The road to The Summit, Abel Sanchez's legendary gym high in the San Bernardino mountains where Andy Ruiz Jr is preparing to make history in his fight against Joseph Parker in Auckland next month, is steep.
At the start of the twisting climb, from the Los Angeles side, drivers are advised to turn off their vehicle's air conditioning for the next 20km because of the danger of overheating. On Friday, when the Herald travelled to meet Ruiz in the lair which also plays host to world champion middleweight Gennady Golovkin, a training partner of Ruiz's, the outside temperature is 34degC.
The fierce heat and congested freeways soon give way to log cabins set amid the towering California pines. And it's here, at an elevation of just over 2000m, alongside the beautiful lake in a setting many New Zealanders might compare with Queenstown, that Mexican-born Ruiz has embarked on a journey far steeper and more arduous than our drive.
The amiable Sanchez welcomes the Herald into the gym - in the ground floor of the two-storey home he built himself - with a smile and a handshake. The air is cooler outside - only 13degC, but it's stifling inside the gym, with two wall heaters on full blast. Sanchez, who has trained 16 world champions, says proudly that he likes the temperature at around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (35degC) to make it harder for his boxers.
He has a mouth as fast as Ruiz's hands, but there is no doubting how serious he takes his profession. It's there on the wall: "No pets, no children, no women" says the sign (more a warning against distractions than anything else), and it's there in his voice when he urges on his fighters: "Vamos [come on], vamos, you can rest tomorrow."
There will be no rest, of course, and especially not for 29-year-old Ruiz, a fighter undefeated as a professional but who has battled with his weight all his life; a man who also has the opportunity of a lifetime within his grasp.
A father of two, with another child due two days after the December 10 fight, Ruiz came here briefly as a 17-year-old amateur weighing 140kg. During his 20s, his weight has wavered along with his discipline but, now he has aligned himself with the iron-willed Sanchez full-time, he hopes to weigh about 110kg for the fight against Parker at Vector Arena.
"Andy came to me about eight months ago," Sanchez says. "His dad brought him and he spent five weeks here. He was having some issues with his management team. He lost 35 pounds (16kg) without a diet, just hard work and eating regularly and healthily. Before he left he said 'if I ever get a title fight, I'm coming back here because that's how I'm going to win it'."
There's no hiding in the ring, and there's no covering up the body's imperfections when a boxer is in there. Cruelly, Ruiz's weight battles led to him being called a slob. He says now, after being in camp for three weeks: "It gets me down but it gets me motivated as well. But even with being a slob, I'm still 29-0 with 19 knockouts. It's hard to criticise a fighter when you're not in the ring doing what we do.
"I've never trained like this in my life," he adds. "I feel confident I'm going to be ready come December 10. A lot of people are going to see a different Andy; better shape, better endurance. It's everything that you guys have seen me do in training.
"Training at altitude took two weeks to get used to. Sparring was the hardest because it's four-minute rounds with a 30-second break. We do eight rounds. It's hard, but it will benefit me a lot."
It's not difficult to see the attraction of wanting to work hard for Sanchez. Oscar de la Hoya, who won 10 world titles across six weight classes, trained in this gym. Many other famous names have, too. A current one, the Kazakhstani Golovkin, known as GGG, is a notoriously hard worker who is due back in the gym tomorrow despite not having a fight to train for. All of those influences appear to be rubbing off on Ruiz.
"He wants me to win, he wants me to be a world champion. He's a good guy," says Ruiz of the smaller Golovkin, who has astonished him with his strength in the gym. "Everything is mental. If it hurts, keep going," he says of his stablemate's encouragement.
Big Bear Lake, regular population about 5000 but which can swell to 100,000 when the snow falls, is situated inland within driving distance of Los Angeles and Las Vegas and has often been used as a high-altitude base for boxers. Apart from skiing, hiking and souvenir shopping, there are few temptations for young men. Ruiz says he's on "lockdown". Mike Tyson has trained here, as has Riddick Bowe, Shane Mosley and Fernando Vargas, the latter one of Ruiz's favourite boxers.
Yesterday morning, the Herald calls on Sanchez's gym at 7am to catch Ruiz on his daily run. He covers 8km in less than an hour. He sweats freely in his white jacket and black trackpants but, crucially, is breathing easily. He is clearly aerobically fit.
The sub-zero overnight temperatures have risen to just above zero. In a month, Sanchez says, there will be more than a metre of snow on the ground.
"I see when guys train off the mountain and say they have been sparring 12 rounds, they often can't go three or four up here," he says. "That has to say something to them. He [Ruiz] knows that now, and everyone that trains here does. Supposedly it builds up the red blood cells and you're able to function on less oxygen. There's a lot of scientific jargon that you can talk about, but to me, it's more mental."
Born in Mexicali, south of the border, and now based at Imperial Valley, southern California, Ruiz was six when his parents decided he needed to get into sport.
"My dad put me in boxing because I was this hyperactive kid always breaking stuff," he says. "They've called me the Destroyer since I was young. They'd buy me a toy and the next day, I'd break it.
"First I tried karate but I didn't like it because it was boring. There was no action like you see in the movies. In my first week of boxing, they put me into sparring and they beat me up. I cried. I was like, 'man, I don't want to go back'. Dad said, 'you have to keep pursuing it, you'll end up beating those guys up, you've just got to practice and practice'."
He was, he says, a "little gangster" as a kid and prone to getting into trouble before boxing became his passion. Now he's on course to make history. If he beats Parker, he will become Mexico's first heavyweight champion. If Parker wins, he will be the first New Zealand-born Kiwi to do so.
Ruiz, with natural hand speed on a par or possibly faster than the notoriously quick Parker, will look to pressure his opponent, to "suffocate" him for the whole 12 rounds if necessary.
Parker, 24, and undefeated after 21 professional fights, is a rare talent, but so is Ruiz, a man who used to eat like a "sumo wrestler" but who has never lost his athletic gifts of speed, power and timing.
"It's a natural blessing," he says of his speed, something Parker is aware of after the pair sparred three years ago. "Thanks to God. He gave me this ability of being chubby but still being fast and being able to hit hard. A lot of fighters underestimate me. And what do you know? They end up being on the canvas."
Patrick McKendry travelled to California with the assistance of Duco Events.