A couple of decades ago, a kid from Cliffside Park pulled off one of the greatest underdog stories in New Jersey wrestling history.
In 1998, Oliver Ruiz went on an absolute tear knocking off some of NJ's finest to win what would be later deemed the second Toughest Weight Class of the 1990s!
Check out The Oliver Ruiz Story told by Jim Maxwell on the old NJ wrestling forum!
"It all began about five years ago (1993), I was talking to Mike Foca an outstanding wrestler on the Cliffside Park wrestling team about his chances in the upcoming District 16 Championships. I asked him if there were any freshman coming to the program who could make an impact next season. He told me of a lightweight named Oliver Ruiz who already could hold his own with the best lightweights on the team. He pointed him out to me at the meet and when I first saw him I thought he looked SPECIAL.
Everyone on the team, freshmen to seniors seemed to take a liking to him and he wasn't even on the team yet, he was an eighth grader.
I'm a photographer who started taking interest in Cliffside wrestling when Foca a neighborhood kid asked me to come see him wrestle. I never wrestled in high school, but went to Brentwood High School on Long Island. We were the Phillipsburg of New York, turning out region and state champions every year. After I graduated I would go to all the big meets only because we won them all. I loved the drama of the Big Match, the battle between two undefeated wrestlers. I had to be there, to see the returning State Champ lose to the underdog. It was the DRAMA.
Oliver looked to be only about 100 pounds, not physically imposing, I couldn't wait to see him wrestle to see if he was as good as everyone said he could be.
His career started out great, winning his first tournament as a freshmen and his reputation began to build. Was he the real deal? Could he win a State Championship, it was far too early to tell. Some wrestling insiders already thought he could.
After placing in his district in his first year, his season ended abruptly at the regions being pinned by Caldwell's Paul Marinaccio, a wrestler who would haunt Ruiz over the next three years. His Sophomore and Junior year ended the same way, defeated by Marinaccio in the first round of the regions both years. Ollie, as he was called by his teamates just couldn't handle Marinaccio. I truly believed he was the best wrestler eliminated first, all three years. Was he overrated or maybe we just wanted him to be special.
Although he had compiled about twenty + wins per season, all these dual season accomplishments meant nothing after Marinaccio sent him packing three years in a row.
I was sure his Senior season would be his best. Marinaccio had graduated THANK GOD . In the Kearny tournament, the first of his senior year, I checked the paper looking for his name in the Finals. IT WASN'T THERE.
At first I thought he was either injured or didn't make weight. I called Bill Friend coach of Cliffside to get the scoop. If you want to know information about wrestling in New Jersey, Bill Friend is the man. Bill explained not only did he wrestle in the tournament, but he was beaten by a freshmen from Livingston and wound up placing fifth. I was DEVASTATED. This is when I started to believe that Ollie would never live up to the hype and expectations many people and myself had for him.
The Bergen County Coaches Meet was next and Ollie rebounded from his defeat in Kearny with a convincing 12-6 win over Fairlawn ace Andrew Bergman to win the 119 pound title. FINALLY A BIG WIN. Maybe there was hope. After crushing mediocre opponents during the season Ollie fell 9-1 to Nutleys state ranked Dante Cifelli. The match was closer then the score but once again he came up short in THE BIG MATCH.
The 1998 District 16 Championships had to be the low point in his four year high school career. He reached the finals, but was manhandled by Kearny's sensational sophomore David Cordoba. Cordoba pinned Ruiz in a match that wasn't even close. HERE WE GO AGAIN.
For someone who once was thought to have a shot at the State Championship, getting pinned his Senior year in the district finals was not the way Ollie thought it would be. To make matters even more discouraging, an unheralded 103 pounder Dave Botwin and a talented junior transfer Zeke Heranandez both won District Titles. Ollie had been the heart and soul of Cliffside wrestling for four years and in his last season two other wrestlers, not him would win titles and he would go home demoralized by a bitter defeat with his two teammates taking the gold.
To make matters worse, the 119 region was loaded, Anthony Conte, Bellevilles State Champion, Cordoba ,who destroyed him the week before and Jay Jenkins of Caldwell ,another excellent wrestler. I prayed he could get third, he was no match for Conte or Cordoba but maybe had a chance to advance by defeating Jenkins.
Things went according to script with Conte smashing Ruiz 20-5 in one semi and Cordoba pinning Jenkins in the other. He would have to beat Jenkins to avert ending his high school wrestling career. The first two periods were all Jenkins, trailing 4-1 entering the final period, Ollie got to within one point 5-4, but there were only 7 seconds left. He needed a TAKEDOWN . He looked great in the third period, the Oliver Ruiz I wanted so badly to appear again, but 7 seconds was a tough assignment. This is when Ollie's three years of hard luck began to change. Strangely Jenkins shot in on Oliver and looked to be putting him to his back when Ollie rolled through with 2 seconds remaining in his career , put Jenkins to his back. He didn't get the backpoints but WHO CARES, he was awarded the takedown and Oliver Ruiz is STILL ALIVE.
