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How Jose Ramirez became 'the most socially involved American fighter since Muhammad Ali'

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
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The cold, hard truth of a professional boxer’s life is this: If you don’t sacrifice the things you enjoy in life, if you don’t get up at 4 a.m. to run in the rain and the snow and the cold and the wind, if you don’t torment yourself in a sweatbox of a gym for hours upon end, weeks at a time, if you don’t keep working when your back throbs and your knees hurt and your hands are sore and you’re cut and you’re tired and hungry and thirsty, you’ll find yourself in the center of a ring with thousands of eyes upon you facing someone who is ambitious enough and crazy enough to have done all those things.

The fight game is unforgiving; it doesn’t ask, it demands you be ready to test yourself in ways you never thought possible. There’s no way to obscure a half-hearted effort in the gym. When the first bell rings, it’s the loneliest and frequently the scariest place in the world.

It’s why boxers tend to be selfish, and why they often have next-to-no personal lives. They must give up all semblance of what others see as a normal life in pursuit of their life’s dream.

And then there is Jose Ramirez, who on Saturday on ESPN in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden fights Amir Imam for the vacant WBC super lightweight title. Ramirez has a work ethic that defies belief, and a selflessness that is practically unheard of in big-time boxing.

Jose Ramirez works out with Freddie Roach on March 14 in preparation for his super lightweight title fight against Amir Imam in New York. (Getty Images)
Jose Ramirez works out with Freddie Roach on March 14 in preparation for his super lightweight title fight against Amir Imam in New York. (Getty Images)

There was a day when politicians were public servants in more than name only, and that is what the 25-year-old unbeaten boxer from Avenal, California, really is: A public servant.

He’s a community leader in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and has been since he was a teenager. He’s not the type, though, who lends his name to a project and shows up for photo opportunities. Ramirez is involved, deeply and personally, in everything he does.

“Jose is a highly principled young man who understands his roots and is all about supporting the next generation,” Fresno State University president Joseph Castro said. “As long as I’ve known him, he’s had that principled view that everybody in our community who is working hard and following the rules should have the ability to strive to do great things. He’s a wonderful role model coming from a farm worker background himself.”

Ramirez is outspoken when he doesn’t have to be, lending his voice and his credibility on behalf of immigrants who are desperate for help.

He’s lobbied California Gov. Jerry Brown for water rights on behalf of the California Latino Water Coalition. He’s worked with Castro to raise money for scholarships for needy students from Avenal, who wouldn’t be able to attend college otherwise. He’s been a staunch advocate for the DREAMers, people who were brought illegally into the U.S. as children but who have lived most of their lives here.

If there is a cause that will benefit the citizens of Avenal in particular and the San Joaquin Valley in general, you can bet Ramirez is behind it in a big way.

To Bob Arum, who has promoted boxing for more than a half-century and has seen all sides of the fight game, Ramirez’s activism is virtually unmatched among American boxers.

And – at some risk to himself – Ramirez also is taking positions that some may find controversial.

“Jose Ramirez, in my view, is the most socially involved American fighter since Muhammad Ali,” Arum said. “This kid is fully devoted to these issues, and it’s not lip service or looking for good publicity. He feels deeply about them and he fights and gets involved to try to make a difference.

“He has the courage to stand up and say what he thinks and fight for what he believes is right, no matter how someone else may feel about it. And if you don’t take positions on things you believe are right even when they’re controversial, then you’re not really doing anything that is meaningful. Look, we were pariahs back in the day with what Ali was saying, but history proved Ali correct. And to the extent there is any controversy involved with the positions Jose has taken, history will prove him correct, as well.”

Ramirez recently had several DREAMers living with him in his home. It is an extraordinary gesture, but to him, it’s just all part of being a citizen.

He said it’s easy to forget, but he worked in the fields and he knows how difficult it is. Ramirez was born in Avenal, but knows that many of the workers who support the agriculture industry were born in Mexico and migrated to the U.S. in search of a better life. So, he made it his business to try to help.

“Sometimes, it takes the neighbors to get involved and fight for them and try to help them out,” Ramirez said. “A lot of people are aware of it, but most people don’t want to take a stand. But part of being a citizen is being aware of what is going on, educating yourself, voting for the proper candidates and supporting the proper laws. That makes a difference.

“People understand that, but they often don’t want to be a part of it, for some reason. But they need to take a second to realize, … ‘Who would do some of these jobs if these hard-working people didn’t do them?’ ”

Ramirez is among the hardest workers in boxing. He was a highly successful amateur but lost his second-round fight in the 2012 Olympics in London before turning pro. He began slowly, but is now 21-0 with 16 knockouts heading into his first title fight with Imam.

Despite all of his work outside of the ring, trainer Freddie Roach said he never has to worry about Ramirez, because he’s never once so much as cruised through a workout.

“He’s just gotten better and better because he’s put the time in and he’s made it a point to try to be better every day,” Roach said of Ramirez, who is coming off a second-round knockout of Mike Reed. “He’s punching a lot harder and a lot sharper now. He sees things in there. He studies the game. He’s ready to really make that next big step forward.”

When Roach was talking about making that next big step forward, he meant in a boxing sense, because as a human, as a citizen, Ramirez has already made those steps. He’s a politician-in-waiting, it seems, and Castro believes he’d be a good one if he decided to do so.

“He certainly has great potential in that regard if it’s something he’d like to do,” Castro said. “He has significant support – bipartisan support – in our region. I can see whenever I hear him speak publicly, he’s becoming a more and more effective advocate for this community, particularly young people, especially.”

Some day in the not-so-distant future, he may be referred to as Rep. Ramirez, or Sen. Ramirez, or even Gov. Ramirez.

For now, though, he’s not thinking of politics. “I like to take stands on positions and I don’t think politicians do that, because they don’t want to offend anyone,” Ramirez said.

He’s going to remain active in causes that are important to him, because that’s who he is. But at 25, he has one overriding task in mind.

“Get that green belt,” he says, referring to the WBC championship. “That is where I am right now. Bring that belt back home.”

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