Raymundo Beltran: The fighter and his shadow

Beltran fighting for opportunity at a better life (5:55)

Raymundo Beltran, who for years made his living as the sparring partner of Manny Pacquiao, shares why he never gave up hope. Beltran defends his WBO lightweight world title against Jose Pedraza on Saturday, at 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. (5:55)

Editor's note: This story was published in Feb. 2018.

LOS ANGELES -- Among those who expressed support for Raymundo Beltran's petition with the Department of Homeland Security for permanent residency in the United States was a Filipino senator named Manny Pacquiao. While not an American citizen himself, Pacquiao has extensive knowledge of Beltran's work history, having been his primary employer since 2004.

Pacquiao was training for a bout with Juan Manuel Marquez when he first procured Beltran's services as his sparring partner at the Wild Card gym here. The pay -- $500 a week for seven weeks -- was more than Beltran's biggest purse at the time. He began earning it just seconds into their first round, when Pacquiao stung him with a one-two punch.

Beltran felt his lips get fat and warm. Then his legs got heavy. He was trying not to look dizzy when Pacquiao caught him again. One more time, Beltran thought, and I'm going down.

As it happened, he survived the remaining four rounds. Several hours later, in another part of town, however, Beltran became nauseated, disoriented and unable to find the way back to his parked car. Finally, he gave his keys to a friend.

"You drive," Beltran said. "I don't feel so good."

Such was his introduction to the concussive power of Manny Pacquiao, boxing's only eight-division world titleholder. If the price he exacted in sparring was steep, the wages were always generous, not to mention the bonuses. There was a standing $1,000 for anyone who knocked Manny down (which no one ever did), and an extra couple of grand for especially valorous fighters willing to put themselves in harm's way, which Beltran always did.

It wasn't an easy way to earn a living, but Beltran had a wife and two kids -- and another on the way, soon -- and it was the steadiest check he would ever get.

"No one has gone more rounds with Pacquiao," said Beltran, who spent more than a decade as his chief sparring partner. "To be able to say that is a privilege."

"Don't worry. You're going to make it." Immigration officer that caught Raymundo Beltran crossing the border.

For a time, those rounds sharpened his mind and body. But after a while, the problem with being a sparring partner is, well, being a sparring partner.

"You learn to kill rounds," said Ernie Zavala, one of Beltran's trainers. "Not win them."

You spend the balance of your career imitating other fighters. Over the long haul, another kind of disorientation sets in. You forget not just who you were, but who you wanted to be. It's not just your physical self that's diminished; it's your ambition.

At 36, Beltran has been a professional fighter more than half his life. For most of that time, he wearily concedes, "I was the opponent."

If he wasn't supposed to lose, then he was expected to. It happens to almost every fighter, typically sooner rather than later. And it's a condition from which there's usually no reprieve.

Beltran is a talented lightweight with a great left hook. But the truth is, gyms the world over are packed with guys who can say that. Being a fighter means, almost inevitably, being a hard-luck story (among the reasons that the game tends to be better for writers, actors and directors than it is for combatants). In that respect, however, Ray Beltran is the fighter's fighter, classically schooled in disappointment.

The immutable law of boxing: No one emerges with his dignity intact. Though technically a "sport," it has a knack for transforming starving children into desperate men. Beltran has suffered from bad management (and its often worse variant, self-management) and epically bad decisions. The game has cheated him. And, yes, he's cheated the game too. Still, while he has thought about quitting, he never has.

And now, at 36 -- with a chance to win his first title Friday night and the Department of Homeland Security having recently approved his application as an "Alien of Extraordinary Ability" -- he has become an unlikely source of inspiration at the Wild Card gym. He's a title shot away from living proof: The opponent who made it.

"He gives hope to everyone in the gym," said his manager of these last couple of years, Steve Feder.

If The Fighter constitutes an archetype, then the world's best could see himself in his sparring partner. "We both came from nothing," said senator Pacquiao, via email.

In Beltran's case, "nothing" was a home without running water or electricity and a roof of corrugated metal in Los Mochis, Mexico. A main dinner course was often tortillas with oil and salt. In tougher times, Beltran -- along with his mother and father, kid brother and sister -- went to the farms and collected shards of potatoes and onions discarded by the harvesting machines. The Beltran children learned to surgically salvage their food: If an apple or a banana or a wheel of cheese had begun to rot, you simply removed the infected part.

"We cut away the bad," Beltran said, "and eat the good."

"Don't worry. You're going to make it." Immigration officer that caught Raymundo Beltran crossing the border.

His father, a former fighter, made it to Phoenix in 1990; seven years later, he had made enough money as a dishwasher to send for the rest of the family. Beltran recalls a cold December night, the wind stinging his face, as he found himself huddled against a tire in the back of a pickup. Immigration agents caught them soon after they crossed the border. They were nice guys, even during fingerprinting. They fed the Beltrans cheeseburgers before sending them back.

One of the agents turned to Beltran, at 16, the man of the family. "Don't worry," he said. "You're going to make it."

The next day, having been told exactly when the agents changed shifts, the Beltrans made it clear through to Phoenix. As his father was $200 short, the smugglers kept Beltran in a trailer for a week until the balance was paid. Then he began his American life.

Looking back, Beltran has this idea that he might have studied nutrition. But without a green card, enrolling in a community college would have gotten him returned to Los Mochis pretty fast. Instead, he pursued the only career he had ever trained for: fighting.

