“One of the good things that’s happening here,” HBO’s Larry Merchant quipped upon John Ruiz’s manager charging the referee after the final bell in his 2003 defeat to Roy Jones, Jr., “we’ll probably never have to see Norman Stone again.”
That we ever saw Norman Stone, the Quiet Man’s loudmouthed manager whose verbal combat turned physical in the lead up to that championship fight against Jones, appears as a minor miracle.
In 1991, the bus driver and foreman in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) rail yard who moonlighted as a motor-mouthed trainer at the Somerville Boxing Club, stood less than three years away from a Massachusetts fantasy–a full state pension–when the cash-strapped MBTA offered an early retirement. “If I had stayed three more years,” Stone tells Breitbart Sports, “I’d have like $5,000-a-month coming in right now.”
Instead, Stone, who would be the perfect Disney character if Disney felt their market warranted the creation of a grizzled, tattooed, Vietnam veteran with a handle-bar mustache, faced a vexing challenge as he worked as a trainer by night and “T” employee by day. Stone couldn’t live his two lives any longer. He could grind it out for 30 more months for a full retirement package, or he could use all of his energy to prepare the number-one ranked amateur heavyweight in the United States, John Ruiz, for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He chose the pugilist over the pension.
“Nobody today brings up a fighter from the get-go,” Stone tells Breitbart Sports. “Everyone gets a tailor made fighter brought to them. I coached John from amateur all the way up.”
The T gave Stoney $1,500-a-month before taxes, while the middle-aged, former bar brawler gave every ounce of his blood to a fighter who was not yet eligible to receive monetary compensation for his craft. “I just had a gut feeling that it was the right time,” he reflects. “I had to go with John. We had to train more. We needed more time in the gym.”
A decade or so earlier, Stone, always a heavy underdog, sat slouched and inebriated on a barstool in the 655 Lounge on Somerville Ave, vocalizing delusions of grandeur of one day becoming a champion’s trainer. “I was a barroom drinker, I hung down the 655, the Lion’s Den in North Cambridge, the State Spa, Jon’s Place. I drank in all the barrooms.”
In the barroom Olympiad, the boozehound sought to convince the cynical barkeep and the other glazed-day drinkers that talk would one day yield action. “I always thought–because I always hung around with fighters, and because I trained with Paul Raymond, trained Bobby Covino, and all the great fighters–that I could train a heavyweight champ. But alcohol really made me do more talking than doing.”
“When I was drinking they all thought I was full of s#!+, but they made me dig deeper,” said Stoney as he reminisced about waiting for the winning lottery ticket to appear on his lap. By the end of the ’70s, with alcoholism insidious in Somerville, sobering up played as a novel and daunting task.
In 1980, booze brought Stone to a standing-8 count. He cut his first deal with fate: exchanging a barstool for the folding metal chairs of Alcoholics Anonymous. In return, he received 24 hours of sobriety every day that he took his seat. “At six months sober, I would go down to the 655 Lounge on Somerville Ave., and I was one of those guys that thought I could be sober and get the best of both worlds, you know, still hang with the guys drinking and say, ‘Look at me, I’m sober.’ But someone in AA told me that if I hang with a dog long enough, I’d get fleas. So I said, ‘Alright, I’ll just go down the boxing club at night and train every kid down there.'”
Stone’s next decade transpired as a delicate balance as a bus driver on Boston’s crowded streets, and as a grassroots boxing trainer at the Somerville Boxing Club. Stone finally discovered a keeper in Ruiz, the promising Puerto Rican teenage heavyweight from Chelsea who bicycled across the Mystic River to form combinations under his tutelage.
With an MBTA bus in the rearview mirror, Stone readied Ruiz to coast through the Olympic trials on his way to representing the United States and his native Puerto Rico at the Barcelona Games. But Ruiz and Stone drove home east on the Mass Pike losers.
Stone’s solace for the loss and source of gain was his other gym in Somerville’s Grace Baptist Church. Inside the basement of the church, Stone and a sober training partner had started an AA meeting. “The real fights were fought inside the meeting halls, there was nobody getting paid to get sober, but like boxing nothing in sobriety is given to you, you have to keep coming back.”
