Boxing is often called the “Sweet Science,” which is the creative or artistic way of describing the sport. But historically, many of its participants come from the “School of Hard Knocks. In other words, they use the fight game as an alternative to brawling on the street and staying out of trouble with the law.
Sometimes the crimes can be of a more serious nature, like rape, armed robbery or even attempted murder. Famous champions who did serious prison time prior or during their careers include Sonny Liston, Mike Tyson and Bernard Hopkins. Others like Bobby Chacon and Ruben Navarro turned to boxing as teens before they went off the deep end.
The story of Armando Zambrano has similarities to the likes of Tyson and others, although in other ways uniquely different. For example, Zambrano never lost a pro fight, but his career was far too brief because he both screwed up and was a victim of circumstances. Also, while he was a serious gang banger and drug addict, he never committed a serious violent crime. Still, this is a guy who spent the better part of 30 years locked up in youth detention facilities and hard core penitentiaries because he always put himself behind the eight ball. So join me as I reveal the sad saga of Armando Zambrano, and how he has battled back to pick up the pieces and contribute to society.
Life started out fairly normal for Armando Zambrano, at least for a boy who was exposed to the rough and tumble barrios of East Los Angeles. His older sister was a “home girl” in a local gang, but Armando usually hung out with a group of tough kids who preferred jumping the trails on their bmx dirt bikes for good clean fun. That would all change though, when Armando’s parents filed for divorce. The two siblings moved with their mom to Long Beach, although against their wishes.
“Right away, I just had a bad feeling in my gut about Long Beach,” he recalls.
Those instincts were correct. In his very first day at school, Armando was jumped by a dozen kids who called themselves the “chicos malos.” He weathered the storm and would soon be known as Lil’ Mando the “Cholito.” At the age of 12, he became an official gang member and ran away from home.
It wasn’t long before Armando started pushing drugs for coin with his “camaradas.” He was using too, everything from smoking weed to hard core stuff…anything to get high and do crazy things. One evening, he and his boys from the East Side Longeros were on foot patrol and stole some bikes from a small group of kids. The cops later busted them however, and Armando got his first taste of being in custody at a youth detention center. It wouldn’t be his last. Over the course of nine months, Armando was sent to four different facilities for either fighting at school or trading blows with rival gang members while incarcerated. His rap sheet and reputation was growing. Then something happened that would become a life changing event.
During the brief periods Lil’ Mando was free from detention, he would always head to the hood to hang with his East Side posse. But one night, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. During a drive-by shooting engineered by a rival gang, a barely 14 year old Armando was hit by a .22 caliber bullet that pierced his left lung and settled against his spine. He was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital in grave condition with extensive internal bleeding. I’ll let Armando take it from here.
“Because of the internal bleeding, I could not receive any pain medication or anything to knock me out since the doctor was afraid of blood poisoning,” revealed Armando. “This huge male nurse was holding me down and I watched as the doctor cut me open to insert a chest tube into my lung. They couldn’t remove the bullet because it was too close to my spinal cord. I was in so much pain I asked the Lord to take me.
“In the ICU, a priest gave me last rites and my mom was holding my hand and crying. My dad was there too,” continues Armando. “I knew I was dying because I could see beams of light and a peacefulness inside. But then I asked God if he could save me because I didn’t want to die so young. And if He could, I promised I would do something in life to honor His name.”
That promise wasn’t delivered right away, but it wasn’t as though Armando didn’t try. He remained at St. Mary’s for two more months and endured nearly a year of rehab. During that time he returned to the East Side Longeros, of course. Once you’re in a gang, it’s tough to get out. While pain medication was necessary during recovery mode, opioids weren’t helpful in terms of his drug habit. Armando was starting to get hooked on heroin and his parents desperately searched for solutions. Armando’s mother is of Colombian heritage and maintained close family relationships there. She concluded that the best plan for her son was to get away from the distractions of Long Beach and spend some extended time in a different setting.
