The mark of Zurdo
Mexico is renowned for its seemingly endless production line of high class pressure fighters, but this proud boxing nation has never raised a world champion at 168lbs. 6ft 2.5ins southpaws with skills to burn are almost as rare. Yet Gilberto ‘Zurdo’ Ramirez is poised to leave his mark on Mexican boxing history and break new ground among the super-middleweights.
Ramirez (33-0, 24 KOs) is tantalisingly close. The 24-year-old is mandatory contender for wily WBO champion Arthur Abraham who he faces on the Pacquiao-Bradley III undercard on 9 April in Las Vegas. Yet dreams of glory seemed a world away when the young Ramirez was an ill-behaved youth in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, and tempted, like so many before him, by the call of the streets.
“I decided to go to the boxing gym [at 12 years old] because I used to have lots of street fights in my hood, and I always liked to watch the sport of boxing,” Ramirez told Boxing Monthly via trainer/translator Hector Zapari over the phone from his gym in Mazatlan. “I went to the Dr. Solorzano boxing gym close to downtown Mazatlan with only 10 pesos for the bus and a couple of hand wraps.
“I needed to work from 8am until noon to get the pesos,” continued Ramirez, who lives and trains in Mazatlan for six months and the rest of the year in Hermosa Beach, a suburb twenty minutes out of Los Angeles. “After that I used to go to junior high school then, after school, go to the gym. Seeing my father [a truck driver for Coca Cola] wake up every day at 4am to go to work to bring food to the table really motivated me. I wanted to help my family have a better quality of life.
“I was working in construction [mixing cement] but I was always thinking boxing,” Ramirez told BM. “My dream was to fight for world titles in big arenas. I've been a dreamer all the time. I worked really hard to get where I am. I lost all my construction contacts. I couldn't stay in my neighbourhood and focus because of too many distractions.”
The father/son team of Jesus and Hector Zapari recognized early that they had unearthed a diamond in the rough and have subsequently refined Ramirez’s talents to the brink of a world title.
“My father discovered Gilberto at the gym,” Hector Zapari told BM. “At the beginning, he was a very ill disciplined kid, very naughty. Sometimes he didn't have money to take the bus and didn't show up to train so we thought he was just like any other kid. The first seven amateur fights he lost, but after that he won all of them. Even when he lost, we saw something in him.
“We were impressed on how smart he was to learn [new] skills. He used to work a lot and didn't train at 100%, but even like that he went to the Nationals Olimpico three times and won a gold medal. There we found out that Gilberto was a very special fighter. In Mexico, the support for Olympic fighters is not really good so he decided to convert to pro boxing.”
The ‘Zurdo’ nickname means ‘lefty’ in Spanish and southpaws are just as welcome in Mexico as anywhere else on the globe. There is an old Mexican saying that warns ominously, ‘if you’re left-handed, you’ve got the devil in you.’ Abraham, who has not faced a southpaw since being outboxed and disqualified against Andre Dirrell in March 2010, may just experience this Mexican boxing voodoo on 9 April.
The Berlin-based Armenian has proved deceptively hard to budge from his throne in recent times, but the rangy Ramirez appears to have the skillset to unseat him. Promoter Bob Arum, never one to knowingly under sell a fighter, vehemently believes he has a superstar in the making.
Yet Abraham remains a stealthy and frequently underestimated operator who has mastered the art of conserving just enough energy to eke out narrow decision victories. Ramirez does not plan to fall into the same well-trodden trap.
“Arthur Abraham has lots of experience and is very strong,” Ramirez told BM. “He always goes forward with great conditioning and is always prepared mentally, a world class fighter. I'm very motivated for this fight. A world title is something I have dreamed about all my life so I'm gonna win this fight and bring the belt to my country, at all costs.”
Trainer Zapari also admires the resolute WBO title-holder who has gone an impressive 19-3 (9 KOs) in world title fights at 160lbs and 168lbs. “Arthur Abraham is a very strong fighter like all the Armenians, with a good heart like Mexicans,” Zapari told BM. “His defense and guard is very close, not easy to [hit with] clean shots. He has lots of experience, but we have a gameplan, something we have been working on since a long time ago. Gilberto has many gameplans in one fight, lots of weapons. With Abraham, it will be a great war. We really believe in Gilberto, we believe in his hunger, we believe in his discipline and I have always said he is a one of a kind fighter, very special. He is ready to go for Abraham.”
Abraham, in his inimitable fashion, squeaked home via split decision against Martin Murray in November, a bout Ramirez watched with great interest. “It was a close fight, very hard for both, but I believe Abraham won a very close decision,” Zurdo told BM. “I have watched [Britain’s top super-middleweights]. All of them have merits to be where they are. They are very strong fighters.
