“Gabriel was a quiet kid. He basically didn’t say a word to me for three years. If we were in the car for three hours driving down to San Diego, he’d be staring out the side window so he wouldn’t accidentally make eye contact with me and have to speak. He later said it was because he was embarrassed about his English; Rafael was more fluent and would always be leaning forward from the back seat (this was before mandatory seatbelt laws) and chattering away.
Rafael was the more outgoing and, outside of the ring, the more ambitious. When Reagan signed the Amnesty act, “Rafael was working as an intern for an attorney, and he received an award from the City of Los Angeles, in a ceremony at City Hall, for processing more amnesty applications than anyone else in L.A.
“He was 15 at the time. Whatever these kids decided to do, they were going to be number one. The lawyer even said, ‘We’ll send you to law school. You have to quit boxing, though’, and Rafael just said, ‘Nah.’
“In the end, he did it on his own. He got his accounting license, his brokerage license, his real estate license…”
After the Amnesty, both boys got their Green Cards, and in 1990, became American citizens. But before that, the possibility of arrest and deportation was a constant threat to their dream. “It was scary, they had to be leery about going certain places, avoid spots La Migra patrolled in their green-and-white cars.”
“The 1988 Olympics were coming up. Gabriel and Raphael weren’t yet U.S. citizens, so they were eligible for the Mexican team. Which is a two-year process. You start in ‘86 with the trials and the tournaments, and because we’d missed the early part of this process, I had to scramble to get them into the tournament in Tijuana. And if you win there, that’s just the beginning; you have to go on and win tournaments all the way through until you get to Mexico City. Talk about an arduous journey! And Mexico already had its A and B Olympic Teams picked. To have a chance you’d have to work your way into the Olympic Center and then beat some of thoseguys—former Olympians, or guys who’d made their way up the ladder and were top amateur stars.
“So I take Gabriel and Rafael to TJ; they were around 15 and 16. They held the fight outside the arena, in the parking lot.
“Gabriel gets in the ring first with another aspiring Olympian, and hit him with a left hook that would’ve knocked out anybody. This kid went down so hard, I was worried about him. They dragged him out, and it took awhile to wake him up. Nobody was wearing headgear, and they used pro gloves – 8 ouncers, they weren’t like the padded Ringside, you could feel knuckles through them.
“The promoter got on the phone to Mexico City right after the fight and said ‘I got a kid here you’re gonna want me to send down there. He just knocked out so-and-so in like 20 seconds, and the guy still ain’t awake.’
“So Rafael gets in the ring, does the same thing, and there’s another phone call: ‘Okay, uh…There’s two of ‘em.’
We bypassed the rest of the tournament. Bypassed the regionals and the districts and went right to the Olympic Center. Gabriel was on the A Team and Rafael was on the B team. It was a hell of a journey. But once that first day in Tijuana happened, I knew where it was going to go.”
“MONEY WAS NEVER REALLY PART OF THE CONVERSATION. WITH US, IT WAS ALWAYS ABOUT THE BELT, NEVER ABOUT THE BANK.”
“Rafael was allowed to turn pro at 17, a year ahead of schedule, because he was knocking out all the amateurs, nobody would fight him anymore. And we had to go to Vegas to do it, we couldn’t do it in California.”
Gabriel turned pro four years to the day after his first fight in Oxnard, on September 16, 1988, in a match against Raul Martinez at Caesar’s Palace.
Rafael debuted on January 17, 1989, also at Caesar’s Palace, fighting Marcos Covarrubias. Gabriel fought on the same card.
“Gabriel’s first pro fight, he knocked the guy out and looked like the second coming of Roberto Duran. Bob Arum jumped in the ring and shouted, ‘We’ve got something special here!’
“We never had to have contracts, not even a handshake. It was just, ‘You do this? Okay, I’ll do this’. Like a brother to a brother.”
“You can always count on having business problems with most professional fighters, but not them. Never. And they were worth millions. They were hot properties. And there were two of ‘em. The odds of getting one world champion? Forget it, you might as well just play the Lotto. But the odds of getting two?” Joe shook his head; more than three decades later, it was still hard to believe.
