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Boxer Takes On New Fight: Reclaiming His Identity

Ex-Golden Gloves champ Alex Ramos found his toughest foe is a rapist who spent years impersonating him.

October 01, 2000|LARRY McSHANE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Alex Ramos was a born fighter. By choice or by circumstance, inside the ring or out, he could be nothing else.

Reared in the blighted South Bronx, he escaped via the boxing ring. A four-time Golden Gloves winner, the middleweight contender swapped jabs with Michael Nunn and gibes with Howard Cosell. When he wound up in jail, an alcoholic and drug addict, Ramos fought on.

"I will die a boxer," he once vowed.

Five years ago, his biggest fight seemed won. A newly sober Ramos had discovered his life's purpose by starting a foundation to aid ex-fighters. Despair gave way to delight--until Ramos took a sucker punch from his past.

He was blindsided by Alberto Lugo.

Lugo, a childhood neighbor of Ramos, was inevitably among the triumphant crowd that filled Willis Avenue to greet its conquering hero whenever Ramos won a big fight. He was a hanger-on, a wannabe who longed for a taste of the boxer's high life: the attention, the money, the women.

When he couldn't make it happen, he simply made it up.

Across nearly two decades, in bars and casinos and parties, Lugo impersonated Ramos. Like a fighter donning his trunks and robe, he slipped easily into the skin of his old acquaintance.

"My name is Alex Ramos," Lugo said over and over, parlaying his performance into fight tickets, hotel rooms and cash.

When Lugo was arrested for a 1983 rape, he used Ramos' name. He did prison time under Ramos' name. When he was released four years ago, he remained a pretender.

In February 1999, Lugo was arrested again, this time for drugging and sexually assaulting women. They had found their man, he told the police. Yes, he was Alex Ramos. The boxer.

The real Ramos, reborn and living in California, had one more battle to wage--the fight to reclaim his name.

*

Ramos was born in January 1961, two months after the Lugos welcomed their son, Alberto. When the Ramos family moved from Manhattan to the South Bronx, the two families became neighbors.

Their sons crossed paths on the playground behind P.S. 40, where Alex's mother taught and the local kids hung out.

"He was not one of my boys," Ramos says now of Lugo. "I've said hello to him, even shaken his hand. But he was never a friend."

Ramos was the son of a fighter. At age 11, the 90-pound kid followed his old man into the ring, punching his way to four local Golden Gloves titles and a spot on the national amateur boxing team.

"Every time Howard Cosell did my fights," he recalls proudly, "I won by first-round knockout."

Ramos' shot at the 1980 U.S. Olympic team was lost in America's boycott of the Moscow Games. Undaunted, the 19-year-old turned pro in late 1980, knocking out his first two opponents within 16 days.

"He had the potential to go far," remembers Jose Torres, the ex-light-heavyweight champ. "He was a good puncher--oh, yeah."

The neighborhood followed Ramos intently. A sign on a local candy shop proclaimed, "Ramos--The East 136th Street Champ." His loose-knit South Bronx fan club included Lugo, dubbed "Spooky" for the vacant look that sometimes crossed his face.

By November 1981, Ramos' record stood at 12-0 with seven knockouts. An August 1982 eighth-round KO loss put a crimp in his title-shot plans, but an undeterred Ramos moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., and began working with Sugar Ray Leonard's trainer, Janks Morton.

Back in New York, Lugo was discovering that five words--"My name is Alex Ramos"--could catapult him from obscurity to instant celebrity.

Over the last decade, several athletes have been victimized by impersonators: football stars Lawrence Taylor and Charles Mann, basketball's Dee Brown, former boxing champion Freddy "Red" Cochran.

"If you're going to impersonate someone, you're going to pick something with glamour," says Richard Lapchick, head of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "Athletes, with the amount of money they command and the star power--perfect."

In 1983, as Ramos did roadwork in Arizona, Lugo was on the prowl in Manhattan. He was charming, articulate, charismatic. He was, as he told everyone, Alex Ramos.

One evening, the phone in Scottsdale rang. A Manhattan rape victim had told detectives that she was attacked by the boxer, Alex Ramos.

Ramos had an alibi, and police had a suspect. The fighter flew back to his hometown, where police showed him an array of pictures.

"I knew only one guy," Ramos recalls. "I knew Spooky."

Lugo, convicted in 1985, began a 3-to-9-year prison stretch on Jan. 8, 1986. Throughout, Lugo insisted that he was Ramos. Nobody ever corrected him. State corrections officials still list him under a combination of his birth and bogus names: "Ramos, Alberto."

The real Ramos, struggling with his career and his own demons, put the bizarre impersonation behind him when Lugo was incarcerated. Ramos relocated to California, where his life in and out of the ring quickly crumbled.

In 1984 he earned the U.S. Boxing Assn. middleweight crown, but he lost it the next year, taking a vicious beating.

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