Maurice Hooker on Jose Ramirez Fight: “It Will be a Good Night for Me”

Maurice Hooker celebrates stopping Alex Saucedo in the seventh round at Chesapeake Energy Arena on November 16, 2018, in Oklahoma City. (Brett Deering/Getty Images)

The sparring session transpired nearly ten years ago, behind closed doors, in a sun-kissed gym situated along a light-rail overpass outside of downtown Dallas. Arnie Verbeek remembers it like it was yesterday—as he should. He founded the Maple Avenue Boxing Gym, after all, and the simulated dust-up in question involved two of his young blue-chip fighters. He still manages one of them to this day: Maurice Hooker, the gangly, Dallas-born junior-welterweight who currently owns a piece of the 140-pound crown. The other was Alex Saucedo, a Mexican who grew up in Oklahoma and would soon split ways with Verbeek. Watching the action that day were a slew of interested observers surrounding the ring draping.

“All the Top Rank brass were in my gym,” Verbeek, who is from the Netherlands, recalled, referring to the esteemed promotional company headed by Bob Arum, “and they know Maurice and they know boxing, and that day, Maurice was hitting [Alex] with the right hand at will.”

But Top Rank came away that afternoon convinced that the kid from Oklahoma would be their next signee. In time, they would come to tout Saucedo as their version of Arturo Gatti. He was also Mexican, and that trait never hurt the box office. Play their cards right, and Saucedo could end up becoming a solid regional draw, maybe even more. So in 2011, Saucedo began his first professional fight under auspicious circumstances in Houston, on the undercard of an HBO main event featuring Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.; he knocked his man out in the first round. At around the same time, Hooker, promoterless, got his start on a nondescript card somewhere in the boondocks of Missouri; he eked out a split draw.

All those rights hands that Saucedo ate that one day in sparring, “And still, they did not want to consider Maurice Hooker,” Verbeek said incredulously. “That side had no interest in Maurice. They thought that Alex was the new coming.”

Top Rank notwithstanding, few in the American boxing landscape wanted to really consider Hooker at the time. Golden Boy declined. Talks with Al Haymon-PBC didn’t fare much better either. The only one who showed a passing interest was Artie Pellulo’s Banner Promotions. But even then, “They preferred Mexican fighters,” Verbeek noted.

In fact, most meetings with prospective promoters always began with an inquiry about Hooker’s skin color. “That really pissed me off,” Verbeek recalled. “Every time I would visit these promoters and the first thing that they would always ask me is what is he, is he a Mexican kid? Or white kid? I really got annoyed with it. He’s a fighter, that’s what he is. If you can hit a home run in the world series, nobody cares if you’re black or Japanese, it doesn’t matter. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”

But one could just as well argue that in snubbing Hooker for Saucedo, Top Rank was simply making the cold, hard business call. Nobody in the industry, to be sure, had a better track record in pulling off the ethno-economic calculus better than they.

“I’m a businessman, I understand the numbers,” retorted Verbeek, who works in private-equity investment. “But it’s not Maurice’s problem that they can’t make these numbers work. The only thing that Maurice needs to do is become the best fighter that he can be. The rest is ridiculous.”

Instead, Hooker had to take on the more rugged approach as one of boxing’s dispossessed, toiling on small, undistinguished cards, hoping to catch a powerbroker’s attention. Hooker racked up the wins and eventually, in 2015, Verbeek was able to find a taker in Roc Nation, the gung-ho hip-hop talent agency. Here was a partner that, as Verbeek put it, “Would work with Maurice and embrace him, his heritage and his culture, and his upbringing to how he looked at life.”

As Verbeek scoured for potential partners, he soon grew cynical of what he witnessed behind back doors at the upper echelons of the sport.

“Just the way that they discuss these fighters, it’s disgusting,” Verbeek said. “Let me tell ya, I’ve done this stuff for ten years. I’ve been a promoter, manager, I’m a gym owner, amateur boxing trainer. Listen, it’s clear to me. [I get that] at the top level, you have to sell stuff. But this is 2019. And, by the way, it was ridiculous ten years ago, and that wasn’t that long ago. I really do think it’s a problem in the sport. Don’t forget that there’s still a big old guard at the top of the sport.”

