By Cliff Rold
If you can make it there…
Apologies for borrowing from Ol’ Blue Eyes, but New York is as big a deal as it ever it was. While it might not be the center of the boxing universe it used to be, it remains one of the world’s great media hubs. A New York fistic debut matters.
A New York debut at the Garden matters even more.
Saturday night, a pair of Jr. welterweights will make their Garden debut. It won’t be in the main arena but the adjoining Theatre has plenty of history of its own.
It still has Madison Square Garden in the name.
Fighting for a vacant WBC title at 140 lbs., once red-hot prospect Amir Imam (21-1, 18 KO) will face the latest red hot piece of business in 2012 US Olympian Jose Ramirez (21-0, 16 KO). Imam is 27, the winner of three straight since a lone career loss to Adrian Granados. Ramirez, 25, enters off an impressive blow out of undefeated Mike Reed. Neither man has reached the peaks they seek yet.
This could turn out to be the second gem in a row for ESPN (8 PM EST/5 PM PST) after the brutal action of Oscar Valdez-Scott Quigg.
If Ramirez wins, it could also be the birth of a star.
That’s not to say Imam couldn’t ride a win here into notoriety and fame. Ramirez has just been put in a better position to capitalize on a victory.
Ramirez is already a genuine ticket draw, something few fighters can state with a straight face. Draws can come in different sizes. Ramirez isn’t a ticket draw the way the UK’s Anthony Joshua is but he has been carved nicely into a market that hasn’t been over saturated by the sweet science. Sharing a promoter in Top Rank, Ramirez has been developed in the central valley of California with Fresno as his hub in much the way Terence Crawford has been developed in Nebraska.
Ramirez has become an event for a town whose biggest sports scene was often Fresno State football. His win over Reed put almost 14,000 butts in the seats. Those numbers didn’t happen overnight. Ramirez, who had received solid local press when he made the Olympics out of nearby Avenal, made his Central Valley debut as a pro in his seventh fight at an Indian Casino in Lemoore.
Within a few fights, they’d moved just a short drive up the road into Fresno. The Reed fight was Ramirez’s eighth in Fresno or Lemoore and third in the larger Fresno State basketball arena.
Even if he loses to Imam this weekend, that’s a solid cushion to go back to. There used to be more regional attractions in the US and if that’s the ceiling for Ramirez then that’s okay. Injuries cut short the potential of Buffalo heavyweight Joe Mesi a decade ago. His local drawing power was still more than enough to make him a story and make him some money.
If Ramirez can get himself a belt, the ceiling goes up for him.
Vinny Pazienza and Greg Haugen could be even better role models.
The memorable lightweight rivals had three fights in the 1980s, faced plenty of other big names around their weights, and always had a home market of fans to fall back on. Haugen was developed in the Pacific Northwest, building his contention and eventually bringing a title fight or two to his native Tacoma, Washington. Pazienza was built into a home attraction in his native Providence, Rhode Island and won his first title from Haugen there.
Pazienza also beat Gilbert Dele at home to win a Jr. middleweight title and built a comeback from a terrible car accident often pulling in fans to Connecticut from his old haunts. Both Haugen and Pazienza found some of their biggest paydays on the road. The foundation of a reliable, enthusiastic, paying fan base was a big help in keeping them in the mix and on television even well past their prime.
Like those two, Ramirez has a fan friendly style. What we don’t know is if he has the chops at the world-class level yet. Imam might not answer that completely but he’s an excellent test in what appears an evenly matched affair.
With a win, Ramirez could be staring at a mandatory against a Regis Prograis who impressed in destroying former unified titlist Julius Indongo last week. The best of the youth in the division won’t take long to sort out.
Ramirez might one day remembered as a guy like Mesi, a ticket seller who didn’t quite hit the top of the mountain. A career like Haugen’s or Pazienza’s would be more than most guys can ask for.
And if he can go even farther than those two, the words draw and star might be underselling the potential for Ramirez.
It’s all still if’s for now. Ramirez is close for still at least an Amir Imam away.
It’s up to him to make it work in ol’ New York.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]