Early last month, promoter Top Rank announced that Jose Ramirez will make the second defense of his WBC junior welterweight title on February 10, against Jose Zepeda, a fighter absent from the sanctioning body’s top-ten rankings. The fight is slated for the Save Mart Center in Fresno, where Ramirez has developed into a draw. Ramirez should feel confident entrusting his career to Top Rank. Where successful fighter development is concerned, the fifty-two-year-old company has history on its side. Top Rank will make an attraction (regional or better) of Ramirez if possible; it’ll sustain him as such too until the future arrives and Ramirez is subducted by it. No one sees Zepeda as such a future, least of all Top Rank.
On December 14 fellow Top Rank fighter Gilberto Ramirez decisioned Jesse Hart, bringing a heavy-lidded close to an unremarkable title run. When you must rematch Hart to settle the only real score in your reign—a reign that featured five fights, four decisions, and only one recognizable (and heavily pulped) opponent—unremarkable is as good a modifier as you can get. And it’s one that applies to Ramirez the fighter as well. Not for an absence of skill, or composure, or determination, which Ramirez has proven sufficiently enough. Rather, it is because the Sinaloan has yet to show the exorcizing passion his countrymen display so dependably. Perhaps he has yet to find the opponent to ignite it; perhaps he will find such an opponent at light heavyweight. But if Ramirez, per his wishes, finds himself across the ring from light heavyweight Oleksandr Gvozdyk, it will be because Top Rank is ready to cash in on its investment.
The is not to disparage either Ramirez; they are acting wisely, prudently, in a sport that demands its own Faustian bargain. But it is impossible to ignore what they might have become this year had either fighter seized on one of the most compelling opportunities boxing has provided in some time.
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Boxing is largely a sport at odds with itself. All promoters are rival promoters, no matter how willing they are to cooperate, and that animosity is reflected in the actions of the networks they tether their product to. There is no computer-generated schedule ensuring that the best face each other, no playoff to ensure they do so for the highest stakes, and promoters can be hesitant (sometimes even opposed) to incentivizing such matchups. One could as easily identify champions by their promoters and networks as by the sanctioning bodies who distribute the belts, which makes matchmaking a process of elimination:
The wrong promoter? ✓
The wrong network? ✓
So, the wrong opponent? ✓
There is little use in railing against boxing’s model, however, because it is not going to change soon enough—if ever—to satisfy anyone truly maddened by it. So if you are one of these perpetually-aggrieved it’s probably best you find another sport. (Ditto those people lamenting the absence of a single champion in each division, who blame title proliferation for many of the problems produced by reticent matchmaking. And trying to solve any of these problems by creating more championships and more rankings accomplishes what, exactly?)
What is really needed to solve some of these ills is simplicity, and in 2018 the World Boxing Super Series provided it. While Jose Ramirez was being developed into an attraction, the men who could define him as a fighter, men like Regis Prograis and Josh Taylor, entered the junior welterweight version of the WBSS. While Gilberto Ramirez was in the doldrums of defenses, Callum Smith used the WBSS to unify titles with a career-defining knockout of George Groves. Super bantamweight too, began its own WBSS tournament, one that already belongs to Japanese concussionista Naoya Inoue, who has failed thus far in his earnest search for a chin or liver that can endure his power. Oleksandr Usyk, meanwhile, brought the first WBSS tournament to a close by traversing the globe to prove he is the best cruiserweight on it.
Participation in the WBSS depends primarily on a fighter’s willingness to answer a simple yet significant question: Am I the best? Put more accurately (in the fighting affirmative), it is to demonstrate what he already knows—that he absolutely is. Perhaps the WBSS’s greatest charm is that it found so many fighters to embrace the challenge.
No hiding behind promoters or networks or mandatory defenses; no stymieing rhetoric about building events, no A-side/B-side filibustering; no resting on one’s laurels, no hypothetical victories, no hiding—only the challenge, its acceptance, and the bloody business. Like Usyk, likely to take home Fighter of the Year honors from everyone bestowing them, each winner emerges distinguished by his strength of schedule (which in boxing includes quality of opposition, of course, but also activity). Where a challenge to the tournament champion’s supremacy persists, as is the case with Callum Smith, who must reckon with the winner of the January 13 fight between Jose Uzcategui and Caleb Plant, and with David Benavidez, if he is to set his foot firmly on the division’s throat, at least no one can say the WBSS winner will have stockpiled his ammunition in waiting. And even if the talent in any of these tournaments is less than world-class, the appeal of the tournament format, its purity, its honesty, remains.
Purity and honesty aside, the WBSS is still a product of a notoriously shady business. Which is why no one should be surprised that recent reports stated that the WBSS was in danger of being discontinued as several fighters had yet to receive their bonus checks. When stepping off the well-worn path to success brings such financial risk it is hard to criticize fighters like Jose and Gilberto Ramirez for letting a promoter—vested more in the fighter than the fights—guide their careers. Yet the risk of skulduggery only augments the daring of the fighters who are or have participated in the WBSS, who have not only embraced the perils of a harrowing road to distinction but have entrusted another characteristically mendacious entity to map the route.
That is a naïve and even foolish decision, yes, but very often those are the decisions that remind aficionados of why they endure boxing’s many frustrations. That is what the WBSS accomplished in 2018. Let 2019 bring more of the same.