On the last point, Verbeek offered to clarify. “Let me just tell you, do you know how old Bob Arum is?” he asked. “Bob is eighty-seven years old. So, you know, I’m just thinking . . . back in the day you could ask those questions.”

So when Hooker snuffed out Saucedo last November in the seventh round—in front of the latter’s hometown crowd, no less—it was a cathartic victory, made sweeter by the ringside presence of the noted octogenarian.

“It was very satisfying for the both of us, in front of Bob, to see the kid [Saucedo] knocked out,” Verbeek said. “We always wanted to be on the main stage and participating with the best. I always knew he had it in him. And I won’t let Maurice get stopped by Top Rank or Golden Boy or any of these companies. That’s why that November day is so special.”

Or Schadenfreude, as they say in Germany.

“Das ist richtig!” Verbeek said, laughing. “Schadenfreude!”

On July 27, Hooker, 29-0-3 (17), has yet another chance to reap more of the same when he goes up against fellow 140-pound titlist, and Top Rank product, Jose Ramirez in a partial unification match at the College Park Center in Arlington, Texas. (The other two champions in the division—Josh Taylor and Regis Prograis—will confront each other in a yet-to-be-determined date later this year as part of the final round of the World Boxing Super Series tournament).

“He’s not special,” Hooker said of Ramirez. “He does have a good left hook to the head and to the body. He’s an aggressive fighter. He’s coming to fight. But I’ve been in with people like that before. He’s a straightforward fighter that comes swinging. I do have boxing skills, and it will be a good night for me.”

“There was this thinking that Maurice can’t handle pressure fighters,” Verbeek said. “But we know better.”

Hooker, twenty-nine, spoke from the Pacific Training Center in the sleepy Bird Rock neighborhood of San Diego, where its proximity to Mexico has allowed for Hooker to simulate fights against an abundance of sparring partners who fit Ramirez’s pressure-fighting mold. “In California, when I wake up, I only have boxing on my mind,” said Hooker. “That’s all I have to do out here. No distractions.” Not insignificantly, the alien setting has been conducive to cutting weight, given that he needed to make multiple trips to the scale for his last fight against Mikkel LesPierre. (In this regard, Hooker praised the WBC’s weight management protocol, which schedules three weight check-ins a month out from a fight).

In an unusual bipartisan move for the sport, the fight will be streamed on DAZN, Hooker’s exclusive broadcast partner, even though Ramirez belongs on the other end of the so-called political divide, with Top Rank-ESPN. According to Verbeek, negotiating the matchup turned out to be a surprisingly straightforward affair. “I’ll be honest; it was really the Ramirez camp that really wanted this [fight],” he explained. “They are the ones that reached out. When the fighter really wants it, I mean, it’s hard to stop. Don’t forget, look at Top Rank. How many great 140-pounders do they have? They’re very thin at 140.

“We have DAZN, who has a war chest. They can finance the fight. But money doesn’t always make it work. It all starts with the intent. I think Ramirez really wanted it and Top Rank didn’t really have any choice. So that’s why I think that this fight got made.”

Certainly, there were moments not long ago when it appeared that Hooker had no business belonging on the world-class stage. In a step-up fight against veteran Darleys Perez in 2016, Hooker flopped and flailed, escaping with a charitable draw. Hooker claims that he fought with a ruptured eardrum, which threw off his balance and eyesight. Whatever the case, by subsequently proving his place among the division’s elite—claiming the title in England and defending it in Oklahoma—he has made such retrospective glimpses seem like an act of bad faith. “There’s nothing I can say about that fight,” Hooker said. “That’s all in the past. Just look how I turned my career around.”

 

About Sean Nam 24 Articles
Sean Nam has written for The Cruelest Sport, Undisputed Champion Network, and The Sweet Science. His non-boxing writing has appeared in New Rambler Review, Slant Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Rain Taxi, Mubi Notebook, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cineaste. In 2017, he curated the Boxing on Film series for the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. He is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.