By Bill DWYRE
Boxing has brought us heroes, cons and legends. Also, more than its share of losers and bums. But not often a pied piper.
Meet JOSE RAMÍREZ, a super lightweight. If a fight is scheduled for him, they will hear and follow.
You can almost hear Michael Buffer, intoning: “In the Blue Corner, playing a flute…”
Ramírez is from Avenal in Central California. Five of his last ten fights have been in his home area. All five have sold out. He brought his record to 16-0 with a victory Dec. 5 in Fresno State’s Save Mart Center, capacity 16,182. They turned people away. Where he goes to fight, they will come.
TIM BRADLEY, who will fight MANNY PACQUIAO in the main event of an April 9Las Vegas championship event — where Ramírez will be on the pay per view undercard — went to Fresno to watch that Ramírez fight. When he took a look at the packed house, for an event that didn’t even cause a ripple on the national boxing scene, Bradley’s reaction mirrored a familiar text message of the day: “(OMG) Oh my God.”
Ramírez’s cause is water rights for Central California’s agriculture industry, which, by many calculations, does about 56% of the world’s agriculture. He is 23, young to be an influential boxer. Really young to be a pied piper. But when he speaks, he does so from experience.
“When I was 14 and 15, during my high school summers, I worked in the fields, picking fruit,” he says.
Asked to compare that labor to training as a boxer, he just laughs.
“I’d be up at 4:30, out on the fields by 6 and we’d pick and load until 4:30,” Ramírez says. “I’d get back to Avenal and go straight to the gym.”
And their break time?
“We’d get 30 minutes for lunch,” he says, “but it would take us 10 minutes just to get back to our car.”
To be clear, he is not whining about the work, something that is part of the area’s legacy. He is proud of that work ethic, proud to live where most feel the same, where working in the fields is often a lifetime, not a route to becoming a CEO.
A 2012 U.S. Olympian, Ramírez is on his way to becoming a boxing champion. On the Pacquiao – Bradley card, he will defend his World Boxing Council (WBC) Continental Americas super lightweight title againstMANNY PEREZ of Denver. He sees more prestigious titles ahead. He is, already, one of the area’s more prominent people. He could, as most would, focus on increasing that personal prominence and little else. Instead, Ramírez has become a rallying point for the area’s agriculture industry. Most would shun the stage and stay in the gym. Ramírez has stepped to the lectern.
The battle is between farmers and environmentalists. The issue is who gets the precious water, and how much of it. The decisions are mandated out of the state capital in Sacramento.
Manuel Cunha, Jr., is among the leading spokespersons for Central Valley water rights. He is President of NISEI Farmers Group, and he says the presence of Ramírez, as a homegrown symbol, has been crucial to the efforts.
“He is very important to us,” Cunha says. “He gives the cause a face.”
When Ramírez does an interview about boxing, he doesn’t just talk about boxing. He doesn’t see the people working in the fields as having a menial job, but as having something to take great pride in, to fear losing. He is a fast-rising boxer with a vivid memory.
“When I was out there, picking,” he says, “I was young and I didn’t think anything could slow me down.
“Then it would get to be 105-107 degrees, and we’d be picking bell peppers that don’t grow more than two feet high. I would start the day helping the older ladies, women in their 50s. By the end of the day, with all that bending and stooping, they’d be helping me.
“Some of these people have been in those fields all their lives.
Rick Mirigian, Ramírez’s advisor, says that he expects the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to be rocking much earlier than usual in the night of Aril 9. Many have already purchased tickets to see Ramírez. His fight against Perez will be the opener of the HBO Pay-Per-View telecast, with two more undercard fights to follow before Pacquiao and Bradley.
“On April 9,” Ramírez says, “You will see a fighter who is motivated.”
Bob Arum, chief executive of Top Rank Promotions, which is handling the fight, sees the cause beyond just winning and losing and embraces it for his young boxer.
“He has devoted himself,” Arum says, “to the fight to save water for the San Joaquin Valley.”
No word on whether Arum plans to hire extra security to handle the packed aisles behind Ramírez as he walks from dressing room to ring in Las Vegas.