Before the Olympics and the activism, before the fights inside the ring and out, Jose Ramirez spent his summers at home in Avenal, Calif. He divided his days between the life he was born into and the life he wanted. There was farming and there was boxing, even then.
In the mornings, Ramirez picked bell peppers in fields that line the Central Valley, starting at 6 a.m. and finishing his shift 10 hours later in 100-degree heat. He was 14, then 15, when he did this. He made $400 a week and lived in a house with his family and three other families, 16 people crammed into four bedrooms. That was his future, unless the boxing training he did each evening led to something more.
Boy, did it. Ramirez competed in the U.S. Nationals at age 15, the Junior Olympics at 16 and the Olympic Games in 2012, at 20. He turned pro four months after the Olympics and won each of his first 20 bouts, registering 15 knockouts and signing with Top Rank Boxing. All that led to his most important fight yet, a date with fellow undefeated junior welterweight Mike Reed (23-0) on Saturday in Fresno that will be shown on ESPN. Should Ramirez prevail, his next bout will be for a belt.
Regardless, he never forgot the summers in those fields, the people there, or the work they did. Which is why, in 2017, early into his career as a professional boxer, his days and life remain divided. It’s still farming and boxing, even now.
Rick Mirigian became a promoter while studying at Fresno State. He didn’t drink and didn’t smoke and worked two jobs to afford tuition. One night his friends dragged him to a fraternity party. He paid $5 and walked inside, seeing a deejay and 400 people swaying to the beat. The next morning, while in a three-hour U.S. History lecture, he sketched out the math and realized he was in the wrong line of work. So he started attending parties and taking notes and then used a student-loan check to throw a bash attended by 2,100 people. He never worked those other jobs again.
From there, Mirigian promoted shows that featured everyone from the comedian George Lopez to Beyonce. He put on an MMA event inside a baseball stadium. He never considered organizing a boxing match until a friend asked him to, and he never considered managing a fighter until that same friend told him to watch the 16-year-old who was fighting a police officer that night. That 16-year-old was Jose Ramirez. He won, easily.
The kid was special. Mirigian could see that. He stayed up that night, after the fights, and Googled the young boxer’s amateur career, tallying all of Ramirez’s triumphs. He got to 80 amateur wins and went to bed, woke up and counted 110 amateur victories. He called USA Boxing to verify what he had found online. “Does this kid really have that many wins already?” Mirigian asked. “What did he do, start fighting at age 3?”
It was true, so Mirigian obtained an address and drove to the house that held four families who worked on those Central Valley farms. There, he found Ramirez, owner a 3.8 GPA, and one of the closest families he had ever meet.
Four years later, Ramirez was training with the U.S. national team in Colorado Springs. That’s where he met Freddie Roach, one of the top trainers in boxing history and a special assistant of sorts to that team until he left over disputes with the head coach. Roach didn’t think the workouts were tough enough, so he and Ramirez would often train alone, after hours.
Roach saw the same promise as Mirigian. When one of the national team coaches yelled at Ramirez to the protect his lead in a certain fight, Ramirez spat back, “I’m not a f------ protector, I’m a fighter.”
“Right there,” Roach says, “I knew we would get along.”
The Olympics ended. Ramirez did not medal. He came home, to the Central Valley, and pondered his impending pro career. One day, he found himself in the car with Mirigian, as they drove by farm after farm, the kinds of fields where Ramirez worked as a teenager. Mirigian asked him what he wanted to do beyond his boxing career. Ramirez pointed out the window. “This,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Mirigian asked.
“My father hasn’t had steady work in six months,” Ramirez responded.
Ramirez remembers that year as one with very little rainwater. He says 40,000 acres of almond trees had been cut down as a result. “Wasted land,” he says. His father, Carlos, had once picked tomatoes, lettuce and watermelon. But by then, he worked for a company that sprayed fertilizer on almonds and pistachios. He made $16 an hour, but only worked when he was needed. He went from spraying 3,000 acres a night to spraying one-tenth of that amount. That only took two hours, good for $32, before tax. He would have to take on security shifts at his company, cleaning and guarding helicopters, just to make back the money he was losing.
Those farms needed the same thing Ramirez requires between rounds and after workouts. Their survival, and his, depended on it. Something simple and essential. Something every person in the world needs.
Another car ride. Another sign. Ramirez was listening to the radio one day when he heard Mario Santoyo speaking about the California Latino Water Commission and its position opposite a coalition of more than 300,000 environmentalists. The coalition had successfully sued the California Fish and Game Commission to protect a six-inch fish called the long fin smelt, which was on the endangered species list. But that lawsuit had great consequences for the farmers in the region, because it reduced the flow from pumping stations that supplied water into … the Central Valley.
That decrease, combined with one of the state’s largest-ever droughts, left some 400,000 acres of farmland fallow. Thousands of workers—17,000, by one estimate—lost their jobs. Families just like the Ramirez family, who were already combatting trends that threatened their work, like automation and international trade.
Ramirez called the CLWC and offered to do anything he could to help. He visited the state capitol. He lobbied the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. He made speeches at events. He pushed to pass Proposition 1 in 2014, the so-called Water Bond in California that authorized more than $7 billion for “state water supply infrastructure projects” some of which will go toward water storage in places like Avenal and Fresno.
That’s heavy stuff for a boxer who turned 25 in August. “I just consider myself someone who speaks for the people,” he says.
With all that work and advocacy, Mirigian had two things to sell together, the two things that have defined Ramirez’s life. Boxing and farming, once again. They made one bout The Fight for Water, then put on The Fight for Water II and the Fight for Water III. They went from selling out 3,000-seat arenas to selling out stadiums four times that size. They started a scholarship at Fresno State for children of migrant farm workers.
This next fight will be The Fight for Water VII, and Roach will be there. He’s Ramirez’s trainer now. All these years in boxing and he never had a fighter who stood for water rights before Ramirez. He’s not sure any trainer has had a fighter like that. “It’s important,” Roach says. “Without these people, America would have no fruit. Can you tell Donald Trump that for me?”
Ramirez’s promoter, Bob Arum, even became a member of the CLWC. He toured the big farms and met with workers at the smaller operations. The Commission began buying up to half the tickets for various Ramirez fights, and then selling the tickets to the farmers, who then gave the tickets to their workers. “So many people came they ran out of beer,” Arum says. “It was a win-win. It still is.”
Now, trucks sometimes stop by Arum’s mansion in Beverly Hills, delivering fruit—the best fruit, he says, incredible fruit, peaches shaped like donuts, nectarines, oranges, the most delicious things you’ll ever eat.
“We’re moving on to immigration issues,” says Arum, who adds that while he considers Cowboys owner Jerry Jones a friend, he does not agree with Jones’s take on player activism. “I know where he’s coming from, but I’m on the other side,” Arum says. “If I was an owner, I would be kneeling with the players.”
In many ways, Ramirez encapsulates this moment for sports in 2017, when NFL players kneel before the national anthem and NBA stars speak out against police brutality. Ramirez is like them but more involved, directly involved, in the cause that impacted his family, using the sport that already changed his life. The bout on ESPN this Saturday will mark his biggest platform yet, as Top Rank’s telecasts with the sports network this year have averaged 1.6 million viewers.
“He’s perfect for right now,” Arum says. “It’s a great story that’s about America. Here’s a kid who not only advocates for something but lived it himself. His whole family did.”
Farming and boxing, always.