The mandatory fight comes as no surprise because it has been in the works for the past couple of months, but Top Rank on Wednesday made it official: Jose Ramirez and Amir Imam will battle for a vacant junior welterweight world title on March 17 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The fight will headline a Top Rank ESPN card that will air live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes beginning at 8 p.m. ET with the ESPN App to stream the entire card beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET.
It will be the first time that longtime rivals Bob Arum, the Top Rank chairman who promotes Ramirez, and Imam promoter Don King — more friendly rivals these days than the bitter enemies they were for so many years — will promote against each other since then-junior middleweight world titlist Miguel Cotto, then fighting for Top Rank, retained his belt by knocking out the King-promoted Ricardo Mayorga in the 12th round on March 12, 2011.
Both promoters are, of course, backing their man.
“Jose has worked hard to earn his world title shot and I know he and trainer Freddie Roach will come out blazing and give the fans at the Garden and those watching on all the ESPN platforms a night they will remember,” Arum said. “Jose has been a longtime advocate of the Central Valley farmers [in the Fresno region], fighting for their water rights. On March 17, I am confident he will become their first world champion boxer.”
Said King: “This is going to be a great fight. A fantastic fight and I know Amir is training hard to come in at his best because he wants that belt.”
The telecast will also include light heavyweights Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Mehdi Amar squaring off for a vacant interim title and popular blue chip featherweight prospect Michael Conlan, a two-time Irish Olympian, facing an opponent to be determined in a six-rounder. Conlan is the big draw for the card, which will take place on St. Patrick’s Day. He turned pro on St. Patrick’s Day last year and sold out the Theater at Madison Square Garden, where his pal and UFC superstar Conor McGregor walked him into the ring.
Ramirez (21-0, 16 KOs), a 2012 U.S. Olympian, and Imam (21-1, 18 KOs) will fight to fill one of the 140-pound world titles that became vacant when Terence Crawford relinquished the undisputed title to move up to welterweight.
“I’m honored for the opportunity to be able to fight for a world title,” Ramirez said. “Since I was only eight years old, with a few amateur victories under my belt, I started dreaming of becoming a world champion. To have that green and gold [WBC] belt like all the best fighters in history have, I’m living my dream. I’m ready to work as hard as it takes, to overcome any obstacle and adversity that comes my way.
“I’ve sacrificed, worked and challenged myself in a way most can’t imagine. Physically and mentally, I’ll be more than ready come March 17. I started drawing this picture 17 years ago, and I almost have it completed.”
Ramirez, 25, of Avenal, California, knocked out then-undefeated Mike Reed in the second round on Nov. 11 in front of a home region crowd in Fresno on ESPN to set himself up for the title fight.
“Jose was so pumped up in his last fight when he destroyed unbeaten Mike Reed, a legitimate top-10 contender,” Roach said. “He knew this title shot was at stake and he destroyed Reed. He will be ready to give it his all on March 17. What could be better than to win the WBC’s green belt on St. Patrick’s Day by driving Imam out of the Garden?”
Said manager Rick Mirigian: “It’s Jose’s time to show the world a real star has arrived as the complete package, and that is something boxing has needed for a long time. Jose has worked a lifetime to show everyone what I already know.”
Imam, 27, of Albany, New York, boxed on the Nov. 11 undercard as a tune-up for the title fight and knocked out Johnny Garcia, a former Ramirez victim, in the fourth round.
“I’ll have a really good opponent in front of me, and it’s going to be a good fight,” Imam said. “Fighting at Madison Square Garden, [near] where I come from, is a big thing, and it is a dream come true. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m working hard.
“I was ringside in Fresno for Jose’s last fight, so I know what he brings to the table. I know what I’ve got to do to win this belt. This fight will be a clash of two fighters with a lot of knockouts, and it will come down to who can stand up to that leather. If he does come straight forward, I will box and break him down and stop him. I’m not going to call for a knockout, but if it comes within itself, I am going to take advantage of it. Either way, I will leave that ring with the W.”
Stacey McKinley, Imam’s longtime trainer, said he knows it’s going to be a difficult fight.
“We know what we are up against,” he said. “Jose Ramirez is an Olympian, an undefeated fighter and he has a big following. He’s tall, he’s quick and he throws a lot of punches. We certainly are not taking him lightly. His last fight against Michael Reed, Jose bombed him out like he bombed out the rest of them out. But Johnny Garcia fought Ramirez tough and went the distance. Amir carried Garcia until the fourth round just to get some work in.”
Gvozdyk (14-0, 12 KOs), 30, a 2012 Ukrainian Olympic bronze medalist who fights out of Oxnard, California, was supposed to face Eleider “Storm” Alvarez for the interim belt but when he pulled out France’s Amar (34-5-2, 16 KOs), 35, the former European champion, replaced him. The winner will become the mandatory challenger for the winner of the May 19 fight between world champion Adonis Stevenson and former titlist Badou Jack.
Conlan (5-0, 4 KOs), 26, the two-time Irish Olympian who claimed a bronze medal in 2012, will have his first fight since deciding to leave Southern California and trainer Manny Robles in order to move back to Northern Ireland. He’s now training with Adam Booth in London.
“It will be exactly one year to the day since my professional debut in the Mecca of boxing,” Conlan said. “I’m excited and ready to put on a great show for my amazing fans. I know, like last year, thousands are traveling over from Ireland to support me, for which I’m hugely grateful.”