Last July in Atlantic City, Rico Ramos got the opportunity to fight on HBO, and to fight for a world title in the 122-pound division, as Japan's Akifumi Shimoda came to the United States to defend the WBA belt and make a name for himself in American boxing.
The first five rounds were all Shimoda, as he simply looked like a vastly superior fighter who was ready for prime time, while Ramos, having just turned 24 and no major fights under his belt, looked inexperienced and a bit like he had a case of stage fright. The sixth round was competitive, with Ramos waking up a bit, but as the fight started again in the seventh, veteran judge and commentator Harold Lederman assessed Ramos for the HBO audience.
"Rico Ramos, to me, looks like a guy with 19 fights that's not ready for a world title fight," said Lederman. "I mean, he just seems lost in there. Running, circling, running away. He's letting Shimoda just press him, land the better shots, and [Ramos] is certainly not doing enough."
Lederman had given the sixth to Ramos, though he felt it was close, and his analysis was at that moment spot-on. Two minutes later, Ramos blasted Shimoda with a perfect left hook for the knockout victory.
It's no use lying and saying that the knockout win made Ramos a star. It didn't. For one thing, his win was unfortunately and grossly overshadowed by incompetent hack judges in the night's Paul Williams vs Erislandy Lara main event.
But more important than that, and even more important than the fact that a 122-pound fighter has to be truly special to become a star in the United States, is the fact that Ramos' victory seemed a fluke. Lederman had him down 59-55, which agreed with two of the official judges. The third judge had it a clean sweep, 60-54.
Now, six months later, Ramos (20-0, 11 KO) will return to the ring for his first title defense on Friday night, headlining Showtime's B-show, ShoBox. This is the fight where we find out if Ramos is closer to a one-hit wonder than a legitimate top fighter in the division.
He'll be facing Guillermo Rigondeaux, the 31-year-old Cuban southpaw who came to the pro game with much fanfare, an amateur legend in his native country whose defection was major news for boxing fans.
At 8-0 (6 KO), Rigondeaux doesn't have a wealth of professional experience, but he's also shown little desire to spend his time fighting just for the sake of fighting, as he's wanted to target big fights ever since going pro.
Rigondeaux is better-schooled than just about anyone in the sport, but that's not always a positive. In his one major fight as a professional, he was taken to the limit by Ricardo Cordoba on the Pacquiao vs Margarito undercard at Cowboys Stadium, and he's fought just once since that November 2010 fight, an easy TKO-1 win over Willie Casey in Ireland last march. Casey, a popular but extremely limited fighter, was wildly out of his league against Rigondeaux, who went into that fight knowing that, and didn't waste any time.
Though Rigondeaux has been relatively successful so far in his career, he has not shown any indication that he's a great fighter, and has fallen short on projections of dominance. Like most of the recent Cuban defectors, Rigondeaux has been a disappointment. But he is a good and effective fighter. This is a chance for him to turn that perception around if he can dominate in a pleasing fashion.
Which leads me to the next point: The biggest concern about tomorrow's fight is that it will be dull. Neither guy is great leading the action, and both have the worrying habit of not throwing punches. The fight has a very strong chance of being anything but pleasing to watch, but both have shown the ability to be explosive, so hopefully they're coming in with action on their minds, even if just the hope that they'll catch the other man napping, too passive to be prepared or a rush.
This is a proving ground fight for Ramos. Yes, right now he's a legitimate top guy because he beat Shimoda, who was a legitimate top guy. But being highly-ranked or well-regarded can be a fleeting thing in boxing. It wouldn't mean that Ramos was a silly fluke or not a talented fighter if he lost convincingly to Rigondeaux tomorrow night, it would just mean that he's likely not as good as perceived at the moment. He deserves to be considered one of the best in the division -- for now. That can change quickly.
With Rigondeaux, I'm just not sure what he wants his career to be. If Ramos comes out hungry to show his best tomorrow, I definitely believe he has enough talent to beat Rigondeaux, who has never come off as particularly enthusiastic. That might just be his nature, but I've never watched him fight and come away thinking about how great he is or even how great he could be. He's left me largely cold. He lacks in passion, though does not lack in arrogance.
My gut tells me that Rigondeaux is simply too measured and steady a boxer, and Ramos not special enough. I'll call for a wide and clear but not compelling decision victory for the Cuban. Rigondeaux UD-12.
Tomorrow night's ShoBox triple-header airs at 11 p.m. EST, and we will have live coverage of the card.