Warszawski: No doubting boxer Jose Ramirez's water message is heartfelt (video)

The Fresno BeeMay 10, 2014 

THEFRESNOBEE

I'll admit I was a little skeptical about Jose Ramirez.

Not about Ramirez's skills in the boxing ring -- those are beyond question. My doubts were about his earnestness in the political arena.

The up-and-coming super lightweight from Avenal is headlining a 10-bout card Saturday night at Selland Arena that has already sold 6,000 tickets. Ramirez (9-0, 7 KOs) will face Jesus Selig of Mexico (16-2, 10 KOs) in a six-round main event that is expected to be his stiffest pro test.

But fight fans are being jabbed with more than boxing.

Many boxing cards get names, but this one has a cause. The "Fight for Water 2" is the second Ramirez-headlined event dedicated to Central Valley water issues.

No issue in California is more thorny or complex. That's true even in a normal rainfall year. During a drought, water issues become even more politically heated.

Sports and politics are a muddy mix, especially when that sport is boxing. In 1967, when a young Muhammad Ali refused to go to war in Vietnam, he was stripped of the heavyweight title and convicted of draft evasion.

Of course, Ali was taking an unpopular stance, at least for the time. The stance Ramirez is taking about water -- basically, we need more of it -- will always get an enthusiastic reception in the agriculture-dominated Central Valley.

In situations like this, my antennas automatically go up. (Sorry, it can't be helped.) I wonder how much a 21-year-old boxer really knows about water issues. I wonder if someone else put him up to it. I wonder if someone else is pulling the strings.

That's why I attended a recent Ramirez news conference, to meet the 2012 U.S. Olympian who grew up the son of a farm laborer, watch him hit the speed bag and hear him talk about his adopted cause.

Beforehand, I approached Rick Mirigian, Ramirez's agent/promoter, and explained my doubts.

He listened politely and shook his head.

"I'm a promoter," Mirigian said. "My job is to spin (stuff) to make it sound good. But this comes straight from Jose's heart. You'd tear up yourself if you heard him tell it."

But first, I had to wait. Before hearing from Ramirez, me and rest of the assembled media heard from a whole flock of politicians, farmers and lobbyists.

We were told we were living in "scary, scary times" and that the region is on the brink of economic ruin.

We were told we'd all be out of work if it wasn't for agriculture.

We were told state officials are holding water for fish when there are "some cities in this Valley that don't have water to brush their teeth." And that environmentalists are "nothing but a cult that takes water away from poor people."

That's only a sampling, but you get the idea. It was 30 minutes of political theater, much of it acted out in angry tones and loud volumes for the benefit of TV cameras and microphones.

Ramirez, by contrast, speaks quietly. His words are even and measured. And when we finally had a few minutes to talk, the first thing I asked him was why mix boxing and politics.

"Avenal is surrounded by agriculture," he said. "Looking around where I live and seeing how much the people struggle and how you hear about there's no jobs and no opportunities for them, it made me want to do something."

So the entire "Fight for Water" theme was his idea?

"Yes."

And no one put him up to this?

"No, not at all."

Ramirez's dedication to this issue runs deeper than I realized. Turns out he's been to Sacramento, driving himself, to lobby state legislators and senators with fellow members of the Latino Water Coalition.

What, exactly, is their message?

"Our message is to let the water come in, have more storage and let more water come in to storage," Ramirez said. "Because there's a lot of water they're keeping for fish. We need that water for our farms.

"We need to let them know the importance of that water and how the lives of the people are more important than just some fish."

I asked Ramirez if he understood the issue was a lot more complicated than that.

"It's very complicated, and I have to be careful," he said. "But I have to do what I believe is right for my people."

Two days later, I was driving back from Cambria on Highway 41 and spotted the turnoff for Avenal and Highway 33.

Turning north, I found myself in a broad, desolate valley. I drove past a state prison and many agriculture fields. Some were green, some brown. Soon, trees and houses began dotting the landscape. A sign read "Avenal: Oasis in the Sun."

I parked in what felt like downtown and pulled my bicycle from the truck bed. No better way to see a place. I rode past Mexican groceries and restaurants, discount stores and muffler shops. Then past houses, apartment complexes and schools.

All the time trying to imagine what it might be like to grow up here. Thinking about that experience creates a foundation that shapes a person's beliefs.

"I remember my parents wanting to buy us jackets for Christmas," said Ramirez, a second-generation Mexican with a sister and two brothers. "But when they went to buy jackets they couldn't afford them and had to buy us sweaters.

"Those are the little scenarios that come to my mind, and I can think of thousands. That affected me. That's why I fight for this."

Like Ramirez's first nine pro opponents, my doubts didn't stand a chance.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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