'Matar o morir,' The ballad of Gilberto 'Zurdo' Ramirez

Ramirez: Law of neighborhood is 'kill or be killed' (1:55)

Mark Kriegel sits down with Gilberto Ramirez about his tough upbringing and how he became the boxer he is today. (1:55)

Editor's note: This story was originally published on January 31, 2018.

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. -- There's a universal geometry to combat, and Gilberto Ramirez can't help but recall the grace of the gunman that day: the way he parried with his empty hand, halting the arc of the knife, then dipping to find the exposed midsection with his muzzle. Less graceful was the manner in which, just seconds later, the killer stood over his victim, now knifeless and bleeding from the gut, to deliver the coup de grace.

The deceased was a short, fat, dark-skinned man. Gilberto knew him in passing from the job site. Ramirez had been working construction since he was 12. He started by carrying 25-kilogram sacks of concrete mix on his shoulder. Then, as he grew, it was two sacks, one on each shoulder, then a whole wheelbarrow full. He was 14 now, not especially young for a boy from his neighborhood -- the Genaro Estrada section of Mazatlan, Mexico -- to have witnessed his first homicide. But he remembers laughing as he ran from the scene of the crime.

"I don't know why," he says.

Whatever the cause -- nerves, most likely -- it wasn't malevolent laughter. Gilberto wasn't that kind of kid. Actually, in many respects, he was still a child: a poor, coltish boy growing into very long limbs. If his friends knew all the narcocorridos -- ballads glorifying the drug traffickers who lorded over life in the state of Sinaloa -- Gilberto's taste remained partial to his collection of old VHS tapes: "Toy Story," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Ghostbusters" and his favorite, "Back to the Future, Parts 1, 2 and 3."

It's worth noting that Gilberto's own future -- at 26, now 36-0, the first 168-pound world titleholder in Mexico's glorious boxing history, and the star of an ESPN card this Saturday night -- seemed less probable than any Hollywood time-travel concept. "I didn't think too much of the future," he says.

If his sensibilities were innocent, Gilberto himself was not. He wasn't shocked to see a man die. Rather, he'd spent most of his young life waiting for it. To that point, it was a bifurcated existence: American fantasies and Mexican realities, the streets and the gym -- where he trained intermittently and acquired the nickname "Zurdo," or Lefty. At 14, the streets were winning. He was already something of a nihilist, reconciled to the idea that his world could turn instantly fatal, a large folding knife -- a navaja -- always in his pocket.

Then as now, Ramirez has a soft, handsome face: no lumps of scar tissue, nothing in the arrangement of his nasal cartilage to suggest his profession. He's gentle in both demeanor and speech, making it difficult to reconcile the affable champ with his knife-wielding teenage self.

"You ever use it?" I ask.

"Yes," he says. "I was good."

"With the knife? You cut people?"

"Where I'm from," he says, "I think it was normal."

He catches himself. Gilberto spends a lot of time with his translation apps, trying to find the right words in English. Still, he's not yet fluent and wants something understood, the nature of his reformation. "At that time, I think it was normal," he says. "I don't think like that anymore."

Kill or be killed

Mazatlan is a coastal city in Sinaloa. It's known for great surfing and ceviche, but also, a robust history of gangsterism. In the '80s, it was the stronghold of Manuel Salcido, aka "El Cochiloco" -- the Crazy Pig -- a sadistic murderer who posed as a wealthy rancher. Then it fell to the world's most famous narco-fugitive, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, once famously apprehended in his oceanfront condo there. It was Chapo's eventual extradition to the United States that set off spasms of violence in and around the city last year. The week that followed, for example, saw 25 assassinations, prompting the Mexico News Daily to declare Mazatlan the murder capital of Sinaloa. For "Zurdo" Ramirez, however, it was more of the same.

"Matar o morir," he says.

Kill or be killed. It was the ethos by which he lived, through which he intended to graduate from mere cholo-hood to full-fledged gangster.

