FRESNO, Calif. -- A life-size cutout of Jose Ramirez adorns the lobby of the fight hotel. He is featured on local television commercials. His fights are major events with copious television and newspaper coverage.
Ramirez is a big deal in Central California, where he is a man beloved by the people not only because of his exploits inside the boxing ring, where he was a 2012 U.S. Olympian and now is a rising junior welterweight contender on the doorstep of fighting for a world title, but also for how he has used his celebrity to fight for important issues impacting the region.
Most significantly, he has given his name and time to fight for water rights for farmers and their workers to make sure it keeps flowing to the lush fields that grow vast amounts of the United States' food supply -- fruit, vegetables, nuts, you name it.
Ramirez's bringing attention to the water supply issue, which pits the farm industry in the region against environmentalists, has made him a hugely popular figure. He has teamed with the California Latino Water Coalition to raise awareness and money and to get out the vote on issues related to it because, as he said, if there is no water it means there are fewer farming and construction jobs.
While Ramirez aspires to be a world champion and a great boxer, he said that is not enough for him.
"I would advise every fighter to fight for another reason besides just pride and money," Ramirez told ESPN.
Like so many in the region, especially Latinos, Ramirez, 25, of Avenal, California, worked the fields as a teen with his immigrant family that includes his parents and three siblings. They picked everything -- bell peppers, tomatoes, pistachios, avocados, grapes and citrus fruits. Ramirez knew if he could work his way out of the fields, he would do something to give back.
Boxing was his way out and after he turned pro he teamed with the California Latino Water Coalition and his cards in the region were dubbed the "Fight For Water" at a time when severe drought was impacting the region. Water was available but being restricted from flowing to the fields because of battles with environmentalists. Manager Rick Mirigian worked tirelessly on the events and the fans turned out.
First it was 3,000 or so and then the events began to grow. Now Ramirez regularly puts sold-out crowds of some 13,000 in the Save Mart Center on the campus of Fresno State for his fights, even though he has yet to fight a significant opponent or for a major title. That makes him one of the biggest boxing draws in the United States.
Now it is time for "Fight For Water 7," when Ramirez (20-0, 15 KOs) will risk his position as a mandatory challenger for a vacant world title by taking on fellow unbeaten up-and-comer Mike Reed (23-0, 12 KOs), 24, of Waldorf, Maryland on Saturday night. There will be another 13,000 or so at the Save Mart Center for easily the most significant fight of both of their careers and the biggest boxing event in the region in memory. The fight will be televised live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes beginning at 10:30 p.m. ET, and the entire card will stream on the ESPN App beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Ramirez is such a big deal in the region that at Thursday's final news conference, held inside a movie theater a few minutes from the arena, officials from Fresno State were on hand to laud Ramirez for his community involvement and announce that a scholarship fund to assist the children of migrant workers had been created in his name, and that it already had $17,000 in funding with a goal of $50,000.
"I think when you fight for other reasons other than yourself you tend to be attractive to other people, not just boxing fans. That's key to bringing so many thousands of people to my fights," Ramirez said. "They become your fans because they see you are behind something that is important to them and they show that appreciation and come and then see you win, and they celebrate and feel like they won too. Every time I fight here in Fresno and I am victorious the pride hits all of Central California.
"I think when you fight for other reasons other than yourself you tend to be attractive to other people, not just boxing fans. That's key to bringing so many thousands of people to my fights. They become your fans because they see you are behind something that is important to them and they show that appreciation and come and then see you win, and they celebrate and feel like they won too." Jose Ramirez
"I fight for the families, the community, for all the hard-working people I relate to and who relate to me. Ever since I was a kid I had that pride of coming from a humble community like Avenal from a family that immigrated that wanted us to have a better future. I know the hard work these families go through. There is so much work, so many obstacles but they just want to give their kids and the next generation a good future. I like to be a voice to those people. I bring confidence to them and make them believe they can accomplish what they want."
Beyond his efforts to improve his community, Ramirez wants to be a world champion, and he's not far from having the opportunity. Shortly after Terence Crawford became the undisputed junior welterweight champion on Aug. 19, he vacated his four world titles to move up in weight and seek bigger challenges.
Ramirez and Amir Imam (20-1, 17 KOs), 27, of Albany, New York, were ordered to fight for the vacant WBC version of the title, but before the order was made Ramirez's fight with Reed was already locked in. So while the fight on Saturday is not an official title eliminator it might as well be.
Ramirez and the Don King-promoted Imam both need to win to advance to the title fight.
Imam will face former Ramirez victim Johnny Garcia (19-5-1, 11 KOs) in a 10-rounder that will be part of the ESPN App stream of the preliminary bouts. If Ramirez and Imam both win they're expected to meet in Fresno in the world-title fight in mid-February on another ESPN card.
"This is a huge fight for me in my career," Ramirez said. "I feel that Reed will bring the best out of me and allow me to show the best of my talents and my skills. I've never been too worried about anyone in the 140-pound weight class. I feel I'm ready for the best."
"Here's a kid who is great athlete; he was on the Olympic team; he had a very high grade point average in high school and now he is speaking out on issues that really go to their blood, this water issue. You have to have water to make the crops grow. He became a spokesperson and the face of the issue." Top Rank promoter Bob Arum
"Reed is a fighter who can box a little, who can move, who's slick, who's a southpaw, who has speed, but can he do it for 10 rounds? Will he be able to take my pressure for 10 rounds?" asked Ramirez, who is trained by Hall of Famer Freddie Roach and has sparred elite fighters such as the great Manny Pacquiao, four-division world champion Miguel Cotto and lightweight champion Jorge Linares. "He's gonna realize he's in a much tougher fight than he thinks. I know what's next if me and Imam win but I'll be focused on Reed. You cannot get ahead of yourself, but I am ready for this moment."
While Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, of course, has a keen interest in how Ramirez has developed as a boxer, being around Ramirez has also turned him into an advocate for water rights in the region. Arum has also helped bring attention to the issue but he marvels at just how much Ramirez means to the community because of it.
"Proving yourself at the top level of boxing is important to people who are into boxing but are not emotionally involved, but look at the people in Fresno," Arum said. "People in Fresno, whether they're the wealthy people who own the farms or they're the workers in the fields, love this kid because of what he does for the community. Boxing is only part of it.
"Here's a kid who is great athlete; he was on the Olympic team; he had a very high grade-point average in high school and now he is speaking out on issues that really go to their blood, this water issue. You have to have water to make the crops grow. He became a spokesperson and the face of the issue.
"He is viewed passionately by his community and his supporters and there are a lot of them. They are a million percent behind him."
And Ramirez, likewise, is behind his community.