By Bill Dwyre
Even on a high-profile April 9 boxing card that features Manny Pacquiao versus Timothy Bradley Jr., undercard fighter Jose Ramirez is hard to ignore.
He is unbeaten in 16 fights, with 12 knockouts. But that’s just ordinary boxing statistical stuff. Ramírez’s story is anything but ordinary. Writers have told it before, including this one. But it is a story that keeps on giving.
In brief summary, Ramírez was born in Avenal, grew up in California’s Central Valley, worked the agriculture fields as a teenager in the 100-degree heat of the summer alongside his family, and then escaped the heat and drudgery via his boxing career. That’s not an unfamiliar story in the sport: Poor kid avoids the inevitable pitfalls of crime and drugs and poverty by finding a gym, taking up boxing and never looking back.
Except that, Ramírez has never stopped looking back.
He has given a face to the cause of water rights for the agriculture workers in the Central Valley. He has returned to fight there, time after time, first filling small gymnasiums and then big arenas. He is 23 and already a marketing machine, although that marketing appears to be less for personal gain and more for unity of the cause, which has pitted agriculture water-rights advocates against environmentalists.
Among the issues championed by the environmentalists is the preservation of wild life. One specific issue is the saving of the Delta Smelt, prompting the wonderful quote from Ramírez’s promoter, Top Rank’s Bob Arum: “Who in hell ever saw a Delta Smelt?”
Because of the fervor with which Ramírez has taken on the agriculture cause, his endorsement appeal is well beyond that of an undercard boxer. With manager and promoter Rick Mirigian leading the way, Ramírez recently became a national spokesman for Dodge Ram trucks, has his name on a Discover Card and is a spokesman for responsible drinking on behalf of a tequila company. He has a total of 11 endorsement deals, close to tops in boxing.
But loyalty to the home front continues to be the thing that sets Ramírez apart.
When his career had just begun to blossom a few years ago, Mirigian, at Ramírez’s behest, decided to put together his next fight close to home. West Hills College was 30 minutes from Avenal in Leemore, and the college had a gym that could hold 3,000.
It was an unusual marriage -- a pro fight and a community college gym. There was no staff, no security group in place, no concessions group willing or able to serve 3,000. And maybe no lack of skepticism that the 3,000-person sellout Mirigian was pushing could be anywhere near a reality.
But the president of the school, Don Warkentin, decided to get on board, fight all the fights alongside Mirigian that needed to be fought, and made the kind of time and issue commitment not usual for a person in his position. The 3,000 showed up in the Golden Eagle Arena, and Ramírez did not lay an egg. He scored an early knockout, and soon, for Jose Ramírez and his future, 3,000 seats were not nearly enough.
Ramírez never forgot the help he received at the start, and he will honor West Hills and Warkentin by wearing a West Hills logo on his shorts and robe as he takes the ring, giving the Central Valley and its special cause another boost with the national and international exposure from HBO.
Sadly, Warkentin won’t be there to see it. He died a few months ago.
The Mexican Russian
Another undercard fighter will be Evgeny Gradovich, who fights out of Oxnard and comes from Russia, apparently without love.
He will be in the second HBO Pay-Per-View fight, after Ramírez takes on Manny Perez.
Gradovich, like Ramírez, is hardly a bashful flower when it comes to creating attention. He calls himself the Mexican Russian.
“I got double pressure,” he says, “because everybody hates Russians and everybody hates Mexicans.”
Pacquiao versus Khan?
Before the selection of Bradley, among the candidates to fight Pacquiao in his alleged grand finale fight was England’s Amir Khan. Arum, when asked why that didn’t happen, was his usual shy, noncontroversial self.
“Khan had a distorted notion of what he was worth,” the promoter said.
Gradovich’s opponent will be Óscar Valdez, who has the distinction of being the only Mexican to make two Olympic boxing teams. Valdez won four fights last year. When Arum introduced him at an earlier press gathering, he used Valdez to punctuate his anti-Donald Trump political stance and to further define why he is calling his batch of preliminary fights the “NoTrump Undercard.” He said, “I’m not gonna let Trump get a hold of Óscar Valdez’s paycheck to help him build his wall.”
Pacquiao has been guaranteed $20 million for the fight. Bradley will get $4 million, less than he received for either of his first two fights against Pacquiao. He got $6 million for the first fight, $5 million for the second.
Fighting Since the Womb
Fight fans in the Central Valley think they are fortunate to have Ramírez. Little do they know.
When Juanita Ramírez was five-month’s pregnant with Jose, she was involved in an auto accident, when her car was struck by a drunk driver. She was on her way to an Easter egg hunt. The car flipped, she broke her arm and because of her pregnancy, could not take the kind of drugs needed to reduce the pain in the arm. By the time she delivered Jose, she was so ill and frail that she remained in the hospital for nearly a month.
Bill Dwyre will be writing a series of weekly columns on the Pacquiao vs. Bradley world championship event. Bill was sports editor of The Los Angeles Times for 25 years, ending in 2006. He was a sports columnist for 9 1/2 years at The Times, ending Nov. 25 with his retirement. Boxing was among his most frequent column topics. Bill can be contacted at BillPatDwyre@gmail.com or via Twitter at @BillDwyre.