The typical traveler on a first visit to Tokyo finds it hard to resist the tourist attractions of the world's largest city: the glittering cabarets of Akasaka, the cozy Ginza bars, famed Japanese massage and the delicate taste treats of sashimi (raw fish), sukiyaki and tempura. Such delights, however, were not for the dapper little man with the pencil mustache who alighted from a transpacific jet one cold and windy day last month at Tokyo's Haneda Airport. Said World Featherweight Champion Urtiminio (Sugar) Ramos, straining his English vocabulary to the limit: "No fun. No sightsee. Work. Train. Fight. Win."
It happened just that way. Ramos was whisked away to the secluded Azabu Prince Hotel in a quiet residential district of the city. For three weeks he never ventured out except to do five miles of roadwork a day on a nearby baseball field and for afternoon workouts at a tiny gym several miles away. Massage was done by his handlers, instead of Japanese girls. And rather than exotic dishes, Ramos' unvarying diet consisted of boiled eggs and grapefruit juice for breakfast, steak and salad for lunch and dinner. Every night at 8, just as Tokyo's nightlife was beginning to rip and crackle, Ramos went to bed. Not much fun, but it all paid off on fight night in Tokyo's drafty, unheated Kuramae Sumo Stadium when Sugar knocked out Japan's game but outclassed Orient Featherweight titleholder, Mitsunori Seki, in an impressive defense of his title.
In the weeks before the fight, Ramos had long hours to himself. He spent them, as he always does, devouring Mexican comic books, banging expertly on his bongo drums and listening with a numbing consistency to recordings of his Afro-Cuban musical heroes, Benny More, Miguelito Valdez and the Joe Cuba Sextet. These props constitute the world of Sugar Ramos when he is not in the ring. With these around him, he is happy. He cares little for anything else, except women. "Not a lot of women," he says in his slurring Spanish, "just one woman. But fighting is more important than a woman, and when I am getting ready to fight there is no place for a woman."
Ramos claims he has never lost a fight, pro or amateur, in the ring or out. "Even Clay lost some amateur fights," says Sugar proudly. "Me, never. What is defeat? I don't know. Am I worried about Seki? How can I be worried? I never lose. Once in a pro fight in Puebla, Mexico, they say I butt and disqualify me after I knock other fellow down six times. But decision stinks. [Ramos says the decision was reversed the next day, but this does not show in the records.] Back in Matanzas [Cuba], my home, I always win in street fights. That is one tough way to fight, chico, with fists, no gloves. Only one time I get hit hard is when I come home and Mama beat me up for fighting. But I don't say I lose to her. I don't fight back with Mama."
March 16, 1964
Young Urtiminio (his longtime co-manager, Cuco Conde, nicknamed him "Sugar" to make it easier for fight announcers) had a flyweight education, dropping out of school after fourth grade. He is only semiliterate and admits he reads comics "mostly for the pictures." He loves cowboy and Dracula movies. Sometimes he sees them over and over "so I can understand better and get reading practice on Spanish subtitles." He is still trying to solve in his own mind the basic plot of one of his favorite movies. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? "I am mixed up about the car accident at the start and why Bette Davis is so mean to Joan Crawford," he says, "but no matter. I will keep seeing it until I can understand for myself. Nobody will have to tell me."
Ramos got his first bout by accident at the tender age of 12. His older brother, Ramon, was fighting on the regular Sunday morning card at the neighborhood arena in Matanzas and Urtiminio went along to serve as his second. The main event was for 95-pounders, and one contestant failed to show. The promoter eyed Urtiminio and offered Papa Ramos, a poor shoemaker but an inveterate fight buff, $12 for the use of his son as a substitute. Papa couldn't resist, and Urtiminio put on the gloves. "The other guy fought like a boxer," Sugar recalls. "I fought like a street fighter. But I won. After that Papa wanted me to keep fighting. I said O.K. but only if I get special helping of food, more than rest of family. Maybe it was selfish but there were 10 kids and I was hungry."
On extra helpings Ramos began to fill out. He developed extraordinarily powerful shoulder and upper-arm muscles for his 5-foot 2-inch frame. In 1957 he turned pro, at 16, lying about his age to evade the 18-year-old age limit in Cuba. To this day boxing record books list him as 24 years old. Actually he will not turn 23 until next December.
In 1960 Fidel Castro banned professional boxing and Ramos moved to Mexico City, leaving behind his family and a pretty girl, Carmen Rosas Garcia. "We are not married," he says casually of Carmen, "but she is the mother of my two sons, Lazaro and Urtiminio Junior. I guess I love her but she is there and I am here and I cannot go back and she cannot get out." Meanwhile, Sugar shares an apartment in Mexico City with a breathtaking substitute for Carmen, a dark-eyed Mexican beauty. When he is not training for a fight, Sugar spends his days amid an endless cacophony of Afro-Cuban music, and on Sunday afternoons groups of Cuban Negro friends drop by for wild dancing parties.
