File Photo credit: Mikey Williams.
Written by Edward Smith
In 2010, when Rick Mirigian met Jose Ramirez for the first time at an amateur boxing event, Mirigian laughed at the idea of getting into boxing, thinking that the sport was dead.
As a local promoter, he was perfectly content with mixed martial arts (MMA), as well as bringing in big comedy and musical draws like George Lopez and Chris Brown.
But when Mirigian was promoting an MMA event at Chukchansi Park in Fresno, there was a coach with USA Boxing there who asked for help getting a venue.
Jose Ramirez was on that card.
Mirigian didn’t want anything to do with boxing. Nobody was watching boxing, let alone paying for it, but when he watched Ramirez fight as a 16-year-old against a much older fighter — a police officer — and win, his curiosity was piqued.
He did some research on Jose Ramirez’ amateur record. He almost couldn’t believe it — 154-11. He verified it with the Olympic training facility in Colorado and they assured him that the fighter was all he was cracked up to be.
Mirigian went immediately out to Avenal to find Ramirez and instantly saw the potential. He began working to get major sponsors, something Mirigian says had never been done before for an amateur boxer.
He signed the fighter with a number of sponsors, including Wonderful Pistachios, working the local-boy angle with agricultural roots.
Mirigian negotiated a deal between Ramirez and Top Rank, arguably the largest boxing promotion in the world, to go professional under an extremely lucrative deal — allowing Ramirez to promote locally, something unheard of for a boxing prospect.
The rest is history still being written.
Nowadays, part of Mirigian’s tradition leading up to a fight is dinner at Dave and Buster’s for family, friends and fight fans around the Central Valley.
“Fresno has become a fight epicenter,” said Mirigian before a tightly packed crowd in a conference room in the restaurant. “The numbers we’ve been able to draw don’t happen anywhere else.”
Before 2012, when local boxing phenom Jose Ramirez appeared on the global stage at the Olympic Games in London, many promoters and venues may have dismissed the Central Valley fight scene as nonexistent.
Ramirez quickly grew a following. The local boxing scene itself grew in the wake.
Event promoters like Mirigian and Al Perez Jr. of Big Al Entertainment, who both started with music and entertainment, are starting to see the lucrative world of boxing evolving here in the Central Valley, and are finding ways to bring Central Valley fighters into the mainstream.
In 2012, Tachi Palace began hosting boxing in Lemoore, which in the eyes of Mirigian, was the starting point where boxing was reborn in the Central Valley.
“They took a big chance because boxing was dead at the time — I mean dead,” Mirigian said. “There weren’t boxing events anywhere, no one was putting boxing events on. So from a financial standpoint, it was something that the casino was looking at facing a tremendous loss.”
But it has come a long way since 2012. Fights are beginning to pop up a lot more frequently around town.
Tower Theatre will host its first fight, promoted by Big Al Entertainment, on March 24, with special guest and renowned trainer Robert Garcia.
On Jan. 11, Mirigian promoted a sold-out fight at Tachi Palace featuring the Valley’s top prospects, all of whom he’s signed with Top Rank.
Promoters are once again seeing boxing as a global cash cow.
In the Mayweather-McGregor fight in August 2017, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. drew in more than $100 million from the purse alone, with McGregor getting $30 million — none of this including the profits from all of the sponsors looking to get a piece of the action.
Multi-million-dollar purses of fighters like Manny Pacquiao, Oscar de la Hoya, Mayweather Jr. and Canelo Alvarez can make anyone salivate.
“What’s the reward? We’re not there yet, but who has the chance?” Mirigian asks. “We do.”
Daniel Valdivia, 25 years old out of Tulare, headlined Thursday’s event at the Tachi Palace and is the next Valley fighter looking for a significant title, behind Ramirez.
“The people around me and the support from [the Valley] has helped a lot,” Validivia said at the conference.
The local support has become increasingly apparent.
Since it really started to grow in 2012, boxing has sold out the Selland Arena five times before it outgrew the venue and advanced to the Save Mart Center.
Once there, the Fight for Water series sold out the venue three consecutive times.
This past November, the Fight for Water 7 drew a live crowd of 13,800 people to the Save Mart Center and averaged almost 1.5 million viewers, making it the third-most watched cable boxing event, according to ESPN Media Zone. The fight trailed only the big-draws of the Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn fight and the highly anticipated Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux fight.
“Most fighters don’t debut in front of 5,000 or 6,000 people,” Mirigian said. “In Fresno, fighters are getting that chance.”
Getting boxing to where it is now took a lot of sweat.
“This isn’t a sport you dabble in. you need to have deep pockets and you’re going to sustain some losses if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Mirigian said.
From paying the fighters, working the medical, signing with a venue, booking hotels and hiring security, it’s not easy to make money on the sport.
“Just to start off you’re in the hole 75,000,” Mirigian said. “That doesn’t include the marketing it takes to get people to show up. It’s very risky.”
Cultivating a fighting culture took strategy, and in the eyes of Mirigian, that begins with a story.
“It has to be an event that people support,” Mirigian said. “It’s a cause, it’s an issue it’s something everyone can relate to. That’s how you get 14000 people instead of 5000 people.”
For “Smokin’” Joe Lopez, who fought on Thursday, boxing was a way for him to stay out of gangs and pursue athletics.
“[The] spark came from me still wanting to be an athlete,” Lopez said.
Often, opportunities aren’t available for fighters coming out of small towns.
“They’re going to fight in hotel ballrooms, very small venues, they’re going to get paid next to nothing and they’re going to have very tough fights along the way,” Mirigian said. “Often they’re mismatched and misguided by people.”
According to Mirigian, it can take four or five years alone to even get that chance, let alone if a fighter has the skill or the story to do so.
But with a bourgeoning scene, Al Perez Sr. hopes that Big Al Entertainment would be able to fill the gap between the debut and the big-time promoters.
“Our focus is a little more layered on the kids who are starting out,” Perez said. “There are a lot of fighters in the Valley looking for opportunities but there aren’t enough promoters to keep these guys busy.”
Big Al Entertainment has signed a deal with the Tower Theatre in Fresno to begin showcasing fights for boxers whose records aren’t developed enough to earn the eyes of big agencies like Golden Boy or Top Rank.
It will be fights for boxers with not more than five fights under their belts and fights will only last four to six rounds.
“This gives these young men an opportunity to develop their skills and not be taken advantage of in other markets and other areas, but develop them at their level,” Perez said.
Fighting at one’s own level can be important, especially in a world where a single defeat can set a fighter back months or years from getting a shot — if it doesn’t end it altogether.
“We want the opportunity for them to develop,” said Perez. “At a certain point, we will be that gap if Top Rank wants them or de la Hoya wants them or whoever. We’ll be able to be that conduit to those opportunities, but I don’t want our guys to be taken advantage of.”
Trainers in Fresno have horror stories of promoters coming from other areas to glean fighters with talk of making it big in Los Angeles or San Francisco only to face fighters with much more experienced records and become sacrificial lambs to vastly outmatched opponents.
From the viewpoint of many trainers, many promoters already know who’s coming out victorious, but for fighters who know of the multi-million dollar payout the big names are putting in, the risk is often worth the journey.
In the eyes of Daniel Valdivia, the skill he hopes to make it big with “is only potential if you don’t follow it.”