Armando (Mando) Ramos, the former lightweight champion of the world, is telling a visitor to his Westminster apartment his theory on how to help curb gang violence and drug addiction in teen-agers.
"I honestly believe that, if we have a boxing program in schools, it would stop" the gang violence, Ramos said. "We don't need more juvenile halls. We need training camps."
Ramos, 42, has been committed to that ideal since 1983, when he and his second wife, Sylvia, founded BAAD (Boxing Against Alcohol and Drugs) at the Wilmington Teen Center. That is where Ramos volunteers his time when he's not at work as a longshoreman. He teaches youngsters, including many gang members from feuding factions, how to direct their energies away from senseless violence and into the sport.
"I agree with what he's doing," said Father Luis Valbuena of Holy Family Church in Wilmington. "Programs such as Mando's can guide youngsters toward a future in sports. . . .
"But it will not be a total solution (to gangs). The problem is more complex. It's a problem that has economic, political and social roots. It's a problem of poverty, of unemployment, of lack of hope. . . . Mando Ramos is doing what he can."
Ramos said attendance varies at the center's training sessions. Sometimes there will be up to 30 boys, some as young as 6 years old, and sometimes only a couple. The interest is peaked, however, when former champions and top-ranked prizefighters--such as Paul Gonzales, Carlos Palomino, Danny (Little Red) Lopez and Bobby (Schoolboy) Chacon--stop by for pep talks.
It also seems to increase, Ramos said, when he takes his charges to youth tournaments.
"We try to make sure the kids are in schools or they can't box," said Ramos, who dropped out of Long Beach Poly High School in the 11th grade.
Late last year, however, Ramos was forced to halt his boxing program temporarily when he was hospitalized because a pacemaker installed months earlier had malfunctioned. Doctors at Long Beach Memorial Hospital corrected the problem and a few weeks later Ramos was back in business.
He feels like a million, Ramos said in an interview, surrounded in his living room by the plaques, certificates, family portraits and action photographs of a once slimmer, fierce-looking fistfighter. Two championship belts are stored in cases, symbolic of the greatness that was his before booze and drugs shattered it with the fury of a Mike Tyson uppercut.
Ramos, a Long Beach native, fought his way to a lightweight title shot as a 19-year-old sensation in 1968 against then-champion Carlos (Teo) Cruz. He lost in a 15-round unanimous decision but was back in the ring against Cruz six months later. That time he won the crown on a TKO (technical knockout) in the 11th round and improved his record to 24-3 with 17 knockouts.
By then, the demons he now calls "an emotional cancer" could only be calmed--or so he thought--through alcohol, cocaine, heroin, whatever was handy. He had been drinking and smoking marijuana, Ramos said, since he was about 11. At 13, he was a full-fledged alcoholic. He said it was a legacy passed down to him by his parents, now both recovering alcoholics who have been sober for years.
The drinking back then, Ramos said, "took away all the emotional feelings I had inside."
The purses included a $100,000 payoff--a record in the lightweight division--in an unsuccessful defense of his title against Ismael Laguna in 1970, and allowed Ramos to increase his drug and alcohol consumption. He married for the first time and had a son, Mando Jr., but family life wasn't his bag. Even the punching bag wasn't his bag. Getting high was.
"I was using drugs on days I fought," said Ramos, who blames his slurred speech on the drugs and not necessarily on any pounding taken in the ring. "I don't know how the (California) State Athletic Commission or the doctors allowed me to fight. After I won the title, I got caught up in using a lot of cocaine. I mean a lot."
Punches thrown by rivals and easily evaded before also began to catch up with him. In a legendary slugfest against Ultiminio (Sugar) Ramos at the Olympic Auditorium six months after losing to Laguna, Mando Ramos won a 10-round decision but ended up in the hospital, his face a distorted, bloody mess.
Ramos somehow won a few more fights after that, but also suffered some embarrassing defeats, including a second-round knockout in his last pro bout in 1975. He said he used cocaine the day of the fight.
Without even the escape of training and fighting--strung out on dope or not--Ramos' life really went into a tailspin. He was broke. One day that year he found one of his two brothers, Manuel, also a professional fighter, dead from a drug overdose. And Mando Ramos kept landing in jail.
That's where he was the day he decided to stop.
With Sylvia's help--"She's the biggest part of my life"--Ramos began the climb back. He attends meetings for recovering alcoholics and said he has not drunk liquor or taken drugs in eight years. He plays golf. And he often helps Sylvia baby-sit his 18-month-old granddaughter.
And then there is the center, where young boys who are sometimes on the fringes of disaster can turn for advice to one who has been there.
"I believe God had a higher purpose for me," Ramos said. "My past is my greatest asset to help my kids. All the insane things I've done. They know I've been there."