Armando was only 15 when he found himself on a flight to Bogota to visit relatives and clear his head. The trip started out well. After the plane landed, the flight’s captain introduced himself to Armando and showed him a couple of photos in his wallet. The pics were of his two grandsons who also lived in Long Beach and sure enough, they were members of Armando’s East Side Longeros gang. As it turned out, Armando’s Uncle Alvaro owned a restaurant at Bogota’s El Dorado Airport, and the captain always ate there every time he flew into the capital. Hence, he knew about Armando’s trip and wanted to welcome him. Small world.
Uncle Alvaro was financially secure, well known in the community and also welcomed Armando with open arms. The teen partied in Bogota, rode horses at his grandpa’s 174 acre ranch and frequented the border town of Leticia on the edge of the Amazon jungle. Armando had other relatives who lived there at the time, but the area was later taken over by Colombian rebels now known as the FARC. Unfortunately, wherever drugs were around, Armando would always have a nose to find them. He made new friends in the capital who liked to smoke “bazuco,” residue from the coca plant mixed with marijuana and rolled up in a joint. It wasn’t long however, before Armando and his amigos got busted by the police. He wasn’t arrested because of his family’s prominent reputation, but Uncle Alvaro was furious.
“I was told to pack up my stuff and my uncle put me on the next flight to Los Angeles,” says Armando. “My Uncle Armando (I was named after him) was running for public office, and I was told that bad behavior from a nephew couldn’t be tolerated.”
The vacation Armando enjoyed for several weeks had come to an abrupt end with nothing much accomplished to put his life on a different course.
Once back in the city, Armando made a beeline to Long Beach to join his crew of “homies,” and it was back to business as usual. But time flies and all of a sudden Lil’ Mando was about to be 18. That meant that any gang activities would now be met with more serious consequences, like doing time in the “big house.” Armando was busted on a regular basis for “slinging” heroin and because he was a prior offender and documented gang member, the judge sentenced him to five years at Chino State Prison. That wasn’t bad because according to Armando, drugs were “jumping” among the general population, smuggled in by visitors on the weekends. But he was later sent to the more hard core Old Soledad “castle.” Back in the day, they had occasional amateur boxing cards in the Soledad main yard, and Armando was a frequent participant. It was there when he hooked up with pro boxing manager Ed Butker, who seemed to take an interest in him.
After being paroled in 1986, Armando met up with Butker at the famed Main Street Gym in downtown Los Angeles, and started training there. The place was located just a couple of blocks from Skid Row, but was known for producing top talent in the fight game. Armando was eager to turn pro and make some money. Butker, a transplanted Chicago mafia boss, said he would “take care” of Armando has long as he stayed clean. Knowing Armando’s criminal background, Butker instructed him not to reveal any of that information on the pro license application. The cagey manager was well connected and friends with the California Athletic Commission’s director in L.A. Ed figured he could get the paperwork rubber stamped with few questions asked or excessive red tape. Butker’s right hand guy was Freddy Merino, a highly regarded trainer, and Armando blossomed under Merino’s expertise as an up and coming prospect in the lightweight division. Armando became a celebrity, at least in his own mind, making decent coin and partying 24/7 with the ladies. The temptations were too inviting and at the weigh-in before an upcoming bout, Armando tested dirty for drugs in his system.
The state commission slammed down the hammer and suspended Armando for one year. What’s more, the punishment raised some red flags in Sacramento. Apparently, the home office had no record of approving Armando Zambrano for a professional license because they could not locate the application. As a result, all his bouts were wiped off the record as if they never occurred. Butker was obviously disappointed that Armando didn’t live up to his part of the deal, and terminated their personal contract.
“I don’t blame Ed for what happened,” noted Armando recently. “He was always good to me and I was the one who messed up. Now that he”s gone, I hope he rests in peace.”