And every so often -- typically after a hastily canceled bout or a bad decision -- Beltran would recall that immigration agent: You're gonna make it. And he would wonder if the man in uniform actually had been mocking him.

By 2012, he had grown tired of being an opponent.

"The business was s---ting on him," said his longtime friend and workout partner Bryan McComb. "He wasn't a big name, but he was dangerous. That didn't make him a good option for many fighters or promoters."

Money was tight. McComb would make big pasta dinners for Beltran and his wife and kids. McComb recalls the two of them talking one night in a parked car.

"I hate this," Beltran said. "I'm done."

McComb always marveled at Beltran's ability to take punishment. But something had shifted inside him; Beltran began to weep.

McComb would've shamed him, but he knew two elements would conspire to ensure that his friend remained a fighter. The first was Beltran's heart. The second was circumstance: wife, three kids and no green card.

"Nothing else to fall back on," McComb said. "He had no choice."

Late that spring, Beltran's longtime trainer, Pepe Reilly, a welterweight on the 1992 American Olympic team, heard that the WBC's No. 1-ranked lightweight, Hank Lundy, was looking for a tuneup fight.

"They're just going to screw me again," Beltran said.

"Get Steve Feder," Reilly responded. "He'll negotiate."

Feder was a screenwriter. He started hanging out at the Wild Card during the writers' strike in 2007 and was managing a stable of fighters. In all his time in Hollywood, however, Feder had never pitched anything as maudlin as his Beltran concept. "Guy's laying on the couch," he told Lundy's manager. "Just wants to feed his kids."

He couldn't believe they actually got the date: July 27 at Resorts Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. It turned out to be a good, close fight. But as they waited for the decision, the opponent knew what was coming.

Feder, meanwhile, was already studying one of the WBC officials. He was an older guy, jowled, white hair, a lifer. This guy knew the script. He knew the way this was supposed to go. Still, the lifer looked happy, contented, even beaming, and straight at the opponent.

"They're gonna screw me," Beltran whispered.

"Not tonight," Feder said.

Beltran won that night, by a majority decision. He wouldn't get screwed again until his first title shot. That was Sept. 7, 2013, in Scotland, home of then-WBO champion Ricky Burns. Beltran knocked him down with a hook. Beltran broke his foe's jaw. Burns got the split draw (115-112, 113-115 and 114-114). Even the British papers called it a "hometown robbery."

By the time Beltran got his next title shot, Feder was gone. Fighters can be like that. If it ain't broke, they're even money to break it. Beltran dropped a unanimous decision to Terence Crawford. No shame in that, as he hung in better than a lot of guys against Crawford, but a depression set in, a recognition perhaps.

His patron, Pacquiao, was near the end. Beltran himself was 34, though the look in his eyes seemed 1,000 years old. Then, as he got ready to fight for Crawford's vacated title in 2015, Beltran found himself having trouble making weight.

Beltran said a former member of his team offered him an injection, saying it would help him cut weight. He admits being told the substance wasn't legal. But if the trainer never specified exactly what it was, Beltran made a point of never asking. The truth is, he didn't want to know. "If I don't make weight," he told himself, "I may never get this chance again."

As it happened, he still didn't make weight. Then his second-round KO of Takahiro Ao was ruled a no contest. Beltran tested positive for the steroid stanozolol and was suspended for nine months.

"I was angry and pissed when I found out," McComb said. "But I felt bad he was that desperate."

Beltran explained the situation.

"I lost everything," he said. "I couldn't look my kids in the eye."

Beltran moved the family to a one-bedroom place in Phoenix. He tried, in a poorly planned way, to make it as a trainer. And he failed again.

When Beltran's suspension ended, McComb became the new strength and conditioning coach. Feder signed up for another tour of duty, and together they began pushing -- not just for a new storyline -- but for a new life. What frightened Beltran most wasn't being knocked out, but being sent back, deported and separated from his children, who were born in the United States. Beltran hired a lawyer, Frank Ronzio, who argued that Beltran could qualify for a green card by demonstrating "extraordinary ability" as an athlete. Suddenly, making it as an American and a champion became one in the same.

Now, Beltran is 5-0 since his suspension. On Friday night, he will face Paulus Moses (40-3, 25 KOs) of Namibia for the vacant WBO title. Nobody wins a lightweight title at 36. Really. It has never been done.

"I believe this is Ray's time," Pacquiao said.

Beltran's children still come to him crying, though -- usually after reading something on the internet. If he doesn't win, they ask, will he be deported?

"Don't worry," Beltran tells them. "I'm going to win."

What he fails to mention, though, is the correspondence he received from the Department of Homeland Security. On Nov. 24, he was informed that his petition had finally been granted.

You're going to make it.

As long as he doesn't suddenly quit boxing, a green card should be well within his reach.

Still, Beltran hasn't processed the news. Maybe, after playing the B-side for so long, he can't -- not yet, anyway. You wonder what it will take for Beltran to believe, then. Likely, it's the physical custody of a championship belt.

To do it, he'll have to cut away part of his own being -- the rot, the dread, the cynic accustomed to failure -- and recover who he once wanted to be. Turns out The Fighter isn't one archetype, but two: The Champion and his shadow.

It's not the Namibian whom Ray Beltran must beat, but his erstwhile self, The Opponent.