As a boxer and activist for water rights, former U.S. Olympian Jose Ramirez has become a beloved figure in Central California.
Saturday night, the nation will bear witness to that affection as Ramirez attempts to take a significant step toward the World Boxing Council super-lightweight title left vacant by Terence Crawford.
Ramirez (20-0, 15 knockouts) is expected to draw another capacity crowd in Fresno to Save Mart Center, meeting Mike Reed (23-0, 12 KOs) in an ESPN main event. The winner will meet undercard fighter Amir Imam (20-1, 17 KOs) in 2018 for the WBC belt, and Imam promoter Don King already agreed to yield to his longtime rival, Bob Arum, to allow a victorious Ramirez a home-ring advantage in Fresno again.
When Arum originally made this fight card, Ramirez was supposed to fight in the co-main event under a title defense by World Boxing Organization super-bantamweight champion Jessie Magdaleno, but Magdaleno later withdrew due to injury.
Then, unbeaten Crawford vacated to move up to the talent-rich welterweight division, and the WBC ordered Ramirez and Imam on an elimination track toward the belt.
"Everything's falling into place," Ramirez said. "I'm more than ready for a guy like Mike Reed. I can't wait to showcase my talent and leave a statement."
Trained by seven-time trainer of the year Freddie Roach at Hollywood's Wild Card Boxing Club, Ramirez boasts four-inch height and six-inch reach advantages on Reed and intends to complement that with an offensive effort. But the Maryland boxer sees it differently.
"He doesn't have defense and I'm a complete fighter, even if I am a little short for the weight class. The game plan is to exploit his weakness. Can he block and slip the punches I'm going to throw?" Reed asked.
Ramirez's promoters admit the Avenal, Calif., product is a work in progress inside the ring, but the nerve he's struck by rising from bell pepper picker to 2012 Olympian and now possible world champion has excited boxing fans in the region.
"A lot of people — especially young men — around here can relate to my life," said Ramirez, 25. "We come from a family oriented community. People can tell when you're organic.
"They respect what I do, and they see that I appreciate and respect them in a very equal way. As a kid, I never felt someone was superior to me, and never have I felt superior to others. From the biggest farmers and business owners in Central California to the most basic employee in the middle of the field, I give them the equal amount of time. We're all one."
After his work experience of rising early to hand pick the peppers, Ramirez realized his local celebrity empowered his voice to help the farmers and workers as they struggled through a drought that only eased this past year.
He's in a group pressing the California State Water Resources Control Board to approve construction of a second dam/reservoir beyond the one north of Fresno with already approved bond money.
"We don't have any water storage resources or infrastructure to manage the water properly, so we don't have any security for the next few years to come," Ramirez said. "If all of a sudden it stops raining like it did a few years ago, we're back in the same position."
Winning amplifies his cause.
"Every time I go to the grocery store and see all those tomatoes, the bell peppers, the avocados, the limes, the almonds, the pistachios, I know every single one of those crops were picked by people like us here in Central California," Ramirez said. "Those aren't easy jobs, and it takes more than the need for money to get those jobs done."