McEwen: Avenal boxer Jose Ramirez steps into Olympic spotlight

The Fresno BeeJuly 21, 2012 

AVENAL -- The Olympic boxer walked up the sidewalk to the main building of Avenal High School. Youngsters attending a summer camp spied him and pointed.

"There's Jose!" shouted Valeria Caro, 11. "Isn't he going to London?"

"Jose's had more pictures taken recently than movie stars," said Avenal High School counselor Shirley Hodges.

That was late last month. Today, after enduring perhaps the most rigorous qualifying road ever set for an American boxer, lightweight Jose Ramirez is in Bolton, England, awaiting his chance to win Olympic gold.

The eyes of Avenal and, indeed, of the boxing world, will be on the 19-year-old who has won 11 national tournaments, including last year's U.S. Olympic Trials, in weight classes from 90 to 132 pounds.

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Once Ramirez was a raw kid with potential and a passion for excellence inside and outside the 24-foot-by-24-foot ring at the Kings Boxing Club gym.

Thanks to his 144 victories, fluency in English and Spanish, good looks, relentless promotion and the explosion of social media, Ramirez -- with a gold medal in London -- could become professional boxing's next big thing.

Boxing, which has lost popularity to mixed martial arts, is hungry for a fresh face. With his combination of power and defense, his family's immigrant story and the potential to grow into a welterweight, Ramirez could become what Oscar De La Hoya calls "boxing's next golden boy."

Ramirez already has promotional contracts with McDonald's, Wonderful Pistachios, Nike, AQUAhydrate bottled water, 2XU workout gear, Beats audio gear and Everlast boxing equipment. Rick Mirigian, who became Ramirez's manager two years ago, estimates the boxer's net worth at $1 million.

That wealth could grow exponentially after the Olympics. If he delivers in London, Ramirez will be at the center of a bidding war between the two most powerful promoters in professional boxing, Bob Arum's Top Rank and De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions.

De La Hoya, the 1992 lightweight gold medalist in Barcelona and world champion in six weight classes, tweeted Ramirez last month: "Good luck to my boy @RAMIREZBOXING in London 2012 USA boxing."

Says Ramirez: "It makes me want to compete and continue to succeed because I know they are watching." Like his father, Carlos, who immigrated from Mexico to Avenal, at 16 for a job in agriculture, Jose started working early on grabbing a piece of the American dream.

"What stands out is he always believed in himself," says Bill Vallem, who coached Ramirez in soccer and running from grade school through high school. "He had to win. He didn't always win, but he gave everything he had."

Vallem says that Ramirez could have developed into a good collegiate runner, but decided early on to focus on boxing.

"Obviously he didn't make a mistake," Vallem says.

"I remember the first time I went to one of his bouts," Vallem says. "He got knocked down, got up and pummeled the guy."

Fortunately for Ramirez, a man named Armando Mancinas had come into his life. Boxing at all levels has dreamers and schemers who don't always put the best interests of boxers first. Mancinas, an Army veteran and outstanding amateur boxer in his younger days, is a soft-spoken straight-shooter who doesn't call attention to himself.

The Kings County Sheriff's Office, looking to provide recreation for youngsters in the Avenal area, opened the boxing gym in 1999. When the coach left a short time later, Mancinas volunteered.

"I told them I'd help out a little bit but, as soon as they got a replacement, to let me know," says Mancinas, who had moved to Avenal in 1986 to work at the state prison.

But the kids and this town of 15,500 -- a population inflated by about 4,600 prison inmates -- grew on Mancinas. Avenal reminded him of his East Los Angeles roots: "The people are modest and hard-working, but it's a much slower pace."

Ramirez's first time in the gym, he punched a double-ended timing bag. The rebound caught him flush in the face. Embarrassed, he walked out, only to return a few months later.

"And I never left," Ramirez says.

Ramirez's first bout -- a victory, naturally -- came at the old Ringside Gym in downtown Fresno when he was 8. Four years later, after winning the Ringside World Championships in Kansas City, Mo., he envisioned becoming a professional world champion.

"You had to go through a lot of fights to win," Ramirez recalls. "I knew I was going to be a good fighter."

Then Ramirez's path evolved. YouTube videos of Sugar Ray Leonard and De La Hoya winning gold medals inspired him to focus on becoming an Olympian first, a professional second.

"Turning pro is going to be there after the Olympics," Ramirez says.

Ramirez often describes himself in interviews as "single-minded." Illustrating this point: when he drives by himself -- whether it's to Fresno for training or to Kettleman City for a cup of Starbucks -- he places a pair of boxing gloves in the passenger seat and secures them with the seatbelt.

"My only companion," he says. The Ramirez home, which once had two bedrooms, has four after a renovation a few years ago. The backyard is lush with greenery, highlighted by a well-tended rose garden. It's conveniently located about two blocks from both the high school and the boxing gym.

