By Keith Idec
Deep down, the fighter in Jose Ramirez must’ve meant what he said.
It’s just hard to take these statements seriously from someone who’s listed as a 100-1 favorite by numerous Internet sports books entering his first title defense Saturday night.
“I’m ready to fight the best champions,” Ramirez said following a workout Wednesday, “and get all the doubts out of the way as to who is the best fighter in the division.”
Nothing that has happened since Ramirez won the WBC super lightweight title March 17 indicates this is what Ramirez will do. Not in the foreseeable future, anyway.
If Ramirez and his promoter, Bob Arum, were actually serious at the moment about Ramirez establishing himself as the best 140-pound fighter in boxing, he would be preparing to face Regis Prograis on Saturday night. He also would’ve committed to participating in the World Boxing Super Series’ 140-pound tournament, which will feature many of the best boxers in that division, including Prograis.
As we well know, though, the boxing business often isn’t about completing mandates from sanctioning organizations or making the most competitive fights. First and foremost, it’s about making money, and Arum wouldn’t be maximizing Ramirez’s earning potential if he had arranged Ramirez-Prograis for Saturday night in Fresno, California.
Thus the unbeaten Ramirez is instead completing preparation for an optional title defense versus Danny O’Connor, the WBC’s 13th-ranked contender. O’Connor, 33, was knocked out in the first round of an October 2015 bout by Gabriel Bracero, who has five knockouts in 28 professional fights.
O’Connor, a southpaw from Framingham, Massachusetts, has won each of his four fights since Bracero beat him. But make no mistake, Top Rank’s matchmakers chose O’Connor to help make Ramirez look good in the hometown hero’s first title defense (ESPN; 9:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. PT).
If the heavily favored Ramirez wins, the 25-year-old champion won’t participate in the World Boxing Super Series’ tournament, either.
Truth be told, Ramirez’s faithful fans in California’s Central Valley probably don’t care all that much whether the 2012 Olympian fights Prograis or O’Connor. They’ll pack Save Mart Center on Fresno State University’s campus to support a socially conscious champion who means at least as much to them outside the ring as he does inside it.
That’s how much of an admirable impact Ramirez has made in his home area by bringing a lot of attention to the water crisis that affected farm workers there and immigration issues. They’ve strongly supported Ramirez for three years in Fresno and have made him one of boxing’s biggest draws in the United States.
Arum and his brain trust at Top Rank Inc. realize they have a rare American attraction in Ramirez. You barely need two hands to count the American fighters who can consistently lure 13,000-plus fans for boxing matches in this country.
Ramirez’s last fight at Save Mart Center, a second-round knockout of Mike Reid, attracted an announced crowd of 13,838. A comparable crowd is expected Saturday night.
Arum wasn’t about to interrupt that momentum by putting Ramirez (22-0, 16 KOs) in the ring with a dangerous knockout artist like Prograis.
Ramirez was supposed to make a mandatory defense of his new title against Prograis in this fight. That was part of the agreement the WBC made with Ramirez, Imam, Prograis and Julius Indongo before they fought eight days apart in March.
Prograis (21-0, 18 KOs) did his part by demolishing Indongo (22-2, 11 KOs), a former IBF/IBO/WBA champ who was knocked down four times on his way to a second-round knockout loss to Prograis on March 9 in Deadwood, South Dakota. That impressive victory earned Prograis the WBC’s interim super lightweight title and guaranteed him a shot at the Ramirez-Imam winner.
Or so Prograis thought. Mere minutes after a determined Ramirez out-worked Imam to win a unanimous decision in The Theater at Madison Square Garden, Arum began protecting Ramirez from Prograis.
First the Hall-of-Fame promoter offered Prograis a spot on Ramirez’s undercard Saturday night, so that they could build toward the title shot Prograis already had earned. Prograis wasn’t interested, but Arum ultimately made Prograis and his promoter, Lou DiBella, an offer the powerful southpaw couldn’t refuse.
Arum promised Prograis a fight in his hometown of New Orleans, an opportunity Prograis has long sought, and a chance to headline a card ESPN will televise July 14 from Lakefront Arena, a short trip from the neighborhood where Prograis grew up. Prograis also wanted to partake in the World Boxing Super Series’ tournament, thus his fight next Saturday against Argentina’s Juan Jose Velasco (20-0, 12 KOs) will provide Prograis with what’s expected to be a relatively easy title defense before his first World Boxing Super Series fight in the fall.
Arum at least made Ramirez avoiding him worthwhile for Prograis.
The 29-year-old Prograis figures he’ll eventually get a chance to meet Ramirez in the ring. He predicted he’ll win the World Boxing Super Series’ tournament and expects Ramirez to continue beating lesser competition.
“Eventually, he’ll have to fight me,” Prograis told BoxingScene.com recently. “The thing is, when the fans demand something and the fans wanna see it, obviously it’ll bring more attention and more money. I think he would fight me. I don’t think he’s scared to fight, but as far as the business side of things go, I just think his manager and Bob Arum, they wouldn’t wanna take that fight because I’m too dangerous.
“He has a big fan base in his hometown and they wanna keep that and keep him a champion. But eventually, he’s gonna have to fight somebody.”
Scotland’s Josh Taylor (13-0, 11 KOs), who beat former WBC champ Viktor Postol (29-2, 12 KOs) by unanimous decision June 23, is now the WBC’s No. 1 contender for Ramirez’s title. He, too, will be part of the World Boxing Super Series’ tournament, which means Ramirez won’t have to fight him anytime soon, either.
Assuming Ramirez defeats O’Connor, he’ll likely be afforded another optional title defense in Fresno before Arum attempts to put together a 140-pound title unification fight for the Avenal, California, native. The winner between WBO junior welterweight champ Maurice Hooker (24-0-3, 16 KOs) and mandatory challenger Alex Saucedo (28-0, 18 KOs) could fight Ramirez sometime in 2019.
Dallas’ Hooker and Oklahoma City’s Saucedo, who’s promoted by Top Rank and has a simmering rivalry with Ramirez, are expected to fight sometime in the fall. If Saucedo defeats Hooker, a Ramirez-Saucedo fight could be an all-action slugfest well worth watching.
For now, we’re left to watch Ramirez fight an overmatched O’Connor and listen to him discuss how he wants to fight the best 140-pound opponents possible. Meanwhile, Prograis and Taylor, the two top threats to Ramirez’s reign, actually are doing just that.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.