The Champion’s Trek

By Elio Bernardo on November 27, 2013
The Champion’s Trek
Ramos told me that boxers in Cuba "are as professional as those in the capitalist system.”

During the interview, Sugar Ramos remembered the strange sensations he felt days before the celebrated match, as if something bad were about to happen…

Some years ago, beneath the smog of Mexico City, I had the opportunity of chatting with Ultiminio Ramos Zequeira, the former featherweight champion whose nom de guerre was Sugar Ramos. Fifty years ago in the land of the Aztecs, he became a legend, even though he was born in Matanzas, Cuba, in 1941. At the age of 18 he arrived in Mexico along with several boxers led by “Cuco” Conde, and “Kid Rapidez,” a manager and trainer, all of them fleeing Castro’s revolution. Among the squad’s members there were four potential world champions: Jose Legra, Luis Rodriguez, Sugar Ramos and Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles. The event that made Sugar Ramos famous in the United States of Mexico (and infamous in the United States of America) was a match at LA’s Dodger Stadium against Davey Moore, on March 21, 1963.

During the interview, Ramos remembered the strange sensations he felt days before the celebrated match, as if something bad were about to happen, because a heavy rain began to fall in Los Angeles and didn’t stop for a long time. His coach thought about postponing the match, scheduled to take place under the stars. But the rain finally stopped, because fate is unbeatable, and the bell sounded for the first of fifteen rounds.

That night, “A savage war was developing,” wrote LA sports columnist Melvin Durslag. In the ninth round, Sugar Ramos took control of the fight and in the tenth, Davey Moore was knocked out. The audience was stunned. Two of the Cuban boxers, Rodriguez and Ramos, won world titles in California. The first of them took the belt from Paret’s killer, Emile Griffith. Paret was a Cuban boxer who lost the world title and his life a year earlier at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The aforementioned fights happened between the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Cuban Missile Crisis, which provided additional tension, and additional meaning, to mere boxing matches.

After the fight, having given a broadcast interview promising to recover the title, Davey Moore collapsed in the dressing room. He fell into a coma and died days later of brain injuries. Some people talked about a Cuban revenge, because of Benny Kid Paret’s death a year earlier, on March 23, 1962. But in fact, while Paret’s death was undoubtedly a murder in the ring with the referee’s consent, Moore’s injures were ruled accidental.

Devastated by the news about the severity of Moore’s condition, the new champion went to Los Angeles Memorial Hospital to visit his ex-rival. He arrived just in time to witness the courageous fighter’s last breath. Ramos was so overcome with grief that he cried as if he had lost one of his own brothers. The victim’s mother consoled and encouraged him to continue his boxing career with honor. When the press asked Ramos how he felt, he said: “I want to be Champion of the World, but not at this price.”

The bout and the aftermath were the biggest sporting events of the year, to the point where the Vatican was motivated, once again, to release a statement in Rome against professional boxing, as it had done a year earlier after Paret’s death. On the other hand, boxing officials were forced to change rules of the sweet science. Among them, the fourth rope was added in the ring, in order to provide some equilibrium to the quadrilateral. In addition, the incident inspired two great songs, one from Phil Ochs and another from Bob Dylan in which he repeats an accusing question:

Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

Two weeks later, after being discharged as a murderer by California’s judiciary, Sugar Ramos returned to Mexico City where the people gave him a welcome reserved by Mexicans only for true national heroes. Accompanied by mariachis, multitudes were waiting for him at the airport. The crowd carried him to the Palacio Nacional, where a grateful Presidente Lopez Mateo, known as a follower of boxing, greeted him and bestowed special honors. Those rituals were a weird mixing of an ancestral Mexican death’s cult and, at the same time, a bitter rejoicing after decades-old frustrations regarding the neighbor to the north. Since then, Ramos has been viewed in Mexico as a countryman.

