Jose Ramirez’s fight for water

Ron Borges
05/04/2016 10:18am

For every prizefighter, water is a most essential nutrient. It cools the body, calms the soul and, at times, revives a flagging mind knocked half unconscious. Without water, no fighter, no matter how resolute or gifted, can last for long.

Every fighter knows this but none more so than young American junior welterweight prospect Jose Ramirez, a 2012 Olympian now fighting under the banner of Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions. He knows this in an intimate way few other boxers could understand, which is why he is part of a fight for water equality in his native state of California that has put him in the forefront of a political movement as well as in the middle of his daily firefight to make a life for himself in boxing.

During the turbulent 1960s, social activism and athletics seemed to go hand-in-hand. Blacked-gloved fists thrust to the sky in a cry for equality from the top of an Olympic medal stand in Mexico City. Muhammad Ali refusing to take one step forward and submit to the draft and thus agree to fight in the Vietnam War he opposed, a choice that cost him his heavyweight title and sent him into exile for nearly four years of his prime. American athletes of that day spoke out fearlessly on issues of race, class, labor strife and war, becoming spokesmen in a generational battle of wills.

There have been other times before that, most notably when Joe Louis beat back the great symbol of Nazi Germany, Max Schmeling, before World War II began, where fighters have fought for causes larger than themselves, but those days seem to have faded in this time of self-absorption and singular focus on individual success and the riches that now come with it. While there have been exceptions, for the most part today’s boxer is a solitary soul, obsessed only with his climb toward the top of sport’s most difficult mountain. 

Jose Ramirez’s dream is to scale that mountain, too, a dream as heartfelt and closely held by him as by any of his contemporaries. Yet he is fighting for more than a champion’s belt.

He is fighting to bring water to drought-stricken Central California farms where his parents and so many other Latinos ply an even more difficult trade than the one Ramirez has chosen. They are farm workers, often doing stoop labor picking lettuce, tomatoes, grapes and any other crop that will pay them the subsistence wages they are forced to work for.

In the best of circumstances it is a difficult, hand-to-mouth existence, but since 2011 it has become far more difficult because a four-year drought has ravaged California, drying up fields whose lifeblood – like a fighter’s – is water. 

The record-setting drought and restrictive water policies at both the state and Federal level have resulted in unemployment rates of 30-50% among Latinos in Central California, which is the richest farming valley in the world. It has crippled many families like the one Ramirez grew up in because without water there are no crops to harvest and without a harvest there is no money in the pockets or food on the tables of many Latino families, who make up over 66% of California’s agricultural workers.

As the drought worsened, the state’s water control board was ordered not to increase the flow of water sent through the state’s two main pumps, a decision made under pressure from environmental groups insisting the flows remain low to avoid flushing out protected fish species. That left an estimated 400,000 acres of farmland in the Central Valley fallow last year, leading to the loss of 17,000 farmworker jobs according to the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. 

Ramirez once worked in those fields around Avenal, a small town outside of Fresno tucked deep in the Central Valley. So did everyone in his family, including his father, Carlos, who worked there for decades, and his mother, Juanita, who picked pistachios for Paramount Farms, one of the largest growers and processors of almonds and pistachios in the world, and whose parent company, Wonderful Pistachios, now sponsor her son’s career.

Since boxing became both his passion and his craft, Ramirez has left those fields but their memory – and their importance to the people who have rooted for him since he was a young amateur with an Olympic dream – hasn’t been forgotten. That is why today he serves two masters. He fights for himself and his family but also for water policies that will benefit the people around him.

“He’s a warrior for our cause,’’ said Mario Santoyo, director and technical advisor of the California Latino Water Coalition, who has worked for 30 years as an engineer in the water resources field. “Jose’s parents worked in the fields. Jose worked in the fields himself. Today agriculture is no longer his work but it’s where his roots are. He’s lived the issue. 

“I was surprised when he first approached us. I didn’t know much about boxing or Jose except that he went to the Olympics. I would have never thought about boxing as part of our cause but Jose and his story have helped us open doors with the media to bring attention to the issue.

“Our coalition was the primary driver of the passage of Proposition 1, which was a $7 billion water bond to improve and increase water flowing to agricultural communities. He’s come with us on our legislative trips to the state capitol and he’s come to speak at our rallies. He’s brought a new level of attention to the issue.’’

