How picking peppers led Jose Ramirez to life of social activism

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Jose Ramirez is shown in the ring during the 2012 Olympics. (Getty)

Jose Ramirez is a bright young man with a deep interest in community service. In his 25 years, he’s done more for his hometown and its people than those who have lived a long, full life.

Ramirez is a world-class boxer, a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team whose work ethic was honed by spending summers working the fields in Central California, picking almonds and peppers.

It was back-breaking, excruciating work, which he did from before sunrise to after sunset, before heading to his boxing training. It gave him a deep and abiding respect for the work his parents did and those who toiled alongside them.

Ramirez has fought for the rights of those he grew up with and around. He’s lobbied for water rights for the drought-stricken residents of the San Joaquin Valley, traveling to Sacramento to meet with California Gov. Jerry Brown as part of the Latino Water Coalition.

He’s spoken out about immigrant rights, and he’s raised money for citizens who live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford health care.

He’ll do just about anything to help his people. That comes, though, with one notable exception. Ramirez has little interest in getting into public service, though his rationale is hardly surprising.

“I’m the type of guy, when I step up and say I’m going to do something, I do it with 100 percent and I don’t quit until I do what I said I would,” Ramirez said.

He chuckled as he thought how to complete his answer.

“You know, I don’t know if politics works that way,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be a good fit. So many of them stay neutral, because they’re afraid to make a group mad. If you say yes to this group, then that group is angry at you. And then, you know what happens? They want to [get re-elected] and so they don’t risk getting anyone upset, so they don’t do anything. Even if they know something is right, they don’t want to do it a lot of times because they’re concerned about how it will impact [their political] career.”

Ramirez has become an A-level star in Fresno and the surrounding area because of his abilities in the ring and his eagerness to help outside of it. The community rallies behind him like it does behind few boxers anywhere in this country.

On Saturday, close to 15,000 will jam the Save Mart Center in Fresno as Ramirez faces Mike “Yes Indeed” Reed in a bout on ESPN in which the winner gets the shot at the vacant WBC super lightweight title.

It’s been a long-time coming for Ramirez, who was regarded by many as the top professional prospect on the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team. While Ramirez is 20-0 with 15 knockouts, he still hasn’t fought for the title or achieved the acclaim that many of his teammates have.

Claressa Shields became the first American boxer to ever win back-to-back gold medals when she did it in London and then in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and she’s now a super middleweight world champion, as well as the face of women’s boxing.

Errol Spence Jr. holds the IBF welterweight title and is considered one of boxing’s elite fighters.

It’s taken Ramirez longer to get to this point, but a win over Reed on Saturday will set him up to fight Amir Imam for the title.

“Coming out of the Olympics, I thought it would be three years, maybe four, before I got the title,” Ramirez said. “But things happened for a reason and here I am, a lot smarter and a lot more prepared than I would have been had this came earlier.

“It’s been an amazing journey. You tend to get a little impatient, because you want things to happen, boom, boom, boom. For me, though, I’ve been able to develop a pretty good following and I’ve been able to learn a lot, so I know that when this title shot finally comes, I’m fully ready for it.”

Reed is no steppingstone. He’s 23-0 with 12 knockouts and is the kind of slick, smooth fighter Ramirez hasn’t seen in the pros.

Reed, whose nickname was given to him by an eighth-grade teacher who discovered his student was a nationally ranked boxer, is confident he’s going to go into enemy territory and deny Ramirez his dream.

“Everybody asks me, ‘Aren’t you afraid going into his hometown in such an important fight,’ but I don’t understand that,” Reed said. “I believe in myself and I fight with all my heart. When that bell rings, it’s just Jose and I in there and those fans can’t save him. But I see it as an opportunity to not only win an important fight, but to gain 15,000 new fans. They’re coming to see him, and they should, because he’s their guy.

“…But boxing fans can be swayed by a good performance. I look at this like, if I go in there and I am superior and I perform, I’m not going to steal his fans, but I’m going to make those people fans of mine, too.”

The one thing Ramirez knows is that his fans will never abandon him. He’s one of them, a guy who has fought his way from the bottom to a place where he has a little money and notoriety.

And his goal is to use what boxing has given him to make an ongoing contribution to his people. Like many Latinos and African-Americans, Ramirez has faced racism in his young life. Unlike many, though, he doesn’t simply get angry. He’s an activist who believes that he can become a force for good with his actions.

“You see [racism] more these days, and you see it on the news, and I’ve been through some scenarios,” he said. “At the end of the day, though, if you want to make a difference in this world, you start with how you treat your neighbor, how you treat the other person. Be an example of what is good and what is right. Do the right thing. It’s hurtful and a lot of people get angry, and I understand it, but if you hold yourself up with confidence and do the right thing, it will make a difference.

“I’m 100 percent behind the families, the immigrants who have been here for 30 or 40 years and followed the law and love this country and who have worked so hard. Things have happened, and even our President has said some hurtful things. But I just believe that instead of being negative, get behind something positive and have a purpose in this world and that will make this country even greater when everyone comes together.”