But for Ramirez, who grew up in poverty in Mexico, it’s easy to stay focused on the looming reward instead of the potential risk.
A win on Friday assures him of his first major title fight. He is the mandatory challenger for whoever emerges victorious when WBO super middleweight champ Arthur Abraham meets Martin Murray on Saturday.
But that golden opportunity in the 168-pound division disappears if Ramirez loses to Khatchikian (23-1, 11 KOs), an Armenian who lives in Holland and will be fighting in the U.S. for the first time.
Ramirez, speaking to me via an interpreter during a phone interview this week, said he never considered backing out of the Khatchikian fight in order to guarantee he wouldn’t lose his title bout.
“I never felt that way,” said Ramirez. “It’s important for me to show everyone, not just the fans but even myself, that I’m ready for a championship fight.”
Nothing has come easily for Ramirez while compiling a 32-0 record as a pro, with 24 knockouts. As a youngster in the coastal city of Mazatlan, he had to battle constantly just to gather enough pesos to pay for bus fare to get to the gym.
“I came from a very poor family and it was very difficult growing up,” said Ramirez. “But you know what? I wouldn’t change a thing. I think that’s what makes me what I am today."
Ramirez doubts he'd be a success in the ring without the hardships he endured outside of it.
"I think my strength as a boxer, my strength as a man, comes from that childhood," he said. "It makes me confident in myself, and because of that I’ll never forget where I come from and how much my family suffered while I was growing up."
Top Rank CEO Bob Arum believes Ramirez has the talent and charisma to become the next significant champion from Latin America. In a phone interview this week, Arum told me, “What’s at stake is big because, as I look at it, Gilberto is going to be the next big Hispanic star.”
Ramirez isn’t quite ready to claim that mantle yet.
“I’m humbled that he thinks that,” said Ramirez. “I’m just, you know, proud to be mentioned in those kinds of words, as the next big thing. For me, it’s just a question of doing the work, keep going and doing what I’m doing. And yeah, I’d like to get to that high level, because I do understand the responsibility of doing big things in my country.”
Accordingly, he pointed out that Friday is Nov. 20, which in Mexico is “Revolution Day,” and said, “I am dedicating this fight to all Mexicans.”
In addition to his ring work, Ramirez also is taking his English lessons seriously.
“It’s something that’s very important to me,” Ramirez said. “I do treat it very seriously, because I do want to communicate with the fans and the press. I want them to be on my side. I want them to understand where I’m coming from. I’m getting there. I’m very close to feeling confident enough to do it.”
That humility and understanding of what it will take to be a complete star add to Arum’s optimism about Ramirez’s future.
“He is a very good-looking kid, he can fight like a son of a gun, and I wouldn’t hesitate to put him in with anybody,” says Arum. “If he wins this fight and the title, we’ve already had discussions about putting him in with (middleweight champion) Gennady Golovkin. I really like his chances against Golovkin, and that would be a huge fight.”
Still, the risk on Friday is real. Boxing history is littered with examples of contenders who were one fight away from huge paydays, only to see their futures unravel suddenly. Arum remembers three the most. In 1993 Ray Mercer was all set for a heavyweight fight with WBA champ Riddick Bowe, which would have paid at least $1.5 million. But Mercer took on a tuneup fight with journeyman Jesse Ferguson and lost on a split decision. Mercer was accused of offering Ferguson a $100,000 bribe during the fight to lose intentionally but was acquitted at the trial.
Also in 1993, Tommy Morrison had a deal in place to fight WBC heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis for $8 million. But Arum said: “Morrison insisted on doing a title defense, to keep busy, against Michael Bentt, who knocked him out in the first round. That went kablooey.”
Morrison lost his WBO title on the three-knockdown rule just one minute, 33 seconds into the fight against Bentt, who had been in only 11 fights during his five years as a pro.
And in 1997 Terry Norris was all set to fight Oscar De La Hoya but wanted to stay active while waiting for that bout. So Arum booked him against Keith Mullings, who had lost four of his previous six fights, only to see Mullings muster a stunning ninth-round TKO. Norris lost his next two fights, and his career was over.
“Ramirez didn’t want to go into a title fight with rust on him, especially when his opponent, whoever it is, will have had a recent fight,” said Arum. “It’s a risk, but you take risks all the time in boxing. Sometimes they don’t work out. Sometimes they’re devastating. But you have to take the risk. I really felt that if we didn’t keep him busy he would be at a disadvantage fighting Abraham or Murray.”
Saul Rodriguez ready to show his deceptive power
Some spectators may think the wrong guy entered the ring when Saul Rodriguez steps through the ropes to put his undefeated record on the line against Ivan Najera in the 132-pound co-feature. Rodriguez is only 22 but looks even younger.
“I’m a little deceiving,” Rodriguez acknowledged during a phone interview. “I look young, I don’t have any scars, no facial hair. Other fighters look at me, and I look like a little kid.
They look at me at the weigh-in like ‘what’s this little kid going to do to me?’ It’s a good thing. I don’t mind it.”
But while Rodriguez is baby-faced, he has shown that his fists pack a grown man’s power, registering 13 knockouts while going 18-0-1 as a pro.
“I have one-punch knockout power,” Rodriguez said. “I feel I can end the fight with one punch, just change the whole fight.”
Rodriguez fights in the Southern California stable of widely respected Robert Garcia, Ring magazine’s three-time Trainer of the Year. That has given Rodriguez ample opportunities to spar with seasoned and fighters such as Mikey Garcia and Brandon Rios, the former WBA lightweight champion.
Garcia said Rodriguez “reminds me of a young Brandon Rios, who’s hungry and wants to prove to everybody that he belongs.”
Arum will watch the co-feature closely.
“Saul Rodriguez is a very, very good fighter that we’ve been developing,” Arum said. “This is his first very big test. How good Rodriguez is we will find out a lot more on Friday night because Najera is a very good fighter.”
Najera has never scored a knockout while compiling a 16-1 record, but he has developed a reputation as a crafty fighter who can hang around.
“Najera knows how to take the fight the distance, and he takes advantage of every opportunity he can,” said Garcia. “Najera’s only loss was in a great fight against Felix Verdejo (who’s 18-0). He’s something special.”
Tom Weir covered numerous championship fights as a columnist for USA Today. All quotes in this story were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.