“I would love to beat the son of the legend,” Ramirez told BM when asked about his Sinaloa state rivalJulio Cesar Chavez Jr, who lives about 100 miles away in Culiacan. “His father is my idol [Chavez Sr recently met Ramirez and advised him, “prepare well all the time, to take care of my discipline.”]. I would love to fight Chavez Jr anywhere, it doesn't [have to be in Sinaloa]. He could have given more against Andrzej Fonfara [a shock ninth round stoppage defeat], but I believe he didn't prepare well. He underestimated Fonfara, but I wish him the best and hope he can have better training camps to give a better performance.”
Ramirez utilises his height and range extremely effectively. Yet he had to settle for three decision wins in 2015 after a string of blowouts outpointing hulking Russian Maxim Vlasov (now a cruiserweight), Derek Edwards (one-round conqueror of WBC champion Badou Jack) and the awkward Gevorg Khatchikian (whose only previous loss was to IBF king James DeGale). These consecutive 10-rounders provided a vital education.
“They are strong fighters,” Ramirez told BM. “I got very good experience with them. I learned a lot, to be more prepared for Abraham. With Vlasov [a catchweight bout at 171lbs], I made a couple mistakes but I have fixed them already. In boxing, you never stop learning.”
The Mexican’s talents are still being honed at 24, but Team Zapari feel they have something exceptional on their hands. “Gilberto is a very special boy, very disciplined with a great attitude,” Hector Zapari told BM. “There are great vibes all the time. He never says no to training and he always puts the extra [effort] in the gym. Gilberto is very humble, hungry. You get very motivated as a trainer just looking at him, how he trains and how he always smiles, even in the bad moments.
“He has made lots of improvements, with his footwork and combinations. How he can make adjustments in fights when he makes mistakes, also how dedicated he is with nutrition. Gilberto can achieve lots of things in boxing. He has the weapons, the mentality, to be a complete fighter. He knows how to figure out bad situations in the ring. He has experience, even if he is young. He has been training in silence all the time to be one of the greatest fighters.”
Ramirez’s natural air of humility should endear him to most fight fans as well as Mexico’s influential boxing fanbase. “Staying grounded is not a problem because I know where I come from and I know where I want to go. I always speak with my team and family. We are very close all the time,” said Ramirez, one of three children who has a three-year-old son of his own.
“I don't party. I'm just a simple person focused on my career. It’s important for me to learn English because this is the market in the boxing industry and I want to be more connected with my fans and the media. I would love to convert into the next boxing superstar in Mexico but I need to keep working hard all the time for that [to happen].
Ramirez hopes to leave the ‘mark of Zurdo’ in the super-middleweight division for some time to come. “It means a lot, it means all my dreams,” concluded the unbeaten 24-year-old. “Honour, pride, satisfaction. It means I can prove that Mexicans can dominate in any division. That's why I keeping working very hard.”
Mexican boxing history is waiting to be rewritten.
International boxing advisor and matchmaker Sean Gibbons has known Gilberto Ramirez since the Mexican’s amateur days and firmly believes that his fighter possesses a star quality that will resonate beyond the normal sphere of boxing.
“I see a guy who has matinee Hollywood looks. He has all the tools that, when he gets on the big stage and beats an Arthur Abraham, it’s going to be off to the races,” Gibbons told BM over the phone from Mazatlan, Mexico. “He’s unique for his size, for a Hispanic, and can be the first man in the history of his country to win a super-middleweight title. He just has a presence.
“Everywhere we’ve fought, even early on where we were in Glendale, California, and down in Texas, all types of people gravitate to him,” continued Gibbons, whose association with Ramirez’s Mexican promoter Jesus Zapari goes back 17 years. “Women fans are unbelievable [in their reaction]. When he fought in Macao, the women there [loved him] when Gilberto was at that press conference in the red shirt and white shoes. He looked like he had walked out of a movie. The more English he can learn will absolutely cross him over in the United States to a bigger audience. I think he has a very bright future. All he has to is beat Abraham and the world is his. It’s all about the visibility. [Mexico’s No.1 boxing star] Canelo [Alvarez] has zero personality. Gilberto has personality and is humble. Canelo is a nice looking guy but Gilberto blows him away in the looks department. He just has that It Factor.”
Should Ramirez fulfill his team’s expectations and win the WBO 168lbs title, a clash with one of British boxing’s elite super-middleweights may lie ahead in his future. “Callum Smith, George Groves and Gilberto they are all in the same mix but Gilberto is a little better,” Gibbons told BM. “He’s a little fresher, with a little better boxing skills than George Groves. Callum Smith would be an interesting fight. He’s a young, hungry guy like Gilberto, decent right hand. Those are the kind of fights that down the road could pique some interest.
“We are looking more at the champions like Badou Jack [WBC title-holder] and James DeGale [IBF champion] and unifying if Gilberto wins or maybe just give him a couple of fights to get his name out there with the public. There are a lot of people who don’t know Gilberto and they are going to think he’s come out of nowhere when he wins the world title against Abraham. It’s taken seven years for him to come out of nowhere but that’s okay!”