The 23-year-old Ramirez never planned on becoming a social activist, however. His focus has mostly been on boxing since his father first brought him to a local gym when he was seven in an effort to tame what seemed a boundless supply of energy.

Although Latinos are boxing’s most loyal supporters in the United States, the sport was not part of his family history. He wasn’t in the gym because his dad or siblings once fought. He went to burn off some steam but instead found an unexpected career path that has taken him out of California’s steamy farmland into steamy sparring sessions.

“As a kid I was a runner and played soccer but my dad decided the other sports were seasonal and I needed something all year,’’ Ramirez explained. “He saw a sign-up sheet at a gym near us and signed me up.

“My first experience I wasn’t good at it so I walked out. A few months later I went back because I saw a lot of kids socializing around the gym and I wanted to have fun, too. I was eight. I went to the gym to have fun more than anything.

“I was behind the other kids but I started focusing and learning and won my first fight two months later in a big gym in Fresno where they had pro fights.’’

What came with that win was something attractive to a young boy whose family had spent most of its time as unacknowledged farm workers. What came with it was a trophy. 

“The trophy was so big,’’ Ramirez recalled, a sense of wonder still in his voice all these years later. “I was used to these little team trophies for soccer. I weighed 67 pounds that first fight. I couldn’t wait to get home and show that trophy to my family.

“After that, I never stopped training. I went on to collect a lot of trophies. It was fun. I didn’t have the mentality of family pressure like some kids.’’

Ramirez would eventually become the No. 1 amateur lightweight in the United States, earning a spot on the Olympic team by defeating 2008 Olympian Raynell Williams, 21-16, at the Olympic Trials. Although he did not medal in London, Ramirez emerged as one of four fighters Top Rank zeroed in for their pro potential.

“We were looking at the No. 1 Mexican, No. 1 Puerto Rican, No. 1 African-American and No. 1 Mexican-American coming out of the Olympics,’’ explained Carl Moretti, vice-president of Top Rank and a long-time matchmaker and talent scout. “We got three of them. We’d identified Jose as the best Mexican-American at the Games.’’

So did Oscar De La Hoya, one of the finest Mexican-American fighters to ever come out of southern California and owner of Golden Boy Promotions. It was, it seemed, natural that he would have the edge signing Ramirez but in the end Ramirez decided his future lie with Bob Arum, a choice he has never regretted.

“Making it to the Olympics was definitely an honor but there’s all the hype and then the tournament is over so quick [after two fights in his case] and you’re out,’’ Ramirez said. “Not getting a medal was sad but the people of Central California were proud of me and the top promoters were recognizing me.’’

Among them was De La Hoya but at the time his company was in turmoil as he and then GBP president Richard Schaefer were dissolving their once successful partnership. Ramirez listened to all sides and then made his own decision.

“You could see Top Rank was more stable as a promotional company at the time,’’ Ramirez said. “I felt Top Rank would do more for me in this area. They had experience building fighters in their hometown before they took them to become a national star and an international star.’’

Ramirez made his pro debut on a Manny Pacquiao card on 8 December, 2012 in Las Vegas and began fighting wherever Top Rank had shows. Periodically, they brought him back to Fresno, where his roots were deep, both in boxing and in the fields. 

For several summers growing up, Ramirez had joined his family picking almonds, peppers, lettuce and whatever else would help bring a few extra dollars into a household always strapped for cash. Often the heat would exceed 100 degrees, the days beginning at 6am and dragging on until 4pm, after which he would go to the gym and box.

Every harvest yielded opportunity but the summer of 2008, with Ramirez a rising amateur fighter, is the one he remembers most clearly. 

“I was 15, 16 and it was so hot every day,’’ Ramirez recalled. “One day it was a little over 100 degrees and it was hard for me to concentrate on my work. I felt like I was dying out there in that field and I looked around and saw these older ladies in their 50s and 60s doing the same job I was doing. 

“They were doing what they had to do to feed their families. That memory has always stayed with me: those ladies working in that field. I learned then how important those jobs were to those families. I never forgot that.’’

