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HE'S STILL FIGHTING : But Mando Ramos Is Now Fighting to Help Eliminate Gang Violence in City of Wilmington

December 25, 1988|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

It's mid-afternoon and a few teen-age Chicano gang members have drifted onto the Mahar House recreation center playground in east Wilmington, a few blocks from the waterfront.

Appearing properly sullen, with a bit of swagger, they watch as the former fighter shows a few younger kids how to hold up their hands and move their feet.

Then the teen-ager with the rebelliously vulgar sweatshirt--" . . . Happens," it says, in 6-inch letters--slips on a pair of sparring gloves and takes his turn. Awkward and embarrassed at first, he soon gets the hang of it and draws praise from the master. The youngster's face lights up.

The old fighter, Mando Ramos, later tells about another kid on the west side of town who had told him after a similar session, "You're the best coach I ever had."

"I told him, 'I'm the only coach you ever had,' " Ramos says, laughing.

East Side Wilmas, West Side Wilmas: until recently, two separate and hostile worlds for most Hispanic youth in Wilmington, with territory staked out by graffiti meant to intimidate interlopers from the other side of the dividing line, Avalon Boulevard.

Victor, 14, is from the Mahar gang, ESW. His gang monicker: Mosquito. He is wearing a neat Raider jacket and cap--garb a lot of gangs favor, along with the baggy pants, Pendletons or plain white T-shirts.

Victor said he never has gotten into much trouble--"nothing really bad," he said. "And in a way, it's fun, being with a gang. But if you'd go to a different part of town, they'd ask you where you're from and then they'd jump you."

So Victor thought it would be a good idea to learn how to take care of himself. But then a strange thing happened. ESW and WSW called a truce, and Ramos is getting much of the credit.

The former world lightweight champion has been working with kids at the Wilmington Teen Center on the lower west side since 1983, when he came out of an alcohol rehabilitation center and started his Boxing Against Alcohol and Drugs (BAAD) program.

His plan was to head off these kids' problems where his got started. The first step was to stop them from killing each other.

Ramos started loading west-side kids in his van and taking them over to Mahar House to train with east siders. He took east siders over to the Teen Center to train with west siders.

He has taken them together to Magic Mountain and to play miniature golf, and last Sunday he drove an old truck up Avalon Boulevard in Wilmington's Christmas parade, pulling a flatbed trailer with a boxing ring set up and about 30 kids from both sides of town taking turns sparring.

Ramos lives in Westminster and works as a longshoreman. Depending on which shift he's working, he usually stops by the Teen Center before or after work to spend time with the kids. That's part of his treatment, too--keeping busy.

"People need a place to go and something to do instead of just sitting around," he said. "That's the worst time. That's when you get into trouble."

As he became increasingly aware of the east-west gang problem in Wilmington, he conceived the idea of bringing the sides together in the ring, to take out their hostilities where nobody gets seriously hurt.

For a gang member, Ramos says, the worst part of a punch on the nose is, "What do the homeboys think of me?"

There were meetings between leaders of the two factions, one organized by Father Luis Valbuena of the Holy Family Church on the east side. Surprising to some, a lot of gang members grabbed at the chance as if it were a life preserver. For some, it may be.

"We never liked each other," Victor said. "But right after that truce was made, we get along. We both wanted to stop all the shooting."

Saul Figueroa, 28, a staff worker at Mahar House, credits Ramos.

"This program was the catalyst to get everything going," he said.

Ramos does not offer himself as a role model. Rather, he relates to many of the troubled youngsters: Mando Ramos a generation later.

Growing up on the streets of Long Beach, he started drinking when he was 12 "because of all that pain inside," he says, "that emotional cancer."

He wasn't lazy. He had three or four paper routes at a time, which supported his alcohol habit.

But he said, "I'd come home drunk and my dad'd beat the heck out of me, and I'd do it again the next day."

These kids weren't even born when Ramos, 40, was in his prime, but most have seen a videotape highlight film of his career.

Mando Ramos was something.

A wide-eyed assassin on spindly legs, he could rip off combinations like a machine gun, slip punches like a fencing master, render an opponent senseless with either hand and then dance the rest of the night away.

Life was an endless party, and the party was wherever Ramos happened to be. Many nights, it was the Olympic Auditorium, which he filled to the rafters. Like Art Aragon before him and a succession of hard-fighting Latins after him, Ramos had his era in L.A. boxing, too.

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