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

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.

He owned the late '60s and early '70s. He won and lost the lightweight title twice, before titles were split so many ways they looked like leftover pizza. Ramos won 37 of his 49 bouts, 23 by knockout. He was a crowd pleaser. Everybody loved him. And he loved everybody back, especially the women.

"(At) 17, 18, 19, I was the highest-paid teen-ager in the world," he said.

Then, in a title defense at the Coliseum one summer night in '72, a Mexican journeyman named Chango Carmona turned out Ramos' lights in 8 rounds. Ramos had gone into the fight shot up and high on reds, but now the party was over. He was 23.

Ramos fought 10 more times but he was never the same. He went 4-5-1. No more glitter, no more flash. Just booze and dope and despair. Who gives second chances to fighters with bad habits and wasted reflexes?

He even exhausted the patience of Jackie McCoy, who has been called one of boxing's last honest managers. Ramos gave McCoy more grief than all four of his other world champions combined. Ramos hardly gave anybody a chance to give him another chance.

He did quit drinking for a time after he met McCoy.

"I just smoked weed," he said.

The basic problem, he said, was that suffered by many famous athletes: "A huge ego and low self-esteem."

If they can't handle success, what hope do they have with failure?

Friends aren't necessarily much help.

"When you're champion of the world, people don't care what you do," Ramos said. "They just want to be around you."

And when you're no longer champion, you find out how many friends you really have.

After the Carmona debacle, which left Ramos flat on his back, his legs twitching sickeningly, the music kept playing but he had misplaced his dancing shoes.

Several months later, he returned to the Olympic for his final fight in Los Angeles. Arturo Pineda knocked him cold in 5 rounds, and he walked out into the night with a smile and a shrug.

He went to Europe for a few fights, thinking, he said, that "geography might make a difference."

It didn't, and when he returned, his accountant told him he was broke. By then he was a bloated middleweight, so he had to hustle fights anywhere the local boxing commission hadn't caught on to his con. He finally ran out of places.

"I wasn't training," he said. "All I was doing was using drugs. My brother (Manuel) and I were using a lot of drugs."

His last fight was in Las Vegas against the dreaded Wayne Beale on Oct. 29, 1975, and on Oct. 28 Ramos wound up his training by overdosing on heroin. Strung out, he got himself back up with a few snorts of cocaine and managed to embarrass himself one final time, exiting a 27-year-old has-been in 2 terrible rounds.

A year later Manuel overdosed for keeps. Mando called the paramedics, but his brother was dead on a couch when they arrived.

Still, it was 7 more years before he even realized he had a problem.

"I was lost," he said. "I was panhandling, (doing) anything to get by."

In 1978 he married his second wife, Sylvia, who had taken him in earlier, but it wasn't until '83 that Ramos checked himself into a clinic and started to rebuild his life.

The first day there, he recalled, he listened to a staff member lecturing, and Ramos was certain the man was talking about him and somehow had learned all the worst things about him, probably from Sylvia.

"I was hearing this guy talk, and I go, 'That bitch!' Later I figured out he was talking about all alcoholics."

He'd blown his career, He'd blown his money. He'd blown his first marriage, which had produced his one son, Mando Jr.

"I was a married man," he said. "I wasn't a family man."

He'd almost blown his life. His brother had.

When he left the clinic, his speech was still thick but his mind was clear. He and Sylvia started BAAD, recruiting other famous fighters, past and present, to stage exhibitions--accompanied by anti-drug lectures--at high schools around Southern California.

Until now, they have done it on their own, with their own money, but they realize they'll need help if the program is to survive and grow. Ramos is organizing a board of directors of community and sports leaders to raise funds.

He wants to put a roof over the courtyard of the Teen Center, where a full-size ring is open to the elements.

Ramos said his goal is not "to make fighters out of kids but to show them another way of life: physical sports. They need self-esteem. They need to feel good about themselves. We need to offer them a way out."

Jerry, a 16-year-old Mahar gang member known as Spooky, said, "It's good--better than hanging around the streets."

Ramos doesn't expect BAAD to break up the gangs. He'll be happy if it just turns them in a positive direction. Gloves, not guns, he says.

"I'm still a gang member," Jerry said. "But I'm just kicking back. I don't make no more trouble."

Well and good, says Fr. Valbuena of Holy Family, but it doesn't solve the basic problem. Valbuena said that after the parade last week he was talking to some boys about how nice it was they could all get together like that.

"One of the boys said, 'But I'm still hungry.'

"I'm glad that (Ramos) is involved," Valbuena said. "We are on the same track. Mando is making them feel better with physical activities. We're giving them the spiritual values. It's too bad our ideas are not backed up by some government (agency).

"We need to put the body and soul together, working for something so they don't feel ignored and pushed away. The roots of the problem are still an economic thing. These boys need jobs. We need to offer them an intellectual future."

Victor said he is interested in laser science, and Valbuena noted that Wilmington is surrounded by shipping firms, oil companies and other industry that has the means to mitigate the gang problem, as he sees it.

"I want the companies to trust them, to open their doors for them," Valbuena said.

More police is not the answer to the gang problem, Valbuena said.

"That's like collecting water in a bucket rather than going to the roof to patch the hole," he said.

Meanwhile, one problem may be tentatively, temporarily resolved. Ramos said there was some heated discussion about what designation BAAD's "float" would carry in the parade: East Side Wilmas, West Side Wilmas or what.

Said Ramos: "I said, 'It's gonna be Wilmington! ' "

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