“Money was never an overriding concern with me, it was always about the belt. You see that thing wrapped around someone’s waist and think, ‘I want one of those.’ I can get money any time, but hardly anybody gets one of those. That green belt, the WBC one with the flags of the world? Oh man, that’s the one I always wanted, because it’s one of the longest standing belts. And that’s the one we won with Gabriel. That was my objective for us. I never said to them when they were kids, ‘Hey, I’m gonna make you guys rich.’ I said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna make you champions.’
Joe’s father, Elliott “Al” Goossen [L], the Ruelas Brothers, Joe.
“One day in the gym, in training camp up in Campo, San Diego, Gabriel had complained about his elbow. And Gabriel never complained.
“But he threw a right hand and made an ‘ow’ noise, and I said, okay, that’s it. He said, no, no, it’s okay, and I said, Uh…no. You’ve never complained before. So I took him to an orthopedic surgeon down in San Diego who said it was probably a hyper-extension, just let it rest.
“But it was still bugging him, so I said, let’s go to another doctor, get a second opinion.
“The diagnosis was the same: hyper-extension.
“Okay, so we finished training camp. It bothered him a little bit, but not too bad, but I decided to take him to another orthopedic surgeon in Las Vegas. He x-rayed the elbow, diagnosed a hyper-extension, and gave him a cortisone shot.
“So we get to Vegas for the Franklin fight, and the consensus of medical opinion is he’s got a hyper-extension. Nothing serious.
“It wasn’t a hyper-extension.
“Turns out he had an old stress fracture. Three doctors missed it on the x-ray. So that night in the ring, we’re having our way with Franklin. Gabriel hits him in the fifth or sixth round with a right hand and boom! I saw his arm drop…
“He came back to the corner, and I’m hammering at him to keep that hand up, and he just says, quietly, ‘It hurts.’
“And I just blew right past it. I heard it, but I knew it was a hyper-extension – three out of three doctors agreed – and I was more focused on him keeping that hand up to protect himself.
“So I send him back out. Franklin senses it’s injured, and attacks. Broke it in half, inverted it, like Theismann’s leg.
“I jumped in the ring, and I knew, with what I just saw, that this was a career ender. Even worse, the surgery I got talked into in Vegas, they said it has to be done now. Turns out it didn’t. And what happened when they did the surgery? They put the screws in backwards.
“We get back to town and I took Gabriel to another surgeon, Dr. Tony Daley, who looks at the x-rays and says ‘The screws they put in are too thin, and they’re pointing in the wrong direction. This is all going to break within the week.’ He says they’ll have to operate again, remove all the hardware, take a bone graft from his hip, etc.
“Gabriel had put in a lifetime of work to reach that night, it was his big HBO debut fight, and now an inch from the brass ring, his arm’s ruined. Everyone’s saying he’ll never fight again. Never.
“Needless to say, Gabriel was pissed, and after we got back home, he wasn’t really taking my calls…"
Then Gene Hackman intervened.
“Gene was a friend of mine. He loved Gabriel and Rafael and his son Chris literally followed them around for a couple years and made a documentary about them, but the footage got lost when his basement flooded... So Gene went over to see him, then he comes into the gym and tells me ‘He’s very angry with you.’ And I go, “I know. He deserves to be.”
“Gene said, if I were you, I’d go see him. So I took his advice and drove over there. We went out to a restaurant and I told him, ‘Gabriel, I did everything right a thousand times. I did one thing really wrong, and I could’ve done two thousand things right and it wouldn’t make up for what I did the other night.’ And then he said, ‘I forgive you.’ And that was that. That’s all he needed to hear.
“And you know, he would’ve been within his rights to say anything to me–anything–because he’d trusted me and I broke his trust. It was the worst thing in the world.
“But he never brought it up again.
“And I vowed to myself – just like I vowed to them the first month I knew them; I said, ‘You’re gonna be world champions.’ I guaranteed it. And now I vowed to myself, ‘I’m gonna right this wrong. I’m gonna go through hell to get him that belt I promised him his whole life.’
