Jose Ramirez and Felix Verdejo: A tale of two fighters

Undefeated WBC junior welterweight titlist Jose Ramirez. Photo credit: Mikey Williams

 

Avenal, California’s Jose Ramirez and Puerto Rico’s Felix Verdejo both turned pro in December of 2012, after impressive amateur careers. They both locked up deals with Las Vegas-based promotional powerhouse Top Rank, who was excited and optimistic about their new signees.

 

However at that time, in reality, the real buzz was in securing the services of the red-hot, highly-coveted Verdejo, who had been courted by several promotional firms before he decided to sign with Top Rank.

 

Make no mistake; Top Rank was high on Ramirez and happy to bring him into the fold to see where they could take him – but Verdejo was a different story. He had the “it” factor and was tabbed as the next major superstar in boxing-crazed Puerto Rico. He had the talent and the charm and now he had Top Rank to guide him to a major lightweight title.

 

All the pieces were in place and it was time to go to work.

 

Ramirez turned pro with little of the fanfare that accompanied Verdejo’s debut. Ramirez is Mexican-American, which didn’t hurt, as that can translate to a strong audience. And he had displayed enough skill, grit and promise to catch the attention of Top Rank’s matchmakers. With Ramirez, Top Rank had a good, tough, young kid who, with the right fights and some development, could be built into an attraction.

 

And he was. He quickly became a real ticket-seller in California’s Central Valley under the guidance of local promoter Rick Mirigian, who did an outstanding job of building a base and developing Ramirez into a local star.

 

However Verdejo was on a different level.

 

With Ramirez the thinking was, if moved properly, Top Rank could examine how he developed, as he worked toward winning a world title. With Verdejo, it wasn’t if he could win a world title; it was when and how many? This kid was stamped “blue chip” right out of the gate.

 

Puerto Rico loves boxing. The islanders love their fighters and are passionate in their support of their boxing stars. Verdejo had been anointed to be exactly that – the next major Puerto Rican boxing star.

 

The timing seemed perfect.

 

Puerto Rico’s beloved Felix “Tito” Trinidad had long since retired and newly-retired four-division champion Miguel Cotto, who frankly never had the personality and charm to endear himself to fans the way other popular Puerto Rican fighters had, was writing the final chapter of his career.

 

In short, Puerto Rican fight fans were waiting for their next boxing superstar to embrace…and Verdejo was that guy.

 

Fast forward to 2018. On March 17, at Madison Square Garden, Jose Ramirez entered the ring for the 22nd time as an undefeated pro and beat Amir Imam to capture the vacant WBC world junior welterweight title.

 

Lightweight Antonio Lozada Jr. (standing) vs. Felix Verdejo

 

On the undercard, Felix Verdejo entered the same ring for the 23rd time as an undefeated pro against a limited but doggedly determined Mexican by the name of Antonio Lozada Jr. Verdejo was dropped and stopped in the 10th and final round of the fight, taking a lot of punishment along the way.

 

This was not in the script; Verdejo suffering his first pro loss was not how this was supposed to play out.

 

That March night in New York was certainly the culmination, or revelation, of the paths that two fighters had taken over the last couple of years.

 

While the Verdejo loss was somewhat surprising, the shockwaves were certainly lessened by the fact that there had been whispers for a long time about the talented Puerto Rican’s career and how it had not been progressing the way many had hoped.

 

Verdejo, vastly gifted and talented, stalled in his progress and, in fact, had heard more jeers than cheers in his most recent hometown fight. The fact is he had looked somewhat disappointing in his last couple of fights leading up to the stoppage loss in New York. Top Rank had worked to build Verdejo’s brand in the Big Apple, showcasing him there several times, but some underwhelming performances had fizzled the Verdejo sizzle in Gotham.

 

Leading up to the MSG gig on the 17th, Ramirez’s career had become everything Verdejo’s didn’t.

