This Central Valley boxer is fighting for the title Saturday – and for immigrant rights

After he finishes slugging it out with Amir "Young Master" Imam for the World Boxing Council's super lightweight belt Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, Central Valley boxer Jose Carlos Ramirez plans to don a red baseball cap.

It won't say "Make America Great Again." It will be emblazoned with the words "Pro-Immigrant and Proud."

That same "pro-immigrant" message appears on billboards positioned along Interstate 5 and Highway 99, amid fields not far from Fresno. The signs feature an intense-looking Ramirez with his hands taped, throwing a left uppercut.

Ramirez, 25, said he started this campaign because he felt he needed to use his platform as a professional athlete to fight against what he sees as a lack of immigration reform.

Since his emergence at the 2012 London Olympics, Ramirez has proven himself to be an extraordinary fighter, both in and out of the ring. Saturday's bout in New York City will be his highest-profile to date, and a test of his undefeated record (21-0 with 16 knockouts).

For years, Ramirez also has been a big puncher on political issues. Before immigration, he championed water rights. He was inspired by how his father, Carlos, and thousands of California farm workers suffered through California's historic drought.

His goal is to keep water coming to the region so it can continue to produce fruits, vegetables and nuts. To accomplish it, he teamed up with the California Latino Water Coalition to raise awareness about water issues and how they affect workers and businesses. Several of his boxing matches, some held at Save Mart Center at Fresno State, were dubbed part of a "Fight for Water" series. They raised money for the coalition, and Ramirez served as a spokesman for get-out-the-vote campaigns related to the issue.

Ramirez began to focus on immigration reform following President Donald Trump’s election and his plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, including young people who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

“It’s my duty to fight for our neighbors, hard-working, humble families working to provide for their families and make America great," he said.

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Jose Ramirez's "Pro Immigrant and Proud" billboard. Daniel Casarez/Vida en la Valle

Ramirez's ties to the Central Valley are deep and personal. Before becoming a professional boxer, he picked bell peppers for $7.50 an hour eight to 10 hours a day for three broiling summers in high school, he said.

“I speak with so much confidence on behalf of those who are afraid to speak out because my mother and father migrated from Mexico along with my neighbors,” Ramirez said. "A lot of people are afraid, nervous and vulnerable, and I’m going to continue to be their voice until something positive happens. We can’t leave it to the politicians.”

Partners on Ramirez's "pro-immigrant" campaign include Manuel Cunha of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, a group that has been advocating for agricultural business interests for decades. The league represents a broad coalition of more than 400 growers, farmers, packing houses, processing plants and farm labor contractors, more than half of them Republicans, Cunha said.

"Our members are very unhappy with the current administration and Congress," Cunha said. "To suddenly say we're going to kick everyone out and replace them with guest workers is stupid and bad for business. What’s going on now is a tragedy, that’s why Jose is so great — he worked in the fields, he knows what it is to fight and what he’s fighting for. We believe if the boxing world and sports world can get behind comprehensive immigration reform, we can get something done by the end of the year."

Water and immigration are big issues in Avenal, Ramirez's hometown and the self-proclaimed "Pistachio Capital of the World." Near Kettleman City, it is home to Avenal State Prison.

To help others from the town, Ramirez has established a scholarship in his name at Fresno State for students from Avenal High School. Ramirez attended college at Fresno State before he turned pro.

According to Fresno State President Joseph Castro, 90 percent of Fresno State's 25,000 students come from the Central Valley.

“Seventy percent of them are first-generation college students, from Latino, Native American and Hmong families, and 600 of them are DACA students," he said.

Ramirez's fund has raised $56,000 and will award its first scholarship this fall, Castro said. “His timing is perfect. He has struggled and sacrificed through hard work to be the best, and is elevating awareness about the contributions of immigrants," he said.

Jose Ramirez, left, and Amir Imam pose with the WBC world title belt at Thursday’s press conference in New York. Mike Williams Top Rank

Castro grew up in nearby Hanford and has become a close friend of Ramirez’s and one of his biggest fans. The two first met in 2013 when Ramirez explained he was dropping out of Fresno State to pursue his boxing career. Still, he wanted to know how he could finish his computer engineering degree, a goal Ramirez said he still plans to achieve.

In November, Fresno State hosted Ramirez’s fight – titled "Fight for Water 7" – against undefeated Mike Reed. Nearly 14,000 people attended and saw a relentless Ramirez knock Reed out in the second round.

“He’s a soft-spoken guy, a little shy in person, but you get him in the ring and he’s a whole different guy,” Castro said.

That fight also was televised on ESPN. More than 1.4 million people tuned in for the bout, Ramirez said.

Ramirez's manager, Fresno State alumnus Rick Mirigian, said he sees similarities between his fighter and another outspoken boxing great.

“Not since Muhammad Ali has a fighter been this socially active," he said. "Whether it’s water or immigrant rights, he puts his money where his mouth is and his fists as well."

Ramirez’s journey to the ring began when he was 7. His father came home from work and announced he had signed him up for boxing lessons.

"I’d been playing soccer, baseball and running since I was 4, and my dad said I had so much energy left he wanted me to do something that was all-year long," he said.

After his eighth birthday, he fought his first amateur bout in Fresno against a kid from Visalia.

“Fresno was like New York to me," he said. "Having my hand raised, and people calling me champion as I walked down from the ring in front of at least 400 people, was amazing."

He became a USA Boxing national champion several times over an amateur. Ramirez fought his way into the 2012 Olympics while working part-time at Starbucks in Kettleman City. He still managed to earn a 3.8 GPA in high school.

By the time he entered Fresno State, he was already at the top of the national rankings and had sparred with Manny Pacquiao, one of the greatest boxers of all time. Now, Ramirez trains with Freddie Roach, who also trained Pacquiao.

Those who plan to watch Ramirez's Saturday night title fight against Imam (21-1 with 18 KOs) include Jose Antonio Ramirez, city manager of the Central Valley town of Livingston.

The two Jose Ramirezes are not related, but they have been working together for years on water issues.

The city manager said that Ramirez has become a hero for the entire community.

"Everybody’s rooting for him – it doesn’t matter what ethnicity, what sector of society."

Jose Ramirez holds his son, Matteo, over his shoulders in New York. Mikey Williams Top Rank

The boxer's popularity has spread north to Woodland, “a big fight town,” said Williams Unified School District Superintendent Edgar Lampkin, a Mexican immigrant whose rural district is 93 percent Latino.

“Life is a struggle; life is a fight," said Lampkin, who picked watermelons and squash in Colusa on his way to getting his doctorate in education administration. "You struggle to never give up and overcome challenges in this country. Boxing represents that struggle – I fully understand where he’s coming from.”

Ramirez said he’s fighting for something else Saturday night: his family and his 2-year-old son, Matteo.

“He puts on those little gloves and wants to punch that bag,” Ramirez said.

But ultimately he would prefer his son choose a different profession. “Boxing is too difficult,” he said.

Ramirez vs. Imam at Madison Square Garden

The March 17 fight between Jose Ramirez and Amir Imam will be televised on ESPN and ESPN Deportes. The night's card begins at 5 p.m.