ESPN rolls out 108-0 in two world title fights
Top Rank, as part of its new television deal with ESPN, is serving up some interesting fight cards out of the gate. That is certainly the case with tonight’s (10:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. PT) double title bill, which features four undefeated boxers. Yes, records can be padded, so it’s not always a significant indicator but the two title fights deliver real talent in both corners. It is “ShoBox” on steroids, delivering young champions in stern tests, instead of young prospects matched in the most difficult fights of their careers. Co-headlining the event are WBO super middleweight titlist Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, who faces off against dangerous Philadelphia-bred (and fellow unbeaten) Jesse Hart. The other half of the promotion features fellow Mexican champion WBO featherweight beltholder Oscar Valdez, who faces an equally imposing test from Filipino import (and also undefeated) Genesis Servania.
The main attraction, for most, is Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez 35-0 (24), who has the look of someone who can dominate the super middleweight division, if he can put injuries behind him. It is a tough ask, given the division has been dominated by Europeans for the last two decades, other than newly-retired Andre Ward. It is Ramirez’s second title defense and, by all indications, he is up for the challenge, after a lackluster return from an injury-induced layoff, five months ago, against Max Bursak, “I am very focused on this fight and, the truth is, I am very motivated by the opponent. I hope to give the fans a goodBob Arum spectacle and I hope that Hart comes out to fight, as we are Mexicans.”
Ramirez has a well-prepared team, noting they have had mandatory contender Jesse Hart on their radar for quite some time. Ramirez revealed, “We have studied him for two years. He is a young fighter; he has a good record. We have followed him during his trajectory and we have been looking at the progress that he’s had. He is a fighter that stays away a lot from his opponent. He doesn’t box in there – he runs. We already have the plan set down. We’re working on it and the fight is going to be interesting because of the size of both of us…He’s tall – so am I – so he won’t be able to run.”
Philly-bred Jesse “Hard Work” Hart, 22-0 (18), takes exception to the claim that he is a “runner” and, in general, has been boisterous about his chances of pulling off an upset. Hart told Ryan Burton of BoxingScene.com, “I am going to do everything it takes to win. You can’t tell me to stand and fight. I am going to do a little bit of everything. If they want to fight, then I will give them a fight. If they want to box, then we will box. On September 22nd, (Ramirez) is not going to be able to do nothing. That world title is coming home with me. They know they can’t win. Like I said, their only hope is that I stand there and bang but I can beat you at that too.”
Those are words of the assured but this may also be misplaced confidence for Hart, as Ramirez is a quantum leap in levels of competition. Still, Hart sees the champion as a paper tiger, “He doesn’t pose no threat. Again, I reiterate, he hasn’t had a knockout since 2014. So, me worrying about his power is no issue. It is no issue. He can’t hurt me and his trainer knows that. He talks about how he wants to bang but they know I got that power for real.” In fact, Hart believes the power advantage lies with him, “Y’all know that I got power and when I hit people, they do funny dances. Like I said, to say they want to bang – when the kid hasn’t had a knockout since 2014 – come on man!”
Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, comfortable in his role as promoter for both men, says the fight will be closer than many believe. Despite the obvious financial benefits a Ramirez victory portents, Arum did not dismiss Hart’s chances, “I think it’s a toss-up fight. About a year ago, you’d have go with ‘Zurdo’ because Jesse didn’t seem like he had the stamina. But now he’s training differently and he has a lot more endurance to go the full 12 rounds, if he has to, so that makes it a much closer fight.” That is a minority view, as the bookmakers have Ramirez a 4-to-1 favorite on average.
The other main event has a real possibility of stealing the show, with aspiring world featherweight titlist (and a two-time Mexican Olympian, as well) Oscar Valdez, 22-0 (19), eager to make an impact on the American market. Valdez will enjoy a feverish backing in Tucson, just across the border from his native Nogales, and television audiences will enjoy an all-action style predicated on constant pressure. Valdez is coming off a grueling distance win over Miguel Marriaga, in his first title defense, which he admitted, to our own Steve Kim, drained him physically. “It took me awhile to recover. It was a tough fight. I felt it was a tough fight for both of us and it took me some time to recover, a couple weeks to recover in all. Now, I’m feeling in great shape.”
Valdez can be excessively lured into the trenches but, at 25, is in his physical prime, which can go a long way to cover up flaws in strategy. Does have a wealth of amateur experience (one of the best Mexican amateur boxers ever) to call upon and, described his style to Anson Wainwright, of THE RING Magazine, “I’m more of a boxer. I don’t really consider myself as a hard-hitting fighter but I can do all different styles. I can bang with a fighter – if the guy boxes, I can put pressure. If I’m fighting a pressure guy, I can also box. Whatever the fighter brings, I’ll switch it up.”
His challenger is an imposing physical package and Genesis Servania, 29-0 (12), has a good set of boxing tools to work with, as well. The Filipino is unbeaten but also untested at the highest level. Servania’s biggest victory came via 12-round knockout of former world titlist Alexander Munoz, in 2014, but, afterward, his career stalled. On the back of that victory, became the No. 1 contender to Guillermo Rigondeaux, three years ago, but a title fight never materialized. Recently switched to Japan-based promoter Kashimi Boxing, who have gotten him the opportunity, in short order. Servania has also become a preferred sparring partner for WBC junior bantamweight beltholder Naoya Inoue, so he has seen world-class skills up close and personal.
The duo are nearly identical, in age and body frame, with Servania standing an inch taller and enjoying a slight reach advantage. Arum is convinced of Servania’s qualities, “Servania is a terrific fighter. We had him fight on one our cards in Macau (China) in 2013, so we’ve seen him. He’s a really scrappy guy, the kind of guy who will bring the fight to Oscar. Oscar is also an aggressive fighter, so, one thing is for sure, it will be an action fight.” Arum is not alone; Servania was viewed, by some, as a future champion, as he climbed the ranks. A humble Servania did not guarantee victory outright, “It’s exciting. It’s my fight to win because I have trained so hard for this opportunity. It will be my hardest fight but you will soon see I came to Tucson to win and become the new world champion.”
This card is an exciting doubleheader, with champions tested by undefeated upstarts, whose ambitions are undaunted and come with fire in their eyes. These are not recycled title challengers or past-their-prime champions, taking a final bow on the championship stage. Nor the No. 15-ranked contender of a sanctioning body, pushed into the fray as an easy optional title defense. Granted, this is all on paper but my hope is these Top Rank/ESPN shows become a graduation platform for ShoBox series alums-turned-world champions. Since ShoBox has delivered more quality matchups, on a consistent basis, than any other boxing franchise. Let’s hope this is the start of a four-year run of something good. Boxing can use it!