“After the disappointment of the Olympic trials, we knew we had to get out of the amateur game, so we decided the time was right to turn John pro.” Four years later, Stone had already cashed out his pension, remortgaged his house, and borrowed from his sister-in-law to parlay a barroom rant into an HBO production.
After knocking out 17 of his first 27 foes, Ruiz garnered enough steam to gain a headlining bout on HBO versus the heavy-handed David Tua. Nineteen seconds into the fight with the stocky New Zealander, Ruiz landed in another realm of consciousness as Tua landed what Stone describes as a “lucky punch.” As Ruiz lay unresponsive to doctor’s commands, for the first time in Stone’s cornering career, he stood at a loss for words.
“The worst thing that ever happened to John in the ring was getting knocked out by Tua,” explained Stone. “When we got back it was, ‘You’re crazy, you guys suck, he can’t fight,’ but we used it as ammunition. We watched the tape and just got back in the gym and trained harder.”
Stone prided himself on watching fight film, studying weaknesses and meticulously planning strategy, looking for an opening that Ruiz could exploit. Over the next few years, Ruiz and Stone grinded. “John asked me to get him the best fighters, and that’s what we did.”
Five years after the embarrassing Tua defeat, the Quiet Man fought Evander Holyfield to a stalemate loss-win-draw trilogy. In their second fight, he rocked the Real Deal with a right to the head, decking him in the 11th round on the way to a decision and the WBA heavyweight title, becoming the first Hispanic fighter to ever hold a heavyweight belt. He soon defeated other top-tier heavyweights, including Andrew Golota, Hasim Rahman, and Kirk Johnson.
Ultimately, the growth after the Tua fight manifested itself in a new fighting tactic for Ruiz, a clutching-and-grabbing, wear-down-the-opposition style that brought Ruiz the heavyweight title and boos.
“The powers that be hated us. Boxing hated us. They boo’d us everywhere we went, but I had no problem going after someone in the stands. That was never a problem for me,” joked Stone. As Ruiz became known as the Quiet Man, and his clutch-and-grab style made boxing referees earn their keep, Stone began to amplify his already passionate and colorful leadership. “What John didn’t have, I had to pick up. I had to take the pressure off John by hollering and screaming, so the referee wouldn’t yell and bark at John for holding all the time.”
By the early 2000s, Stone had remortgaged his house a third time, evaporated his $1,500 “T” checks, and worked manual labor throughout Greater Boston to fund the journey. “John never had to work a job when he was under us. He had the best deal a fighter could have. I even remodeled Johnny’s house to get by,” said Stone. But as champions, the Ruiz camp grew further apart. In the ring, Stone was only as good as his last complaint. His fiery spirit could make coffee nervous. Outside of the ring, Ruiz was as shy as they come.
One of Stone’s former fighters recalled a local promotion at Revere Beach a week following the Oquendo title retention. “When we pulled up and got out of the car, all of the sports writers and reporters ran over to Stoney,” he noted. “And there’s the heavyweight champion of the world, John Ruiz, sitting in the car with nobody to talk to. John was pissed.” Ruiz may have been the heavyweight titlist, but Stone was the show.
As people in Ruiz’s life caught his ear about the attention focusing on Stoney, the chasm widened. On November 11, 2004, inside Madison Square Garden, Stone, after seeing Ruiz knocked down twice in the second round by Andrew Golota, was asked by the referee to tape up Johnny’s gloves in the the 8th. Microphoned for a national audience to hear, Stone, in an abusive yet comedic manner, told fellow Vietnam vet Randy Neumann to tape up Johnny’s gloves while letting the referee know that “he had no balls” and calling him a “jerkoff.” The ref ejected Stone, a feat that no trainer has since matched during a heavyweight title bout. But like a manager firing up his baseball team by kicking dirt across home plate, this “transfusion of spirit,” as one ring announcer portrayed it, carried Ruiz to a narrow decision.
“Look, the way I saw it was I was out in this ring all by myself, no promoter behind me,” Stoney reflects. “I’m the manager, trainer, and cut man. Every fight my life was on the line. My sister-in-law lent me a lot of money–the remortgages, everything. My whole drive was to make John be the heavyweight champion of the world. And I did whatever I had to do.”