As his career blossomed and the drought settled across California like a dry blanket of dust, water conservation became a growing problem for farm laborers. While the state tried to balance the need of ecosystems throughout the Central Valley with the needs of farmers a battle ensued that began to shrink available water for farmland. As the drought worsened, jobs began to shrivel up like the parched, brown land. 

The Latino community in the Central Valley began to seek a more active voice in the state’s water policies and the seemingly odd blending of a young boxer’s dream and his family’s history led Ramirez to Santoyo’s organization, which has worked since 2007 for water rights in the Central Valley.

“Obviously, it’s embedded in him because of where he’s from,’’ Moretti said. “He’s lived it all his life. His parents have lived it. So he understood the issue like a kid from New Orleans understands flood waters if he grew up with Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s genuine. If he wasn’t a boxer he’d have the same concerns but now he’s sort of a celebrity in the area from the Olympics and that’s given him a greater platform. He’s brought a lot of eyes to the issue.’’

One way he’s done that is through a series of boxing cards run by his local promoter, Rick Mirigian, called Fight for Water. There have been five such events, the first attracting 3,000 people and the last 13,000 on 5 December, when Ramirez got off the floor in the second round to win the vacant WBC Continental Americas super-lightweight title by pounding out a unanimous decision over Johnny Garcia at the Save Mart Arena in Fresno to up his record to 16-0 (12 KOs). It was not only the biggest win of his young career but one that shocked Arum for the best of reasons. 

“His manager [Mirigian] is a real go-getter but we never realized Jose would sell 13,000 tickets for a Unimas show,’’ Moretti said. “There was a rally for water before it and a unique story behind it for sure.’’ 

“It’s been amazing to see this kid filling arenas,’’ Mirigian adds. “It hasn’t been easy but it’s fun.’’

As Ramirez’s boxing profile has grown so has his dedication to a higher cause but at times the two can collide. To improve his chances of fulfilling his dream of becoming a world champion, Ramirez has moved his training base to Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, 219 miles south of Avenal, and moved into a small apartment there when in training. This has cut into the time he can devote to the Latino Water Coalition’s efforts but he remains the face of much of their efforts to bring political pressure and public awareness to the issue while giving Latinos a voice in the state’s water policy.

“It’s tough for him,’’ Santoyo admits. “In the boxing world an individual has to be well-focused on what he’s doing. He has to juggle that with the demands the Coalition puts on him. He does what he can. I’ve seen Arum speaking at HBO press conferences in China talking about Jose’s commitment to helping his community. 

“It may not seem like a natural connection between boxing and advocacy but it is. We now think we need more Joses on our team.’’ 

One of the loudest voices in Santoyo’s movement now has become a soft-spoken kid from the fields who knows how to fight, in a boxing ring and in a political arena.

“When Top Rank agreed to give me two fights to co-promote it was a perfect combination to use boxing to deliver the message on the water issue,’’ said Ramirez. “I’ve educated myself on the issue so if I find myself in the state capitol or at a rally with politicians around I can speak to it.

“We’d been fighting for a water bond since 2008 that finally passed last year. That’s seven billion dollars to help clean out ground water and transfer it. I wouldn’t be able to talk about this issue with my heart if I hadn’t lived it. This has become part of me.’’

So, too, is his boxing career, which Mirigian hopes will lead to a world title challenge by the end of the year. In barely three years as a professional, Ramirez has sold out a 10,000 seat arena in his 10th fight, a 13,000 seat arena in his 16th and will fight Manuel Perez on the Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley III undercard on 9 April in Las Vegas. He is a boxer fighting in two worlds and succeeding in both. 

“It’s not a conflict,’’ Ramirez says of his two passions. “The Coalition understands my main job is winning fights. By my winning I become a better spokesman for our cause. They understand if I become world champion there’s a larger audience. That’s why I began training at the Wild Card.

“It was very hard to leave home but my opponents are only going to get tougher. I understood if I wanted to be the best I had to move. 

“The atmosphere at Wild Card is so focused. There are dedicated fighters there from Russia, Philippines, Mexico, L.A., all over. You see their commitment and realize what’s required.’’

Only time will tell if Jose Ramirez has what’s required to realize his dream but one thing is sure. He’s not short on commitment. Not to boxing or to the deep roots he and his family have in the drought-torn farmlands of Central California.