By Alton Dunham, USAG Fort HuachucaJanuary 28, 2011
FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. -- Sgt. Toribio Ramirez remembers the finals of last year's All-Army boxing competition, here. In fact, he relives it every day. Midway through the first round of the gold medal contest, the underdog floored his opponent, Spc. Connor Johnson, a dominant, defending World-Class Army athlete with a jarring straight right to the chin.
Finally, the light wheel vehicle mechanic was within seconds of fulfilling a dream that started when he was 9 years old, and validating his status as an elite level boxer.
After almost a decade in the ring, and over 70 bouts, the Florida native didn't join the Army just to become a Soldier. He enlisted to take his amateur career to the next level, to avail himself to the world class coaches the Army is famous for, and to support his family.
"I was hitting pretty hard at 16 to 17 years old, and then I hit a slump," Ramirez said. "I joined the military because I knew I wanted to keep on boxing, but I also knew I wasn't ready for the pros yet."
Like many athletes, he felt the Army could provide the key to unlocking a dream.
Ramirez's decision to enlist would ultimately help his boxing career, but not in the way he planned. After enlisting he didn't step foot into a boxing ring for almost three years. Instead, Ramirez found himself deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division for 15 months to Afghanistan, where the lightweight bulked up 40 pounds due to a power lifting regimen.
Those days were filled with "life outside the wire" not inside the ring, Ramirez recalls. Even after redeploying, the dedicated, full-time Soldier chose to chisel his job-proficiency over his jab.
But the itch to compete was still there.
In 2009, after four years on active duty, Ramirez approached 1st Sgt. Jason Williams, Ramirez's first sergeant, with his boxing credentials and was given the go-ahead to make a run at the All-Army team.
Although he was 20 pounds overweight and boxing, specific training facilities at Fort Leonard Wood. Mo., were limited. Ramirez focused on conditioning, and used the maturity he gained as leader in the Army to regain his old form.
Often, he would start his day with exercise at 6:30 a.m., only to end it with more exercise at 7 p.m. Any other free time was spent watching and reading about the sport he loved. The once slumping fighter had finally come full circle due to his Army experience.
Still, Ramirez entered the 2010 All-Army Camp as a long shot.
After outpointing his opponent in the first bout of the tournament, the 22-year-old found himself a win away from the gold medal.
A crowd-pleasing pressure fighter by nature, Ramirez held a simple game plan in the finals. Take the fight to Johnson and finish the fight quickly; a plan that almost worked to perfection when he landed on his opponent's chin, sending him to the canvas.
"It felt good," Ramirez said "I knew my stamina wasn't there, so I had to finish."
Unfortunately for Ramirez, World-Class Army boxers obtain their spot through hard work too, and a determined Johnson beat the 10-count.
"He got up and survived because he had the training and preparation, and he survived the round and came back to beat me on points."
The life-long dream would have to wait another year.
"It didn't feel bad, I knew what I was lacking," Ramirez said.
"Ring rust, having to drop so much weight, I feel like I got really tired. But for four years off, and only a month of [boxing specific] training, I felt I did all right."
Now fighting out of Fort Stewart, Ga., the resurgent athlete once again finds himself within striking distance. His weight is down. He is already within five pounds of his target goal of 132 pounds, and his roadwork often consists of more than six miles a day.
This year he won't get tired.
But for Ramirez, the road to redemption is still anything but wide open. His weight class is one of the deepest in the competition, and three other boxers holding a similar dream stand ready to compete for the now vacant All-Army spot he was seconds away from earning in 2010.
On Feb 4 and 5, starting at 7 p.m., Barnes Field House will provide the proving ground for Ramirez and his peers.
Only one man will walk away with the right to represent the Army as the best lightweight fighter, and three others will find themselves reminiscing on just how close they came.