GABRIEL RUELAS WAS TROUBLED. On May 6, defending his World Boxing Council super-featherweight title in Las Vegas, he had done what all boxers try to do—wear down his opponent, then knock him out. But Jimmy Garcia had not walked out of the ring like most defeated fighters. He had collapsed in his corner after the fight was stopped and later slipped into a coma from which he would never return.

Wracked with guilt, Ruelas visited by Garcia's bedside at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas. After 12 days, doctors told Garcia's parents, Manuel and Carmen, that their son was brain-dead. The 23-year-old Colombian was removed from life support the next morning, and in minutes he was dead. Three days earlier, his anguished mother met with Ruelas at the Top Rank (promoter's) offices in town. "She said, 'I look at your hands and I see the hands that killed my son,' " Ruelas recalls. "What do you say to the mother of the guy that you feel you killed?"

Death shadows every man who laces up boxing gloves. In no other sport is conquest so literal, or is injury the obvious goal. Each time a life is lost, even die-hard defenders of the sport must question the risks, as they have since Ruelas, 24, became the fourth pugilist in the last 14 months known to have fatally dispatched an opponent. But few boxers have dealt with the situation as forth-rightly as Ruelas.

For Gabriel and his younger brother Rafael, also 24, the night of May 6 held great promise. Each was to fight in a pay-per-view double bill from Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. But by the time Rafael lost his International Boxing Federation lightweight crown to former Olympic gold medalist Oscar De La Hoya, tragedy had already struck. In the 10th round of the first fight, the 130-pound Ruelas had rocked Garcia, a relative newcomer, with a combination that sent him reeling into the ropes. Garcia's cornermen—his father and brother Manuel Jr.—encouraged him to fight on after the ringside doctor pronounced him able. Garcia himself was eager to continue. But 25 seconds into the 11th round, Ruelas landed a devastating left to the head, and referee Mitch Halpern stopped the fight. Moments later, Garcia collapsed in his corner.

That night Gabriel visited the hospital after Garcia had undergone emergency surgery and stayed up until 3 a.m. with Garcia's father and brother. (Carmen would arrive from Colombia a week after the fight.) On May 7, finding himself momentarily alone with the comatose boxer, Ruelas leaned over and spoke into his ear. "I said, 'I would rather be in your place because I have already done what I wanted to in life,' " he remembers." 'It wasn't my intention to do this to you. Show me a sign if you can hear me.' " At that point, says Ruelas, Garcia's hand shot up, then fell back down. "At first it made me feel great," he says, "because I thought, 'He understands.' But then I got a cold feeling. I felt scared. I felt that he was mad at me. It's a doubt I'll always have."

Garcia's body was flown back home to Barranquilla, Colombia, where 50,000 people lined the streets of the port city to cheer their fallen hero as his casket rode atop a blaring fire engine. (Garcia had said he would celebrate a victory in Las Vegas with a fire-engine ride through his hometown.) Hours after her son's dramatic funeral, Carmen was asked if she harbored anger toward Ruelas. "I don't resent him," she said sitting on the porch of her home surrounded by her five remaining children. "I'm just in pain. It's the mother who suffers most. I lost the most important thing in my life, after God, and now boxing makes no sense to me. But these are matters of destiny."

Ruelas was also at work, trying to sort out his tangled emotions. At first he declared he would quit the sport. Then, after several days of reflection, he changed his mind. "I am totally against the people who are trying to abolish boxing," he says. "They're going to finish a lot of dreams kids have, just like my self."

As a child, growing up in Yerba Buena, Mexico, south of Guadalajara, Ruelas dreamed of an easier life. His parents were too poor to buy shoes for him and his 12 siblings, and when Gabriel was 8, he and Rafael, 7, were shipped to California to live with a sister in the San Fernando Valley. There, in 1986, while selling candy door-to-door for pocket money, Gabriel came upon a North Hollywood gym and soon returned with Rafael to train. Two years later Gabriel—who now lives in Los Angeles with his wife Leslie, 28, an actress, and their 1-year-old son, Diego—turned pro. In 1994, on the way to what is now a 41-2 record, he beat "Jesse" James Leija to win his first WBC championship belt.

That belt is now weighing heavily. Ironically, Ruelas's greatest source of strength has been Carmen Garcia. "When I started approaching her [at the Top Rank offices], she backed away and cried," he recalls. "I don't know what I said to her after that, but she got close to me. She gave me the biggest hug, like she was my mom, and said, 'Whenever you fight, I will see Jimmy in you. I will pray for you as if you were him.' "

PETER CASTRO
STANLEY YOUNG in Los Angeles and KEN DERMOTA in Barranquilla

  • Contributors:
  • Stanley Young,
  • Ken Dermota.