In June 1967, a boxer from Eugene stepped into the ring at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles for the biggest fight of his career.
Len Kesey was 23 and champion of the Pacific Northwest, dashing and handsome with a nasty left hook. His opponent was Mando Ramos, a teenage sensation on his way to No. 1 in the world.
Ramos, trying for the knockout punch, caught Kesey with a hard right in the second round. Kesey stumbled but kept fighting, blood oozing from his nose and staining his white trunks.
They continued for three more rounds, until the ring physician was summoned to examine Kesey’s nose. He declared it broken, giving Ramos the victory by technical knockout.
“Kesey was definitely the hardest puncher I’ve ever fought,” Ramos told a reporter after the fight, “but I don’t know if he was the slickest.”
Almost 50 years later, a small man sits behind a table at Sherwood Pines, a residential care facility in Veneta. He’s wearing his favorite Greek fisherman’s cap, making him the spitting image of his famous first cousin, the writer Ken Kesey.
A woman enters the room. She is familiar to him. She pulls up a chair and introduces a visitor who has come to talk about Len’s boxing career.
The subject brings a spark of recognition. Kesey lifts a finger and presses it to his nose, smushing the cartilage where bones used to be. It’s his universal way of introducing himself as a boxer.
The woman asks if he remembers who broke his nose the first time. At first he can’t recall, but after a few moments, the name comes to him.
“Mando Ramos, I guess,” Kesey says.
They talk a while longer, probing for memories. Kesey’s motorcycles. His track career at North Eugene. The time he met George Foreman.
The woman is still there, sitting beside him. Finally he asks:
“Are you married?”
“We are married,” she tells him. “I’m Elaine.”
She reminds him about their wedding picture, the one they were passing around the last time she visited.
“We were young and beautiful,” she says.
Kesey seems to understand. He likes seeing the pictures, so Elaine goes to retrieve a framed boxing photo from his room. While she’s gone, Kesey leans forward.
“Yeah, I had 39 professional fights,” he says, as if imparting a closely guarded secret. “I won 30 and lost eight.”
Internet archives list Kesey’s record at 25-10-1, or maybe 26-10-1. He once climbed as high as No. 7 in the world as a junior lightweight, one of the facts he can recall on command.
Kesey’s career took him to some exotic places — Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Hawaii — but now the fights and the fighters all run together.
“I used to fight all the time,” he says. “It’s been a long time ago. I can’t remember.”
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Photo credit: Brian Davies/The Register-Guard