Mando Ramos, who enjoyed a meteoric career in the boxing ring, winning the lightweight title at 20, then spent his later years helping kids avoid the twin demons of drugs and alcohol that had cut short his career, died Sunday. He was 59.
Ramos, who was inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame two weeks ago, died at his San Pedro home of natural causes, according to his wife, Sylvia. Ramos suffered from a chronic back injury and diabetes.
"He loved to watch the fights on television," Sylvia Ramos said, "but I couldn't get him to get up and watch them [Saturday night]. He told me he wanted to sleep, so I taped the fights."
On Sunday morning, Ramos, his eyes still closed, began to experience labored breathing. The paramedics were called, but Ramos never regained consciousness.
At his peak, Ramos was the Oscar De La Hoya of his day, a talented, handsome L.A. fighter who attracted fans of both sexes. But unlike De La Hoya, Ramos' flame flickered out quickly, extinguished by his addictions. He turned pro in 1965, three days after his 17th birthday, but was finished a decade later. Ramos wound up with a record of 37-11 with one draw and 23 knockouts. Six of his losses were also ended by knockout.
"Who knows how good I could have been?" he once told The 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].
"I really think I could have been the greatest fighter of all time -- except for this." With his index finger, Ramos tapped his temple.
"He once went 15 rounds in a fight after training for just one weekend," said former champion Carlos Palomino, Ramos' presenter at last month's Hall of Fame induction.
"He was so talented, he could get away with that. It just came natural for him. He was the complete fighter. He could box, he could brawl, he could do it all. He was tall for a lightweight," officially listed at 5 feet 9, though some said he was taller. "He used his length, reach and strength very effectively, had a great chin and a great left hand."
Born Armando Ramos on Nov. 15, 1948, in Long Beach, he got an early start in the ring.
"I started to box as soon as I could walk," he said. Ramos' teacher was his father, Ray, a former fighter.
Ramos was the quintessential Los Angeles fighter. Twenty-seven of his 49 matches were in the Olympic Auditorium, the landmark venue for boxing in his day. He also fought at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Memorial Sports Arena.
"At one point," former Times columnist John Hall said, "I thought Ramos was so quick and so sharp, he could have beaten any lightweight who ever lived."
Ramos beat Carlos Teo Cruz on an 11th-round TKO to win the lightweight title in 1969, lost it to Ismael Laguna, then won the championship a second time by beating Pedro Carrasco. Among Ramos' other memorable opponents were "Sugar" Ramos, Raul Rojas, Ruben Navarro and Chango Carmona.
"I sold out the Olympic Auditorium in my ninth fight," Ramos said. "Money was everywhere . . . I was 19, 20. What did I know?
"By 1974, I was sleeping in cars."
Having lost two brothers to heroin overdoses, Ramos checked himself in to a rehabilitation clinic in the early '80s, became sober and remained so for the last quarter-century of his life.
When he got out of rehab, he started the Boxing Against Alcohol and Drugs program to work with kids.
"He was a man of many great qualities," said his son, Mando Jr. "He had the rough and tough outer exterior of a fighter. But inside, he had a pure heart and a gentle soul. He was a great champion in the ring, but he was an even greater champion in life. He helped a lot of inner-city kids."
Ramos recruited fighters and staged exhibitions along with anti-addiction lectures at high schools around Southern California.
"Once he cleaned up," Hall said, "he made a great comeback, as a human being."
"He really found his niche in life," his son said.
Ramos is survived by his wife and his son; four grandchildren; a brother, Andrew; and a niece.
A participant in the UCLA willed body program, Ramos had stipulated that his vital organs be donated.
A memorial service is being planned for this week.