Switching Gears in the Forest Service
Armando sold all his boxing gear to Freddy Merino for some extra cash and resumed his life in the hood. Right away he got popped again, this time for cocaine and heroin possession. For years he bounced around to various state prisons, carrying plenty of baggage with him like numerous assaults on other inmates and gang related attacks. Clearly he was an angry young man, frustrated with life on a dead end street. But in 1998, his girl friend gave birth to who would be Armando’s only child, a healthy baby girl. And after serving out his time at Tehachapi prison, he was paroled to Los Angeles and entered a program where free residential housing was offered. The hotel where he was staying could hardly be confused with the Ritz Carlton. It was a halfway house chuck full of whores, tweakers and crack heads, not a great environment for an addict trying to kick the habit. However, the birth of his daughter gave Armando a new sense of responsibility. He secured a job at an apparel factory and on the side met with a job developer to pursue higher paying employment. At this point, Armando had been drug free for two years, but still had two years left on his parole agreement. He had very little on the job training, although while at a youth detention camp he did complete a fire fighting training course. Bingo!
The job counselor helped Armando fill out an application for the USDA Forest Service, explaining that the agency occasionally hired people with a criminal background as long as they had some experience. Despite being a convicted felon, he was advised to be candid and truthful with the paperwork so there would be no surprises down the road. After playing the waiting game for several weeks, Armando finally got a call from a man named Dave Konklin from the Forest Service. He said that if Armando could pass a pack test and other endurance exercises up in Santa Clarita, he would be hired and likely stationed in nearby Pasadena. While Armando had some physical challenges due to the drive-by shooting and several stab wounds from prison yard riots, he always trained hard as a boxer and was in reasonably good shape. Pumped up for this new shot at success, he finished ahead of all the other candidates and got the job. In fact, he was assigned to the hot shot crew that responded to emergencies all over the country and frequently worked with FEMA. Armando was making serious money, padding his savings account, and was on top of the world. Then all that he had accomplished disappeared in a plume of smoke.
Armando’s former parole officer who had always encouraged him was promoted, and a new hard ass individual was assigned. He informed Armando that his case had restrictions because at Tehachapi he was considered a high risk parolee. For that reason, he could not leave Los Angeles county as a first responder without special permission. The officer then requested to speak with a supervisor and within two weeks, Armando was terminated from hot shot detail. It was still possible for him to be assigned to a standard engine station. But another boss named Dick McCombs threw cold water on that idea. He was overheard telling a colleague, “why was some wetback covered with tattoos working for the forest service?” Armando filed a federal discrimination complaint against the Forest Service, but without adequate representation the lawsuit went nowhere.
Keeping That Promise to the Lord
Armando was devastated by the forest service fiasco, especially the racial implications. He briefly lashed out and again made some poor decisions. But in reality, he had already turned the corner. Armando’s father had passed, his daughter was put up for adoption and his old Long Beach homies were either locked up or dead. The important thing was that he had been clean since 2007 and Christ was now in his life. Armando’s mother had moved to Las Vegas years ago and now at 88, she was in poor health. So it made sense for him to get a new start in Sin City, take care of his mom and once again pursue his love for boxing. This time though, Armando would channel his efforts as a trainer and work with high risk youth there.
Building up a resume at Johnny Tocco’s famed gym in Las Vegas, Armando rubbed elbows with former super bantamweight champion Jaime Garza, ex-lightweight/welter king Robert Guerrero and other “name” boxers. But after moving on to manage Jim Long’s gym, he began to acquire a loyal following. Long Life Fitness was where Armando spent some time working with a young Canelo Alvarez before his fight with Shane Mosley. He also interviewed him in Spanish for Televisa which was aired internationally. It was not uncommon for Armando to mentor up to 20 kids a week at this venue, teaching them the ropes in boxing and in life. Many of his instructional videos are posted on YouTube and at 55, he still moves great, even with a bullet lodged in his spine.
“Every morning when I get up, I’m real stiff and sore,” he admits. But after a few cups of hot coffee, I start to feel better and loosen up.”
COVID-19 has hit gyms hard and Armando’s place is no exception. He’s had to make adjustments, which isn’t easy in the Vegas summer heat. Still, he keeps track of his flock because he cares about their well-being. That’s his focus now, with drugs, booze and other vices in the rear view mirror. I asked Armando the other day how he was able to quit hard core drugs cold turkey after 30 years of abuse. His answer was simple.
“I just got tired of prison ruining my life,” he reasoned. “Now I have other priorities.”
That’s why I have so much respect for this man. Armando knows he can’t change the world, but he can make a small difference… and also keep that promise to God.