If you weren't a fighter, I asked, what would you have been?

"Dead. Or maybe jail."

Many, if not most fighters, will tell you as much. That's not what I was asking, though. What kind of job?

"Oh," he shrugs. "Sicario."


Some of his best friends became hitmen. There was Angel, whom he watched die, stabbed through the chest. Roberto was shot and killed. And Javier. And Panchito. Güero -- the Blond -- was in jail last Zurdo heard. Same for Aaron. "Alcancia" -- Piggy Bank, so named for a slot-like scar on his head -- found his way to rehab. And "Panadero" -- the kid who worked in a bakery, the one with whom Zurdo sprinted from the murder scene -- found God.

"He went to the church," says Zurdo. "He was saved."

The inevitable question, then: What saved Zurdo Ramirez?

It wasn't merely boxing. He'd been in the gym since he was 12. Jesus Zapari, who'd been training and managing fighters going back to the '80s, couldn't help but notice him. It wasn't that Gilberto didn't have boxing gear, or even sneakers. The kid was so poor he showed up in sandals and hand-me-down shirts with buttons.

"He had a beggar's body," recalls Zapari. "Whatever clothes we gave him -- my older son, Hector, my younger son, even my daughter's -- they all fit him."

Zapari had seen kids this poor -- but never one with Zurdo's potential. The locals often said that southpaws have the devil in them. But Jesus never tried to turn him orthodox, didn't want to tamper with the boy's natural gifts. Zapari could envision what Zurdo might become: the eventual height, the reach, the athleticism, like a basketball player. One didn't see that in a Mexican gym. The best fighter to come from Mazatlan was Antonio Becerra. On Sept. 9, 1977, he managed to win a split decision (the fact it was in Mazatlan didn't hurt) from the great Salvador Sanchez. But Zapari had an absurd idea that this boy in beggar's clothes could be better, a champion even. While Gilberto's training habits left something to be desired -- he always seemed exhausted from his construction job -- once in the ring, his desire itself was something to behold.

"He was starving," Zapari says. "Starving to be somebody."

That said, Zurdo lost his first seven fights as an amateur.

"I put him in with some tough guys," concedes Zapari.

Those bouts were less a test of skill than Zurdo's state of mind. Another fighter -- especially one doubling as an apprentice gangster -- would've quit. But Zurdo kept telling the Zaparis, "I'll get him next time."

"He kept coming back," says Zapari, who by now had delegated some of the training duties to his oldest son, Hector. "He loved it."

"That's when you find out how big the heart is," says Hector Zapari. "When they lose."

Zurdo was 16 when the Zaparis put him in with Jose Luis Cruz. Known as "Chelin," Cruz was a top welterweight. He'd already fought the likes of former welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir and four-time world titleholder in three weight classes "Sugar" Shane Mosley. He didn't merely beat up on Zurdo. He made the kid cry.

Still, Zurdo returned to the gym. He had a great chin. He was a graceful athlete, and strikingly tall. Perhaps his greatest talent, though, was an ability to remain undiscouraged.

Zurdo's big move

His mother was a cashier at a neighborhood market. His father drove a Coca-Cola truck. He'd leave the house before 5 a.m. and return around 9 at night, sometimes with a new tape for Gilberto's VHS. The intervening hours saw Gilberto fend for himself.

Gilberto was nothing if not enterprising. As construction work was more lucrative than high school, Gilberto dropped out at 16 to help with the family bills. But it left him physically depleted. He'd often fall asleep at the bus stop on his way to the gym. Or break down and spend his bus fare on a Gatorade. There was an easier way, of course, especially for a kid from La Genaro. So even as Zurdo started winning fights, the gangster life remained an option. Within a year, he was beating up on Chelin. He was winning amateur titles. He'd grown to almost 6-foot-3. But the prospect of the Olympics held no sway over him. "You can't eat medals," he told the Zaparis. "They don't feed your family."