Ramos became a huge celebrity, filling stadiums and bullfight plazas. He hired the services of a valet who was his inseparable companion until his own death, becoming something like Sancho Panza to Ramos’ Don Quixote de la Mancha, the famous character from Cervantes. The valet was, however, more like the passionate Victor Hugo’s Parisian character from Notre Dame, a hunchbacked man but this time from Guadalajara, Jalisco. And according to popular myth, the hump eventually would bring good luck to the Champion. Because of his shape, people in Mexico called him “Pichón” (“Young Pigeon”).

One day, Cuco Conde, Sugar Ramos, and Kid Rapidez from Cuba, and Pichón from Mexico, went to Osaka, Japan, where people gave them startled looks, and where the Champion had a nightmare. He dreamt of a double funeral at which he and his trainer were both present like astonished witnesses. When mourning family members opened the coffins, there were no bodies inside at all; instead they were filled with gold coins. At this point, Sugar Ramos awoke with a start and also woke up Kid Rapidez, who shared a room with him and Pichón. The trainer calmed him down. He advised him to relax and go back to sleep. A match against a difficult Japanese fighter would take place within hours.

Over the next few days, Ramos was not able to clear his mind. Kid Rapidez watched him, concerned. Pichón tried to entertain him using clownish tricks, without success.

The reason, according to Ramos’ confession to me, was that while he was running as part of his training, he suddenly heard steps behind him. He stopped. Somebody was following him, but nobody was visible. He restarted running and once again heard the steps following him. He stopped for a second time, as did the footsteps. At that moment, Ramos felt that it was Davey Moore’s spirit. He wanted to train with him. And Sugar Ramos, after overcoming the initial panic, accepted the challenge. Subsequently, both ran together, slowly at first, shoulder to shoulder, and then faster. After that, Moore shadowboxed him until Ramos became exhausted. This was a rather weird event, because Emile Griffith referred to the same parapsychological phenomenon regarding Paret’s ghost. In Sports Illustrated magazine, writer Gilbert Rogin relates: “Since that remorseful March night (1962), Paret had returned often, a mute, implacable and accusatory ghost, sometimes standing in dreams at the foot of Emile’s bed, sometimes appearing unsuccessfully disguised as a sparring partner. When this last had happened, Emile has stayed his hand, turned away and despaired of being able to fight again.”

In Osaka, Sugar Ramos’ second in the corner was the legendary Angelo Dundee, former trainer of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and so many other American great fighters. Dundee told the following anecdote:

“When we arrived to the place where the bout against Seki would be taking place they already had set up the ring but there weren’t seats anywhere. I asked somebody about when they were going to bring the chairs and the man told me that in Japan the fans preferred the floor to sitting in chairs. When Ramos knocks out Seki, I turned toward Cuco Conde and told him: ‘Indeed Japanese prefer the floor.’” 

At the time, however, Ramos shared with no one who it was who “really” trained and whispered instructions to him during the match.

For a year and a half they flew all around the world, even fighting in Africa before Muhammad Ali did it. The people of Ghana welcomed him at the airport as one of their own. The enthusiasm was huge. That was the first world championship boxing match celebrated in Africa. However, rumors spread that other Ghanaians put a spell upon Sugar Ramos so that he would lose to the local fighter and national hero, Floyd Robertson. Pichón, told of the rumors, tried fighting back by carrying a huge crucifix as they left the dressing room for the ring.

It was a tough fight. Sugar Ramos almost lost it, winning on a split decision. Once, the African fighter put him on his knees, making local fans roar. But Ramos composed himself and was able to finish and win by decision in the tenth round before an emotionally electrified audience.

Back in Mexico after a long journey, he excitedly called Cuba to tell his father that he had successfully defended the title several times. He was, however, shocked with the news that was waiting for him: his father and his grandfather had both died on the same day of that awful funeral nightmare in Osaka. Hearing the news was like the end of his world. Surrounded by strangers, he could not stop crying. Time stood still.

Due to the political climate in Cuba, and the tough position assumed by the Castro regime against defectors from the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—legendary singer Celia Cruz was another, prevented from returning for her mother’s funeral—he could not attend the funeral of his relatives. He was devastated. “With my father’s death I lost the desire for fighting, I lost the willpower.” In addition to that, a woman from Spain who had promised to give him another son to replace the one he left in Cuba died in childbirth. It all added up to too many losses for the champion. The son survived and was named after his father, Ultiminio Ramos III.