On December 17, 2005, with Stone’s twenty-fifth year of sobriety looming, and Ruiz’s title belt, recently regained as the result of James “Lights Out” Toney testing positive for steroids, on the line, Ruiz fought the seven-foot tall, 324-pound Nikolai Valuev in Berlin, Germany. After an ugly and grueling 12-round fight, Valuev won a majority decision. Shortly after returning home, Stone announced his retirement. While many have claimed that Ruiz had finally taken the advice of those close to him that it was time to backdoor his trainer, Stone’s short message explained: “I’m tired of boxing and last week’s bad decision was the last straw. I’ll always support Johnny. Even in retirement, I’ll have his back.”
Nearly nine years have passed since Stone last cornered Ruiz. The two have a less than communicative relationship today. But change is one of the few constants in life. Those who can leave their comfort zone and adapt succeed over time. In 2014, it’s not Norman Stone’s East Somerville any more. Gentrification has glacially moved down Winter Hill into East Somerville. Central American and Brazilian immigrants inhabit most of the triple-deckers in Stone’s old neighborhood. Though it may never produce a blazing Irish Catholic the likes of Norman Stone again, a fighting spirit flows through the veins of the new Somerville. The longtime trainer reflects, “The kid who doesn’t have nothing will always have what it takes to become a world beater in life.”
The Quiet Man will always be the first Hispanic heavyweight champion of the world. And Norman Stone, the loud and volatile bus driver, will always be the chauffeur who drove him there. But if it weren’t for Stone’s ability to be “the Quiet Man” for an hour a day as he sat on the steel folding chair during AA meetings, the world would never have seen such an unexpected contrast of characters combine in one of boxing’s most interesting teams.
The Mystic River, the waterway John Ruiz peddled over on a ten-speed to meet Stone for early morning training sessions at the Somerville Boxing Club, now serves less as gateway than barrier. On one side of the river stands Norman Stone’s Somerville Boxing Club, currently under the umbrella of Mayor Joseph Curatone’s Youth Development initiative. Directly across the Mystic, inside of Medford Gold’s Gym, sits John Ruiz’s Quiet Man Boxing, where he, too, trains fighters.
“You walk into a venue, or a gym today in Philadelphia, Detroit, Las Vegas, wherever, and the place stops. The fighters stop training and they all walk over to Stoney and shake his hand,” quipped Bobby Covino, Stone’s longtime friend and the best light heavyweight to ever come out of Somerville. Longtime boxing referee, Ed Fitzgerald, sharply added, “And then [they] ask, ‘Hey Stoney, who was that fighter you trained? What was his name again?'”
Many are the sayings in AA. None are more analogous to Stone’s fifteen-year relationship with Ruiz or his 33 years living sober than the aphorism: When you put one hand up to God, and the other hand out to help someone else, you never have a hand to pick up a drink.
The Grace Baptist Church, where Stone and long-time pal “Eddie” started their own AA meeting, still sits on Cross Street. But when Somerville banned smoking in 2004, they effectively banned the meeting. “It’s hard enough to get a guy to quit drinking. But to tell a guy he has to quit smoking at the same time is too much,” quipped Stoney.
On June 20, 1981, shortly after a dead body found in the dumpster in the back of the 655 Lounge elicited a “suspension” by Somerville’s licensing board, the backdrop for Norman Stone’s last great theatrical performance as a barroom drinker experienced a second alarm called by the Somerville Fire Department. Stone’s old haunt burned to the ground, reminding him that his present would always be a much safer place than his past. “Talk about a miracle, from that day on, I really had nowhere to go but forward.”
“As soon as we won the heavyweight championship,” Stone explains, “my son grabbed me and said, ‘Dad, nobody can ever take this away from you. You did it.’ A lot of people in AA knew I was a grinder and I grinded it out and we did it.” When asked what his old barkeeps and neighbors said back in Somerville, Stone answers: “They said, ‘How the hell did you do that?”
Norman Stone did it one day at a time.