Nor could you cash them in at Ferragamo, where the big-time narcos bought their shoes.

City life has long been like this. There must have been kids who ran laughing from murder scenes in Lepke's Brooklyn or Capone's Chicago. Some of them, no doubt, became fighters. Others, killers. They're bred from the same circumstance: poverty and violence beget boxers and gangsters. It's something you're born to, and if you're lucky, something you're saved from.

Strange, then, to think that what saved our would-be sicario almost killed him. At 4:10 a.m., on Dec. 23, 2009, Zurdo Ramirez ran a stop sign in his '98 Ram pickup. He was 18. The Zaparis had turned him pro that August, thinking that a busy fighter was less likely to find trouble. They were wrong. Zurdo was already 6-0, with five knockouts, and blind drunk on Pacifico and Buchanan's scotch (the narcos' drink of choice in VIP rooms across Mexico) when he hit the truck carrying toilet paper. The impact caused the cab to separate from the trailer, which landed on top of a Nissan Altima, trapping the terrified driver for hours.

Zurdo doesn't remember much else. He woke with a stitch over his right eye, and a sore hip. He could have just as easily died, a lyric of failure in his own narcocorrido.

"If we don't take him in, he won't be anything," Hector told his father. "He'll be lost. He'll disappear."

So it came to pass: Zurdo moved in with the Zaparis, who live in a middle-class neighborhood by the harbor, and Hector -- who came to occasionally question his own judgment -- found himself sharing a bed with a guy 6-2½.

"My father's favorite son," Hector smirks.

There were new house rules, most of which involved Zurdo never leaving the house. He trained every day except Sunday, when Jesus Zapari gave him money to see his American movies. Curfew was 10 p.m.

A little more than eight years later, this Saturday at the Bank of America Center in Corpus Christi, Texas, Zurdo Ramirez will risk his undefeated record and the WBO title he won against Arthur Abraham in 2016. Habib Ahmed (25-0-1) of Ghana represents his third defense in 10 months. With Mazatlan experiencing violent convulsions in the wake of Chapo's extradition, Team Zurdo has spent much of that time in a tranquil Hermosa Beach apartment. At Zurdo's size, it's easier to find sparring partners in the United States. They work mostly at the Hill St. gym in Signal Hill, but often head to the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood for sparring.

It's Hector who holds the mitts now. He's the head trainer, and by his father's designation, the only voice heard in the corner. Jesus serves as manager, cutman and cook. Before each camp, he buys 100 pounds of seafood -- marlin, swordfish, shrimp and mahi-mahi -- fresh off the docs in Mazatlan, and freezes it for the trip north. Zurdo has become an accomplished sous chef, an expert at ceviche and a variety of salsas.

It's a nice life. He shops in the tony South Coast Plaza mall. He treats himself to Gucci sneakers. But he still misses home. They all do. They'll talk about it over dinner.

Or maybe they'll talk about the opponent. They haven't seen more than a few video clips. They just know Ahmed's from Accra, the coastal West African city that gave the world such champions as Azumah Nelson, Ike Quartey and Joshua Clottey.

I ask Zurdo what it's like, preparing for a guy he's never really seen. What I see, however, is momentary regression, a part of him going back in time.

He shrugs me off, as if to say that strategy's less relevant than survival.

"Matar o morir," he says.

Fight week will see Zurdo transformed into somebody colder, almost pitiless. It's a temporary metamorphosis. By the time he returns to Mazatlan to see his son, he'll be, if not his old self, then his saved self.

Braulio is 5 years old now. The Minions from "Despicable Me" festooned his last birthday cake. He's got a Sonic the Hedgehog school bag. For Halloween, Braulio went as Captain America. Zurdo was a zombie. They went trick-or-treating in Zurdo's condo.

Gilberto Ramirez lives on the beach, a mile or so from where a team of heavily armed marines apprehended El Chapo in 2014. First thing they do after a fight, Zurdo and Braulio, is go for a walk on the sand.