Commentary

Los Angeles scrapper lifted title, KO'd drugs in storied career

Southern California has seen its fair share of talented, charismatic lighter-weight fighters over the years. Sadly, it lost one of its most popular when Mando Ramos passed away Sunday at 59.

Originally Published: July 9, 2008
By Don Stradley | Special to ESPN.com

Mando Ramos peaked at a very young age and sadly, he died at a very young age, passing away in his San Pedro home last Sunday, July 6, of a heart attack. He was 59.

Troubled by physical problems since his late 20s, Ramos had been out of the limelight since his 1960s heyday.

In recent years, he'd stayed busy with the group he founded, Boxing Against Alcohol and Drugs (BAAD), and was active in visiting California schools to lecture about substance awareness. He would teach boxing, and if the children didn't want to box, he would invite them to be the referee or timekeeper. His mission was to steer kids away from the drugs that had ruined his career, a career that should've been among the brightest in fight history.

[+] EnlargeMando Ramos
Los Angeles TimesWin or lose, Mando Ramos knew how to put on a good show and satisfy his fans.
Ramos, a street scrapper from Long Beach, Calif., was one of the most popular fighters to grace Los Angeles' Olympic Auditorium, debuting there in November 1965, just three days after his 17th birthday.

For years he delighted Southern California boxing fans with his aggressive style and his cocky charisma. Listed at about 5-foot-11, he was a tall lightweight, loose-limbed and graceful, with handsome looks that kept a steady stream of female fans coming to the Olympic to see him.

His popularity was such that a 1970 bout with Ultiminio "Sugar" Ramos attracted so many people that the streets outside the Olympic Auditorium became jammed. The Olympic's quick-thinking promoter, Aileen Eaton, hooked up a close circuit camera and showed the bout for free on the side of the building.

Ramos' success came as no surprise to his manager, Jackie McCoy.

"Mando had so much talent," McCoy said in Dave Anderson's book "In the Corner." "When he was 16, 17 years old, he was so good, I couldn't keep from chuckling when I'd watch him work out. I'd be so happy with the way he looked, I'd tell myself, 'this kid is the kind of boxer you dream all your life of getting.'"

In 1969, Ramos became the youngest lightweight champion in history, winning the WBA and WBC titles at age 20 by stopping Teo Cruz in 11 rounds.

Ramos would lose and regain the title, then lose it again in 1972 to Chango Carmona. By then, Ramos' eyebrows had become so delicate from years of ring wear that his fights were usually bloodbaths.

While his ring career slowed, his hard-living lifestyle outside of it didn't. Ramos subscribed to the credo "Live fast, die young." He gave his manager nightmares by sneaking out of camp to enjoy the Los Angeles nightlife. He showed up late for weigh-ins, sometimes as high as a kite. He smoked marijuana before fights and used amphetamines to shed weight. He tried his hand at bullfighting, had a romance with Spanish nightclub singer Maria Jimenez, and filmed TV commercials in Mexico. Ramos even made Richard Blackwell's top 10 list of the worst-dressed celebrities.

Ivan Goldman, a columnist for The Ring magazine, knew Ramos well.

"Mando was the real thing," Goldman told ESPN.com. "He had talent and liked to mix it up in the ring. He told me about one big fight -- I forget which one -- and he hadn't trained as he should and nearly killed himself making weight. Then he was too sick to keep food down, but he drank a glass of wine just before the bout. I believe it was one he lost."

At 24 and on the heels of a series of mediocre performances against nondescript opponents, Ramos retired in 1975. His final ring record was 37-11-1 (23 KOs). The feeling among the media was that Ramos could've been more disciplined and could have achieved more -- but the media didn't know the entire story.

Later in life, Ramos reveled at what could have been had he taken his career more seriously.

"Who knows how good I could have been?" he told The Los Angeles Times. "I never really trained, not for a single fight. Oh, I went to the gym every day. But I drank every night. Fighters never beat me. But drugs and alcohol [did]."

Underneath Ramos' playboy facade was a bitter young man who had binged on alcohol since he was 11 years old. The final years of his ring career had been marked by a failed marriage, battles with the state commission over his revoked license and meetings with a hypnotist to help him with his ongoing personal problems.

At 27, Ramos had squandered his earnings and was living out of his car.

In 1977, Ramos unleashed his feelings for the Long Beach California Telegram. The fun-loving fighter showed a darker side of himself to columnist Rich Roberts, especially in regards to his father, Ray, a former fighter himself.

Ray had taught Mando and his brothers how to box, but Ramos scolded his father in print for making him feel dumb and pushing him into the sport. Ramos also railed at his management for taking advantage of him.

After a stint with a local iron workers union, Ramos considered a career as a public speaker.

"They used to ask me to go to schools and talk but I could never do it. Like, telling them don't drink this and don't smoke that, when I'm doing it all myself," Ramos said.

Alcohol, cocaine and heroin became Ramos' new stablemates during the late 1970s. Even a series of heart attacks didn't curb his self-destructive behavior. It wasn't until 1983, after watching his two brothers die of overdoses, that Ramos sought help and gave up his habits.

Kicking drugs was not the end of Ramos' trials. A back injury suffered on a construction job left him in chronic pain for the rest of his life. Remaining clean and sober while suffering had to be tougher than any of his battles at the Olympic, but he remained drug free.

Ramos eventually married again and made himself a useful member of society. " In Ramos' LA Times' obituary by Steve Springer, former Times columnist John Hall was quoted as saying, "Once he cleaned up, he made a great comeback, as a human being."

"He [Ramos] was a longshoreman, and he told me his union saved his life when it sent him into a program for alcoholics," Goldman said. "He really cared about kids on the street and hated the gang culture that he felt was ruining them. He was a great one for finding ex-fighters living in cars, that sort of thing. He's the guy who hunted them down and made sure they got help. He'd found a good woman who loved him back, but he'd lived hard, and when he died I was shocked to be reminded he was only 59."

The BAAD coalition became Ramos' life's work. The fellow who didn't feel comfortable talking to classrooms found his niche as a mentor to wayward children.

Ramos leaves behind his wife, Sylvia, and his son, Mando Jr.; a brother, Andrew; four grandchildren and a niece.

During one of Ramos' last interviews, he told Fightbeat.com, "I was only on top for three years, and I was never really in shape. All the damn drugs. All the cocaine … I did love the cheers of the crowd, though. I definitely heard lots of them, brother."

Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.