By Cliff Rold
This Sunday on ESPN (7 PM EST), 26-year old 2012 Olympian and reigning WBC super lightweight titlist Jose Ramirez (23-0, 16 KO) attempts the second defense of his title. Ramirez will play to what is sure to be another packed house at the Save Mart Center in Fresno, California, and why not? Ramirez came out of the Olympics seen by many as less refined than many of his teammates, a project to be developed over time.
Much of that time has been spent in and around Fresno, not far from his hometown of Avenal, and he’s delivered the goods. Ramirez makes good fights and wins. Even when he’s on the road it’s been the case. Ramirez raised eyebrows in capturing the vacant WBC belt last year against Amir Imam in New York. It was an excellent contest and showed how far he’d come even in just his last half dozen fights.
In 2015, he was coming off the deck against Johnny Garcia. That night, he probably wasn’t ready for an Imam; he might not have been far enough along yet to take control over the sort of game Antonio Orozco he did in his first defense.
He’s there now. How much farther will Ramirez go? This weekend, he’ll go as far as his talents take him against 29-year old Jose Zepeda (30-1, 25 KO). It could end up being Ramirez’s toughest test to date. The southpaw challenger has been unlucky in the past. Zepeda will be fighting like hell to make his luck this time around.
Zepeda last got a title opportunity at lightweight in 2015. Traveling to the UK to face Terry Flanagan for the vacant WBO belt, Zepeda suffered a dislocated left shoulder and was forced to retire on his stool after only two rounds. His very next fight ended on a clash of heads in the first round. Zepeda has won seven straight since, four in a row by stoppage.
Ramirez-Zepeda has the makings of a good fight and one where the outcome is uncertain. Should Ramirez win, the future may appear even more uncertain going forward.
Assuming the World Boxing Super Series works out the behind the scenes issues stalling its semi-finals at Jr. welterweight, most of the top of the division is likely locked up for two more fights. A unification fight with WBO titlist Maurice Hooker (25-0-3, 17 KO) is conceivable. A clash with lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko (12-1, 9 KO), who shares promoter Top Rank with Ramirez, is as well. Lomachenko going for a title in a fourth weight class seems an eventual certainty.
It doesn’t mean Ramirez will be at Jr. welterweight when the Ukrainian talent makes another move up the scale. Ramirez, at 5’10 and with a 72’ inch reach, has a frame indicative of a fighter who isn’t in the weight class he’ll finish in.
Most of the notable elements of the current welterweight division are tied to the PBC and Showtime.
One critical element is not.
WBO welterweight titlist Terence Crawford (34-0, 25 KO) is the best Top Rank has to offer at 147 lbs. and there are some who think he might be the best fighter anyone has to offer right now at any point on the scale. That’s a debate for another time. For now, it’s enough to look at the realistic tea leaves and wonder where both Ramirez and Crawford could find the biggest money opportunity sooner than later.
The answer might be with each other.
Top Rank’s Bob Arum was already entertaining questions about the possibility last year. He treated the questions like the idea is treated here: as something to think about.
Ramirez can do a lot at Jr. welterweight still even without the potential opponents in the WBSS and there are some similarities in the career handling of both he and Crawford. Arum has managed to make attractions out of both men in cities that haven’t always been boxing hotbeds. Omaha, for Crawford, and Fresno have proven enthusiastically willing to follow their local champions with butts in seats. The idea that Ramirez could one day fight in the 40,000-plus seat Bulldog Stadium in Fresno feels like a sooner than later proposition.
By next year, if both Crawford and Ramirez keep winning, and keep selling tickets, a fight between the two could start making a whole lot of sense. Right now, Ramirez might not seem ready to a lot of people and it’s probably the case. The perception gap can only narrow the longer both men stay undefeated.
Crawford isn’t getting any younger and Ramirez keeps getting better. Sure, something could happen along the way and open the door for Crawford to fight someone on the other side of the street like a Danny Garcia, Keith Thurman, or Errol Spence just like Ramirez could fight a winner of the WBSS if the tournament concludes.
Those outcomes have more obstacles than an in-house fight, built on ESPN, where both men could probably lure their fans to someplace like the Vegas strip for the weekend. We may already be on the road to Crawford-Ramirez and just not quite know it yet. There won’t be a road to consider further unless Ramirez handles his business with Zepeda on Sunday.
Cliff Rod 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]