An amazing come from behind victory over a top wrestler, very un-Ruiz like behavior, but this was NOTHING compared to what was going to happen over the next 7 days. By placing third in his region behind Conte who pinned Cordoba in one of the greatest matches I've seen, Ollie would advance to Union site of the Region 3-4 Super Regions. These were uncharted waters for Ruiz who had only been a spectator his first three seasons. He drew Colonia 119 pounder Joe Herrits, a second place finisher in region three. This is where Oliver Ruiz continued his magic act. I couldn't get to Union that night. I would have loved seeing all the other great wrestlers but not seeing Oliver get destroyed again by the cocky but super talented Conte would be allright with me.
I was awakened at 10:30 that evening by Bill Friend who would always call to give me results, especially the big upsets. He said he had some scores I would not believe. Ollie teched Herrits 18-2. Ollie teching a Region runnerup. Hey WHAT'S GOING ON HERE? The reward for this convincing victory was a rematch with Anthony Conte. Bill couldn't wait to tell me that Oliver had upset Conte 3-2, reversing him with 24 seconds left and then holding on, defeating a State Champion who had thoroughly whipped him 20-5 three nights ago. Bellevilles coach gave Ollie no credit saying 'Ruiz didn't win it, but Conte lost it'.
' TOUGH SHIT' , Ollies going to Atlantic City, not to be a spectator, but one of only eight 119 pounders in the state alive for the State Championship.
Although he defeated Conte, who two years ago won the states and finished 2nd in 1997, Ollie was seeded eighth and last and had the unenviable task of drawing Eastern's Kevin Rucci, 2nd in the state in 1995, 2nd in 1996, and the returning and undefeated State Champion . NO PROBLEM.
Now I'm figuring Conte had to be over confidant and Ollie lucked out. Rucci, Cordoba, Randolph's Ryan Brennan and Wall's Bobby Seidal must have breathed a sigh of relief knowing that Conte, who would have been seeded 2nd and a favorite to win the crown, had been eliminated having only a chance for 3rd place, if he won all his grueling wrestleback matches.
It was FRIDAY THE 13TH. The Star Ledger picked Rucci to win again with Seidal projected to beat Cordoba in the other semi-final. OLLIE HAD OTHER PLANS .
Rucci was stunned as were the ten thousand spectators when Ruiz walked off the mat winning 4-3 headed for the semi-finals. I started to think, is this for real? Every paper had Oliver in the headlines defeating State Champs Conte and Rucci. Next in line was Randolph's Ryan Brennan, 31 wins , 1 loss from powerful Region 0ne. Every paper picked Brennan , EVERY PAPER WAS WRONG . Ruiz 5 Brennan 3 . OLIVER IS IN THE FINAL. Oh yea the papers were wrong in the other semi-final too, Cordoba hung on to win 5-4 over Seidal in a very close exciting match.
So now the scene is set, Oliver Ruiz vs David Cordoba, who pinned Ollie in the District 16 Finals. Kearny fans couldn't have been happier that Oliver reached the finals, they thought that assured them of a State Championship. Hey, even if Cordoba whipped him again, Ollie had made it to the State Finals against all odds, finished 2nd in the State his senior year. Not bad at all. But Oliver hadn't come this far to just give in to Cordoba.
What happened in the Finals in Atlantic City gave me the inspiration to write this story. Oliver Ruiz pinned David Cordoba in 1:19 seconds of the first period and is the New Jersey 119 pound State Champion. If you would have told me this was gonna happen 2 weeks ago I would have asked you to submit to a drug test. Given NO chance by anybody in the wrestling world, Oliver came to Atlantic City.
He came, He saw, He conquered. Before the Finals, I knew Cordoba was the better wrestler on paper. I also knew that Oliver was going to WIN because this wasn't about who was better or who beat who, this was about the HEART and COURAGE of Oliver Ruiz of Cliffside Park ,and it also proves to me that I was WRONG five years ago, when I first saw Ollie. He wasn't special as I thought he was. He was SOMETHING REALLY SPECIAL!
From all your friends, fans, and coaches we are all so very proud of you and want to thank you Oliver Ruiz for taking us all on your Amazing Journey and letting us share it with you.
P.S. I think I forgot to tell you Ollie was voted the STATES MOST OUTSTANDING WRESTLER! IT DOESN'T GET ANY BETTER THEN THIS!!!"
1998 NJ State Wrestling Champions
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