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Ramirez faces Zepeda, eyes unification fights

Junior welterweight world titlist Jose Ramirez, right, wants to unify the division sooner than later. Mikey Williams/Top Rank

WBC junior welterweight titleholder Jose Ramirez, part of a young and talented group of 140-pounders who are looking to put their stamp on the division, makes his 2019 debut against Jose Zepeda at the Save Mart Arena in Fresno, California, on Sunday night (ESPN, 7 ET).

Ramirez (23-0, 16 KOs) is one of many fighters looking to follow in the footsteps of Terence Crawford, who unified all the belts in 2017 before moving up to welterweight.

In addition to Ramirez, the division also boasts the likes of WBO titlist Maurice Hooker (25-0-3, 17 KOs), IBF champion Ivan Baranchyk (19-0, 12 KOs) and Kiryl Relikh (23-2, 19 KOs), who has possession of the WBA strap. There is also the highly regarded Regis Prograis (23-0 19 KOs) and the talented Josh Taylor (14-0, 12 KOs).

All of these fighters are listed in the ESPN.com divisional rankings. While Crawford consolidated the division, his departure made it a free-for-all.

"There's a lot of good fights at 140. There's three or four names out there that can give everybody a run for the money in the division, that's what's good about it," said Ramirez, who understands the quality that exists in this weight class. "I think with the next couple fights, people are going to be able to see the difference between levels of competition and hopefully 140 opens up a bit more."

Ramirez certainly acknowledges the presence of his belt-holding colleagues at junior welterweight and the established contenders.

"You have a lot of young prospects. That's the thing about the 140-pound division," Ramirez said. "The names may not be recognized like the 147 [pound] division, but there's a lot of strong 140-pounders out there that will fight for world title shots any day soon."

In addition to the names mentioned above, you also have former world titlist Sergey Lipinets (14-1, 10 KOs) and undefeated young contenders like Mario Barrios (22-0, 14 KOs) and Maxim Dadashev (12-0, 10 KOs), along with dangerous veterans such as Pablo Cesar Cano (32-7-1, 22 KOs), who recently shocked Jorge Linares with a Round 1 knockout.

"I see myself up there with the best 140-pounders; I feel I can give everybody a good fight," stated Ramirez, who won his title last March by defeating Amir Imam by unanimous decision. Ramirez then made the first defense of his belt by subduing the game Antonio Orozco back in September.

"And the good thing about me is I see myself improving by the way I spar, by who I'm sparring. I spar with a bunch of 13-0, 11-0, 15-0 prospects, and I'm able to make them look like prospects, or just like they're getting started in their careers," he added.

Since switching from trainer Freddie Roach (who will actually be in the opposite corner on Sunday) to Robert Garcia, Ramirez gets to spar with the likes of world champions Mikey Garcia and young blue-chippers such as Vergil Ortiz Jr. on a regular basis.

"I see myself getting better and I'm excited to go out there and show the world I'm getting better and I'm just not stuck," Ramirez said. "I'm still fairly young, I'm 26 years old. I still have a long career ahead of me and I do feel the confidence, and do feel my skills, my technique, everything, just improving, all together."

But the question is: Will Ramirez -- who has become one of the biggest regional draws in America -- have the opportunity to tangle with his junior welterweight cohorts in meaningful fights? You get the sense that Ramirez could draw 10,000 fans at home in Fresno just to see him hit a heavy bag. But for him to truly become a star in more than just his home area, the native of Avenal, California, who represented the United States in the 2012 Olympics, will need some defining matchups.

"Hopefully this year I get the opportunity to do it," said Ramirez, who understands that the World Boxing Super Series 140-pound tournament is still ongoing and that Hooker is now aligned with DAZN and Matchroom Sports.

Ramirez is well aware of the political aspect of the boxing business.

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Ramirez is fighting for more than a championship belt

Welterweight boxer Jose Ramirez is an undefeated fighter who is raising awareness for the California water crisis through boxing events.

"It's up to the promoters, at the end of the day," Ramirez said. "It's up to Eddie [Hearn, of Matchroom Sports] and Bob [Arum, the founder of Top Rank] to let us fight, because I know Maurice Hooker would like to face me, and I would like to face him. The money would be great, it's the opportunity to fight for more than just the belt, you're fighting for two belts. It's an amazing opportunity and hopefully they allow us that opportunity."

Back in November, Hooker stopped Alex Saucedo in seven rounds on Saucedo's home turf in Oklahoma City, in a promotion that was won via purse bid by Top Rank (which handles Saucedo). Arum was hoping to pair Ramirez and Saucedo in a unification bout at some point in 2019. Now, that IBF title is with Hooker.

But Arum believes other options will soon become available to Ramirez, including fighters involved in the World Boxing Super Series tournament.

"At that point, Jose, if he's still the champion, can fight those guys," he said. "I mean, you don't have to have a fight tomorrow because it's the best fight in the division, as long as you can see it happening in the foreseeable future."

Last week, ESPN reported that Baranchyk, who was scheduled to face Taylor in the semifinals, had pulled out of the WBSS, citing frustrations over the delayed scheduling of his bout and unmet financial obligations. A day later, Baranchyk-Taylor was announced for May 18 in Glasgow, Scotland. But Baranchyk and his management team have maintained that they are no longer in the WBSS. Don't be surprised if this issue goes to litigation.

In the meantime, Top Rank will look to expand Ramirez's brand beyond California's Central Valley.

"We're gonna look very, very seriously at moving him out of Fresno in his next fight, maybe give him a date in Los Angeles and, I think, expose him to more people," Arum said. "I mean, you say that if he fights in Fresno, then he's pigeonholed to some extent. It's time."