 

Ramirez made no mis-steps along the way and the polite, hard working Hanford, California-born banger seemed to be answering every question asked of him in the ring. In addition, his tireless campaign outside the ring, lobbying for the water rights of the large agricultural industry in his community, endeared him to everyone in the Central Valley even more. Ramirez’s career trajectory was heading north at a rapid pace and his beloved hometown audience was growing with every bout.

 

Ramirez proved that you take a hard-working fighter who resonates with an equally hard-working community and you make box-office magic.

 

This was evident in the thousands and thousands of fans who show up for Ramirez’s fights in Fresno. Ramirez is a good fighter who, through hard work and steely determination, was squeezing every drop of talent out from himself.

 

The island of Puerto Rico wanted so badly to get behind Felix Verdejo and ride his wave to the championship, cementing a relationship between adored fighter and faithful fans. However along the way, something changed.

 

While it was evident early and often in Verdejo’s career that he had a ton of talent, and certainly appeared to be championship material, there were also some spotty performances that started to raise questions.

 

He went the distance in fights in which he should have gotten his opponent out of there. He was was having some passable but largely unspectacular performances that weren’t building his audience but, in fact, frustrating it. A motorcycle accident that shelved him for several months didn’t help.

 

In short, as Ramirez’s career was going into overdrive with ever-increasing audiences and stronger in-ring performances, Verdejo’s stalled.

 

Looking back to 2012, when they both turned pro, Ramirez had a small city in King’s County, California, rooting for him and appreciating his efforts to fight the good fight for the locals in Avenal. Verdejo had an entire island behind him, waiting to crown him as their next beloved boxing hero.

 

On March 17, in New York, Jose Ramirez entered the ring and left a champion. He put in an impressive performance by pressing the action all night against Amir Imam. Ramirez, on a career-defining evening, handled his business like a pro. He delivered the performance of a fighter who simply wouldn’t be denied and makes the best of every opportunity given to him.

 

Felix Verdejo had entered that same ring an hour earlier and, while putting in a gutty performance, was battered and stopped by a club fighter, who quite frankly didn’t have anywhere near the talent of Verdejo. As Verdejo’s corner leapt into the ring to save him from further punishment, you could almost hear the collective groan of disappointment from the island that wanted so desperately for him to prove he was going to turn his career around and be everything they had hoped for.

 

On Sunday, March 18, both fighters woke up in New York City preparing to head home and consider the next step in their careers.

 

The next time Felix Verdejo enters the ring, it will be to see if he can fix what he’s missing. Can he deliver on the promise he once showed? Does he have the talent to prove his doubters wrong? Absolutely. There will need to be changes made both in the physical and mental aspects of his game and time will tell if he can do it.

 

The next time Jose Ramirez steps into the ring it will be in front of thousands of fans in the biggest venue promoter Bob Arum can secure for his first title defense in Fresno. He became a hero and a champion on talent, inspiration, motivation and an awful lot of perspiration.

 

Felix Verdejo is going to have to build himself back up and it may be a long, hard road to winning back his Puerto Rican fans. At 24, and with 23 wins in 24 fights, it might be a stretch to say Verdejo is at a crossroads in his career.

 

It is safe to say his performance in the next fight or two might determine the fate of his career. However the changes he needs to make must be made right now.

 

Jose Ramirez will now, happily, have the weight of a world title over his shoulder, with every contender, and fellow champion, gunning for him. That said, he will do it with the support of everybody in California’s Central Valley.

 

Ramirez started with the hopes of a small community behind him. Verdejo started with an entire island behind him.

 

Jose Ramirez and Felix Verdejo will experience, for very different reasons, the most important chapters of their careers unfolding in the next year. Two fighters who started down the very same road, at the very same time, but now find themselves in very different places.

 

 

 

Questions and comments can be sent to Bill Tibbs at hwtibbs@shaw.ca and you can follow him at twitter.com/tibbs_bill.

 

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