Ramirez's many trophies are casually scattered about the garage, but his six USA gold medals are secured in a box inside the house. His mother, Juanita, retrieves them for a picture being taken of her and Jose.

When Juanita was pregnant with Jose, she was injured in an automobile accident. She suffered cuts that required 70 stitches to close. Her physician warned that Jose might be born with disabilities.

"I'm so proud of Jose," she says through an interpreter. "We have a lot of joy that Jose made his dream."

Hugging his mother, Jose says: "She had a lot of faith in me that I could do it."

Mancinas says Jose always has been serious about everything: "It was the way he carried himself. He was so mature and always mindful of others. He never clowned around."

Jose promised his father that he would graduate from college and, after graduating from Avenal High, he attended Fresno State before taking time off to qualify for and prepare for the Olympics.

In high school, he was a top-notch student who took great pride in the success of championship Buccaneer soccer and cross country teams coached by Vallem.

Says Hodges, the Avenal High counselor: "He didn't need advice because he was so focused. He knew what he wanted, and where he wanted to go. He wasn't one that drew attention to himself."

Maybe not, but success attracts attention.

This spring, Ramirez lent his endorsement and picture to the Reef-Sunset School District's $10.8 million dollar bond measure for facilities upgrades.

The measure passed with 83.37% support, a reflection of the community's belief in itself and, perhaps, pride in their most famous resident. With the United States no longer an amateur boxing superpower, the sport's top officials tinkered with Olympic qualifying. Their goal was to do better after winning just two gold medals in the last four Olympics. So even after Ramirez won the Olympic Trials last August, he and other winners were required to have top 10 finishes in the World Championships to secure places on the team.

The road to London became longer when Ramirez suffered a controversial defeat to Vasyl Lomachenko of Ukraine, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist and 2009 world champion.

But Ramirez survived the scare by winning the USA Championships in March in Fort Carson, Colo., with his parents at ringside, and reaching the semifinals of the AIBA Americas Qualifying Event in Brazil.

Understand: Judging, boxing and controversy are tied at the laces. In amateur boxing, boxers earn points for landing punches. A jab is equal to a power punch in this system. When facing strong punchers, experienced amateurs often try to build an early lead by throwing lots of jabs and then spend the rest of the bout running from opponents.

Ramirez will face this strange brew of often inaccurate and politically flavored scoring in London, as well as a highly competitive lightweight field. Lomachenko hasn't lost a bout in five years and is considered by some experts to be the best pound-for-pound amateur in the world. Also expected to contend for medals are Australia's Luke Jackson, Puerto Rico's Felix Verdejo and Cuba's Yasniel Toledo.

To win a medal, much less capture the gold, Ramirez will have to be in peak physical and mental condition. He has grown to 5 feet, 10 inches tall -- lanky for a lightweight -- and must carefully monitor his weight. Before flying to England, he worked out religiously at the Sierra Athletic Club in Fresno, sticking to a program supervised by club manager Charles Trembley.

He also spent time in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, going for long runs and sparring with professional fighters. In fact, Ramirez's training performances against professionals, including Robert "The Ghost" Guerrero, a world champion in three weight classes, have raised expectations as much as his amateur achievements.

To say that his life the past 18 months has been a whirlwind would be an understatement.

One day, he is ringside at a Manny Pacquiao bout in Las Vegas. Another day, he is doing a live interview on the ESPN Los Angeles set with anchor Stan Verrett.

There have been interviews with Telemundo, Yahoo! Sports and other media. In July, he threw out the first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers home game. He has given motivational speeches to school children in Avenal and to salespeople in San Diego. There have been Olympics send-off parties in Fresno and Avenal. He has hung out with superstar actor Mark Wahlberg (an investor in AQUAhydrate) and billionaire Stewart Resnick, owner of Paramount Farms. In early June, Ramirez still found time to take younger brother Luis shopping for clothes for his high school graduation.

He flew to England on July 14 and has been training with his U.S. teammates. Ramirez will move into the Olympic Village three days from now and have his first bout next Sunday. The gold-medal bout in his weight class is scheduled for Aug. 12.

Friday he tweeted: "Feeling better, working hard, and ready to get it on. #ThankGod #Thankyou all who support me through this ride. GOING FOR GOLD."

Inside the place it all started, the Kings Boxing Gym, Ramirez is asked what fueled his Olympic dream and how he kept going when it appeared that he might not make it to London.

"I motivate myself by remembering my goals and what I wanted to do in my sport," he answers. "I know boxing can be life-changing and it can help my family.

"I've given them a lot of smiles, and I've brought a lot of pride back to this town. I want all the kids to know that they can do anything they want. They don't have to work in the fields."

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6632, or @fresnomac on Twitter. Listen to his talk show daily at 4 p.m. on KYNO (AM 940).

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