“It was a long journey back. We had to go through two operations, a year of rehab, and then we had to get back into the gym. There were tune-up fights; my brother Dan maneuvered things so he’d have a shot at the title again; and I did everything I could to make sure he was prepared. But he basically went back in the ring to face Jesse James Leija with one-and-a-half arms. He could never fully extend his right because of the bolts in his elbow.
“That’s how good he was. Where you might rely on the old one-two, Gabriel didn’t have a one-two anymore. So what’d he do in the championship fight? He knocked Leija down twice. With his right. That goes to show you how badass that right hand was. Even with half an arm, that couldn’t snap, he put him down twice. Leija landed so hard he broke his leg. Fought the rest of the match with a hairline fracture.
“And you know still to this day he can’t fully extend it. It’s never going to be 100% again. But he won the belt. He defended the title…”
And then Jimmy Garcia died.
“Gabriel was a stealth-giver. He would do things for people that you’d never know about.
“We’d be up in the mountains at training camp, working six days a week, and I’d say, ‘Get in the car, we’ll drive down to San Diego and hit the mall.’ But suddenly you look around and think, Where’s Gabriel? And you see him over with these homeless guys, giving them money. He was like that. He’d take them into restaurants and feed them.
“Meeting him for the first time, you’d never guess he was like that, because he was such a closed book. Now, he grew out of that as he got older, and became much more friendly and talkative; the conversations opened up, the laughing opened up, the jokes opened up. But at any given moment, when everybody’s sitting around talking, you’d go, ‘Where’s Gabriel?’ and he’d be over there staring out the window, just thinking.
“And some of those thoughts were dark.
“Gabriel had recurring dreams that he was going to die in the ring.
“He used to have visions of the devil visiting him in his room. Gabriel got a devil’s mask when we were up in training camp, and it was a frightening one too. I don’t know if he was trying to do a little self-therapy or what, but he definitely had a feeling somebody was gonna die.
“Where Rafael had no such premonitions. Rafael was like, ‘I’m gonna be champ, I’m gonna make money, I’m gonna do well, I’m gonna get my stockbrokers license.’
“But Gabriel always felt doomed. And he was right in a way, he just got it backwards. Because it wasn’t long after the training camp, with the mask and the devil and all that stuff, that he killed Garcia.”
In May 1995, Gabriel successfully defended his WBC World Super Featherweight title for the second time, scoring a TKO against Jimmy Garcia at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. But Garcia slipped into a coma, and never recovered.
I asked Joe if he was surprised about the way Gabriel took it.
“Knowing Gabriel, I’m not surprised he sat with Jimmy in the hospital room for a week, holding his hand. After everything that happened that weekend – after nine, ten weeks in the mountains -- I was exhausted, mentally, physically, spiritually. I just couldn’t have spent one more minute in Las Vegas.
“Gabriel was the only one who stayed behind. His brother left, his family left, I left. He stayed behind. And then had to face the wrath of Garcia’s mom who wouldn’t shake his hand because these were the hands that killed her son. It was horrible.
“Gabriel stayed behind for a week until Jimmy died, and it was a real act of compassion.
“People think fighters are mean, blood-thirsty guys, that you got to be like that to win. But who you are in the ring is no predictor of what’s in your heart.”
It was getting late. The sun was slanting over the low buildings as we walked back to the gym, where a new generation of young boxers waited for Joe to sharpen and shape them into something dangerous. Good prospects, he mused, ticking them off one by one. Maybe not the Ruelas Brothers, but that’s no surprise; Joe’s been around long enough to recognize a once in a lifetime deal when he sees it.
And though the fights are over, the relationship endures. Gabriel and Rafael bring their families over to Joe’s house for dinner, and several times during our conversations he called each of them to good naturedly argue a name or a detail from some long past bout (his ability to recall the minutiae of fights from thirty-five years ago is faintly eerie).
We shook hands and as I turned to go, the last thing I saw in Ten Goose Gym was the first thing I saw when I walked in: a big photograph hung above the ring. It depicts a smiling Joe with his arms around Gabriel and Rafael, each of their waists encircled by the belt he’d promised them when they were boys.