He lasted in boxing a few more years by performing his “crab’s steps”—as he named his own boxing style—in the ring, until he met the unavoidable and ultimate defeat that awaits all professional boxers that persist in defiance of the odds. A young hungry fighter arrived on the boxing scene and won the Champion’s belt before the eyes of the world. His name was Vicente Saldivar, a Mexican legend in his own right.

Ramos still holds the infamous record of having killed two opponents in the ring during his career; and he still cries for both. In 1998, executives of the boxing business recognized Sugar Ramos by inducting him to the Los Angeles Boxing Hall of Fame. In 2001, the city of Miami honored him because of his nomination to the International Boxing Hall of Fame and by placing his name among the greats of the old sweet science.

Mr. Ramos showed me a video of those moments shot by his Mexican son, Ultiminio III, in which he seems as happy as a child. In the parade through the streets of Canastota, where he cruises in a convertible like the other World Champions inducted on the same day, enthusiastic fans greet him wherever he goes. They request his autograph and shake hands. During the procession, Sugar Ramos hands out candies from a paper bag. Ultiminio is a religious man from Yoruba’s ancestral roots who knows about the blessing of sharing.

“Damn, man, glory is really beautiful,” he assured me looking the video of Canastota’s parade.

We almost finished our conversation. I asked him if he knew the meaning of Bob Dylan’s song about the fatal bout in Dodger Stadium in March 23, 1963, over fifty years ago. He shook his head. I played the recording for him and we listened to Bob Dylan:

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?
“Not me,” says the man whose fists
Laid him low in a cloud of mist,
Who came here from Cuba’s door
Where boxing ain’t allowed no more.
“I hit him, yes, it’s true,
But that’s what I am paid to do.
Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill.’
It was destiny, it was God’s will.”

I translated word by word, blow by blow, while Ultiminio nodded, in serious mood. But when I came to “Who came here from Cuba’s door, where boxing ain’t allowed no more” he smiled knowingly and said, “Boxers under Castro’s rules are as professional as those in the capitalist system. They box for a living and earn a salary. The only difference is that they are underpaid and fight few rounds following amateurs’ rules.”

A moment before I left his home near the Mexico City International Airport, Ultiminio Ramos shared with me, talking in low voice, his wish to visit the graves of his father in Cuba, and Davey Moore’s in Springfield, Ohio, and to leave on each of them a crown of white roses. But, once again, in 2005 Cuban government denied him a permit to do so. For him, it was like being hit below the belt.

It could be that Raul Castro’s recent immigration reform in Cuba allows Mr. Ramos to return to Matanzas and stroll in his natal neighborhood, if he doesn’t remain on the permanently exiled black list. Otherwise, he might at least visit Davey Moore’s grave, alongside with Geraldine the widow before God strikes the final bell for him. It would be a blessing for Mr. Ramos and, of course, a moving end for the tale of his outstanding life.


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Bob Dylan - Who Killed Davey Moore. Fight Video and Lyrics

Davey Moore vs Sugar Ramos (1963-03-21)

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  1. chuck h. 12:04pm, 11/30/2013

    Thank you, I remember those events well. I always had a lot of empathy for Sugar Ramos, having known about the Blanco tragedy in his past. I was a big fan of Davey Moore and Luis Rodriguez and me and couple friends waited at a diner (East Coast) in the A.M for first word on the results from the show out in L.A. What we heard was unexpected to say the least. I was happy for Rodriguez, of course, but devastated after seeing photos of Geraldine Moore and another of Ramos during the vigil and sad aftermath. Although Ramos remained a terrific fighter I believe he lost some of that panther like drive for the remainder of his career.

  2. peter 12:02pm, 11/28/2013

    Thanks for this excellent article. It digs up many memories.

  3. Matt McGrain 08:38am, 11/28/2013

    Wonderful, fascinating stuff.