Sugar hit the top a year ago when he wrested the featherweight championship from Davey Moore in Los Angeles. Triumph turned to tragedy when Moore, after hitting his head on the ropes in the course of a knockdown, died three days later. Moore was the second fighter to die following a bout with Ramos. One, Jose Blanco, died of a brain hemorrhage four hours after Ramos knocked him out in the eighth round of a scheduled eight-rounder in Havana back in 1958.
Today, almost a year later, Ramos cannot talk about the Moore fight without becoming agitated and teary. "Why did he have to die?" he asks, gesticulating wildly. "It was my night, my glory. I won fair and square. I beat him after he almost knocked me silly in the seventh round. I came back and beat him good. Then he dies and nobody remembers that Ramos fought a good fight and won. They only remember Davey Moore died. Some even say I kill him. I work hard and I beat him. I am not killer." He pounds his right fist into his left palm, closes his eyes in a grimace and changes the subject.
Following the Moore fight, Ramos had trouble making the 126-pound featherweight limit for his first defense last July against Rafiu King of Nigeria. He steamed out the final pound just before the weigh-in deadline, put on an unimpressive performance and was stunned to hear his onetime Mexican admirers boo loudly when the judges awarded him a close but unanimous decision. "The boos really hurt," says Sugar. "But I was weak after making the weight. I will repay the Mexican fans in my next fight there. I never let anybody down."
Sugar arrived in Tokyo eight pounds over the featherweight limit. The weather was cold and rainy, unsuitable for sweating off poundage outdoors. He donned a plastic sweat suit for all his training exercises, and wore it while he boxed 35 rounds to tune up his reflexes for the fast-moving Seki, the first left-hander he had ever fought. Slowly the weight crept down. Ramos refused to steam off the excess lest it weaken him as it did before the bout with King. At weigh-in time the morning of the fight he made the weight on the nose.
There was no sign of nervousness as Sugar walked into the clammy dressing room at the sumo stadium, heated only by a gas stove. Because there was no electrical outlet, he could not play Afro-Cuban music to relax, as he usually does. Even this drastic departure from routine didn't seem to bother him. "I tell you once before," he said, "nothing worries me. I don't know defeat." Sugar was cheered by the arrival of a couple of old friends. Los Angeles Promoter George Parnassus had flown out to watch the fight in hopes of matching Sugar with Carlos Ortiz in June for the lightweight championship (provided Ortiz beats Kenny Lane on April 4 as expected). Sugar's co-manager, Angelo Dundee, fresh from his triumph with Cassius Clay in Miami Beach, also flew in to work in his corner. Still flushed with the excitement of the Clay triumph, Dundee nonetheless pronounced Ramos "the best fighter, pound for pound, in the world today. He's the best all-round featherweight in years. Sandy Saddler could hit harder but this boy is a great all-round fighter. He's already fought lightweights and beaten them. He's ready for Ortiz now." When this accolade was transmitted to Sugar, he beamed: "Yeah, Ortiz is fine. But we got a fight tonight, remember?"
Minutes later Sugar entered the ring to polite applause. He was still calm and it did not seem to bother him that Seki's chief corner man was Teddy Bentham, who had been in Davey Moore's corner in Los Angeles. Bentham had told reporters before the fight, "We'll be careful. We're not going to let Seki be badly hurt. Ramos hits awfully hard. And I've got memories to live with."
The ceremonial rigmarole preceding the opening bell seemed endless. Presentations of flower bouquets from sponsors and admirers, introductions and the playing of the martial Cuban and dirge-like Japanese national anthems took 17 minutes. Ramos shifted from one spot to the other, gazing occasionally at huge portraits of sumo wrestling greats that stared down from the rafters. There was a further delay when American Referee Nick Pope gave the fighters their instructions, then stood back while translators jabbered at the fighters in Japanese and Spanish to make sure they understood.
Once it began, the fight was hardly a contest. The muscular Ramos stalked the leaner Seki around the big 20-foot ring and staggered him with a straight hard right in the first round. For the next three rounds Ramos concentrated his blows to the midsection to bring Seki's tight guard down. Then in the fifth a strong right opened a deep cut over Seki's left eye. In the sixth a stinging right uppercut dropped Seki for the mandatory eight-count. A short, straight right dropped him again. As Seki staggered back to fight some more, Bentham crawled through the ring ropes waving a towel. It was all over at 1:38 of the sixth round. Japanese fans sent a barrage of seat cushions hurtling into the ring in disapproval, but the decision was sound. "Seki was helpless," said Bentham. "There's no point in taking chances. Ramos had him good. It was finished when I stopped it."
Sugar seemed almost bored by it all. Unmarked except for a mouse under his left eye where Seki had stung him with a good right lead in the second round, Sugar went back to his hotel, wolfed down three plates full of fried rice to celebrate his release from his diet and went to bed. Next day he allowed himself to be dragged off to a Ginza nightspot to listen to a Japanese combo called the Cuban Boys. Sugar joined the group briefly for some banging on the big tumbadora drums, charitably pronounced the Cuban Boys "very good. Cuban in spirit anyway," then went home to pack. "I come for fight, no for fun," he explained. A battered Seki, who must have thought his head was being mistaken for a bongo drum, was quite aware of that. But then, everyone who fights Sugar is.