LONGMONT, Colo. - Under his breath, Randy Lopez kind of chuckled to himself the first time he caught a glimpse of Hilario Ramirez.
"This kid wants to be a boxer? You've got to be kidding me," he thought.
Ramirez, clad in worn-out shoes with the rubber soles barely hanging on, was more than prepared to prove himself to Lopez - or anyone else who doubted him. The 15-year-old grew up in a single-parent home with six siblings, learning everything he'd ever need to know about toughness from his rock of a mother.
Staying away from the streets this far into life had been the biggest battle he'd ever faced, so what's a 6-mile run?
"He just kept running. Every day, I'd push him more, and he'd keep going," Lopez said. "Those shoes didn't bother him; no distance would bother him.
"I just kept thinking to myself, 'This kid is unbelievable.'"
Thirteen fights into Ramirez's competitive boxing career, Lopez is still muttering those words.
As somewhat of a New Year's resolution, Ramirez called up his old boxing coach for a favor.
"I want to box again," he said. "I want you to coach me."
Lopez wasn't sure how to react. On a hiatus from the sport for a couple of years, the longtime Longmont Boxing Club coach was beginning to feel the itch again. But he wasn't sure Ramirez was the kid with whom he wanted to break back in.
Lopez coached Ramirez's older brother, Juan Cervantes, about six years ago. Cervantes was a spectacular talent, appearing in three national tournament finals, and Ramirez would routinely tag along.
"I used to make Hilario leave the gym. I'd get so mad at him," Lopez said. "He used to screw around, and he was terrible.
"He was a windmill. It was horrible."
Funny how things change.
Lopez quickly learned that this little brat he'd spent so much time yelling at had turned into not only a great athlete, but an extraordinary human being at the same time.
After a few weeks of training wherever they could, Lopez decided to open his own gym in Longmont. He called it La Familia Boxing, with the purpose of only working with "rough kids" at no charge.
Lopez purchased $5,000 worth of equipment and rented a small space just off Main Street in Longmont, and then things started rolling for Hilario Ramirez. In just six months, he wowed the Colorado boxing community and found himself squarely on the national radar.
Developing into a high school freshman who's mature well beyond his years didn't come without a price.
"My mom is the type of woman, if she tells you something, she wants it done the first time," Ramirez said. "I kind of learned that the hard way.
"She's a strong woman."
That's where Ramirez said he picked up his toughness. That - and being a father figure to his younger siblings, nieces and nephews - forced him to grow up rather early. Every day, Ramirez is trusted to take them all to and from daycare.
"That's a lot of responsibility for a 15-year-old kid," Lopez said.
At the same time, Ramirez was craving a male role model in his life.
"I don't really know my father," he said. "I've seen him twice. From the time I was born, my mom is really the only person that's been there to keep me straight."
Enter Lopez, recently single with his daughters all grown up. It was a match made in heaven. He foots the bill for Ramirez's fighting - travel, tournament fees and all the costs of training.
It has been an eye-opening relationship for Ramirez. One day, early on in their training, Lopez offered to buy his young protege dinner.
"I said, 'Where do you want to go? What restaurant do you want?'" Lopez recalls. "He just kept saying, 'I don't know. I don't know.' I asked him what his favorite restaurant was, and he said, 'I don't know. I've never been to one.'"
A skimp-and-bear-it life is all Ramirez knew. Coming from a huge, one-income family has humbled him to the point that nothing gets him down.
"He's the son I never had," Lopez said. "He listens to everything I tell him, he has outstanding work ethic, and he's a great person. Plus, he's just got that natural ability, and his body shape is sick for boxing. He's a full-package kid.
"He's unlike anything I've ever seen."
Lopez and Ramirez don't mince words when talking about the teen's potential future in boxing.
Just six fights into his young career, Ramirez already was fighting for national tournament titles. He won the Colorado Golden Gloves and the Colorado State Junior Olympics titles, and he recently came back from an open tourney in Mississippi with the championship belt.
In just a few months of fighting, Ramirez earned the shot to wear the red, white and blue in June at the USA Boxing National Championships in Denver. He lost, but it lit the fire for his ultimate goal.
"I want to go to the 2012 Olympics in London," he said. "That's my dream right now."
As far as Lopez is concerned, it's not just a pipe dream.
Lopez said the most talented boxer he'd ever coached was Ramirez's older brother - and that Ramirez "knocks him out of the park."
"He's so tough," Lopez said. "It doesn't matter the level of competition. I'll put him in against anybody."
Ramirez trains with Lopez six, sometimes seven days week for hours at a time. He runs miles upon miles, spars for hours and will step into the ring against anyone, because "he has no fear," Lopez said.
Ramirez plans to go to college, hoping to find a career as either an architect or a pediatrician when his boxing days are over. He'll be a sophomore in the fall at Niwot High School, where he plays football, wrestles and runs track.
But in six short months, boxing has come to the forefront in his exceedingly busy life.
"I'd live in the gym if I could," he said. "That's the life I wish I had. I'd live here and work out 24/7.
"I plan to dedicate myself to boxing, and we'll just see where it takes me."
Those tattered shoes Ramirez showed up wearing on his first day of practice have long since been retired. Lopez gets him a new pair every couple of months. But for the veteran boxing coach, this is one investment that's already reaping valuable rewards.
"Some parent told me, 'This kid really needs you,'" Lopez said. "Maybe. But I need him just as much.
"He never stops surprising me. This kid is truly unbelievable."