After Jose Ramirez finished his decorated amateur boxing career with an appearance at the 2012 Olympics, he was confident he'd have professional success and he had a plan for how his pro career would go when he signed with Top Rank.
"I knew I was going to fight for a world title within my first five years," Ramirez told ESPN this week. "It's been a little over five years -- five years and three months, but I'm fighting for a world title now."
Ramirez, whose dream to win a world title began at age 8, may have been off by a few months, but his prediction has come true.
Ramirez's five-year apprenticeship in the pro ranks will come to a head when he squares off against Amir Imam for a vacant junior welterweight world title on Saturday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"I knew I would fight for a world title but fighting at Madison Square Garden, I never imagined I would fight there, headlining in New York City. It wasn't in the picture when I visualized fighting for a world title, but it's going to be a dream come true," said Ramirez, who traveled the world as an amateur but is in New York for the first time this week for his biggest fight. "It's going to be like the perfect ending to a movie.
"I was a kid running the streets of Avenal, California, a little kid with gloves over his shoulders. I became an Olympian, I go pro and now I am going to become a world champion. It's like finishing up a chapter of a book. It will be something very exciting and very emotional if I accomplish the victory."
Also on the tripleheader, Ukraine's Oleksandr Gvozdyk (14-0, 12 KOs), 30, and Mehdi Amar (34-5-2, 16 KOs), 35, of France, will battle for a vacant interim light heavyweight world title and blue-chip featherweight prospect Michael Conlan (5-0, 4 KOs), 26, the two-time Irish Olympian responsible for selling the bulk of the tickets for the St. Patrick's Day card, will take on David Berna (15-2, 14 KOs), 27, of Hungary, in an eight-rounder. Conlan sold out the Theater for his pro debut on St. Patrick's Day in 2017. The entire card will also stream live on the ESPN App beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET.
The Ramirez-Imam fight will be the 2,000th world title bout in the WBC's 55-year history and will mark the first joint promotion between Top Rank's Bob Arum and decades-long rival Don King, who promotes Imam. It's the first fight that the 86-year-old Hall of Famers have worked on together since Miguel Cotto-Ricardo Mayorga in 2011.
Ramirez has become a star in the California Central Valley and draws sellout crowds in Fresno, where he is a local hero not only for his ring exploits but also for his tireless efforts working on community issues such as farmers' water rights and immigration.
When Ramirez (21-0, 16 KOs), 25, knocked out Mike Reed in the second round on Nov. 11, with Imam knocking out Johnny Garcia in the fourth round on the undercard to set up the title fight, there was a raucous crowd on hand cheering Ramirez's every move.
Now he is fighting thousands of miles away in New York rather than in the confines of home. While it might be a disappointment to his many fans, Ramirez said he is excited to fight on the big stage in New York.
"I was a kid running the streets of Avenal, California, a little kid with gloves over his shoulders. I became an Olympian, I go pro and now I am going to become a world champion. It's like finishing up a chapter of a book. It will be something very exciting and very emotional if I accomplish the victory."Jose Ramirez
"I'm seeing it as an opportunity to be able to showcase my talent in front of whole different crowd," he said. "It's an opportunity to go to the next level and become a superstar in the sport of boxing, to be more recognized. It's a blessing to headline on such a big, recognized stage like Madison Square Garden."
It's such a big deal that his mother, Juanita, who recently received permanent residence status in the United States, is taking her first airplane trip to watch the fight with the rest of Ramirez's family, including his 2-year-old son, and many friends.
"We all feel proud. It's something we're excited about and we look at this as something positive for my career," Ramirez said. "I'm very composed but excited to go out there and perform. A lot of people back home will be cheering me on in spirit."
A win would also have great meaning to Freddie Roach, Ramirez's Hall of Fame trainer. As much success as Roach has had Ramirez would be one of the few fighters he can take from 0-0 to a world title, along with Hall of Famer Virgil Hill and Brian Viloria.
"This will be my third time doing it and it makes me proud," Roach said. "Jose isn't going to outbox this guy. He's going to beat this guy up. We're going to attack him very aggressively."
On paper, Imam (21-1, 18 KOs), 27, of Albany, New York, is by far the most formidable opponent of Ramirez's career. He owns wins over Yordenis Ugas, Walter Castillo and Fidel Maldonado Jr. and has won three fights in a row since an upset eighth-round knockout loss to Adrian Granados in 2015. Imam was already a mandatory title challenger but took the fight as a tune-up and got knocked out of the title shot. It has taken him nearly 2½ years to get back in position.
"He's a good technical fighter. Uses his jab, has a good right hand behind that," Ramirez said. "I've been studying him a lot. He's not a fighter I take lightly at all."
As big of a deal as the fight is for Ramirez the same goes for Imam.
"(Saturday) is a big day for me and the stakes are real high for both me and him," Imam said. "It's the first time I get to fight in the Garden and that's exciting, knowing that greatness has fought there. It's the first time I am fighting in a main event and first time fighting for a world title.
"It's what I have been working for my whole life and it's finally here and I've got to take advantage of it. He's kind of tall and long just like me, so it's like seeing each other in the mirror so it is going to be real interesting and it's going to be an electrifying fight."
Should Ramirez win, his first defense will be in Fresno, Arum said.
"It's the first time I get to fight in the Garden and that's exciting, knowing that greatness has fought there. It's the first time I am fighting in a main event and first time fighting for a world title."Amir Imam
"The biggest fight will be his first title defense, and that's what I want to bring home," Arum said. "I think it enhances his image in that area winning the title and bringing home the title. That's much more dramatic than to have him win the title where he's done most of his fights. No question that his first title defense will be in the Central Valley.
"I don't think it would have been a big advantage to have his title fight against a tough opponent like Imam at home. Too much pressure. Better off to go away and fight."
Wherever Ramirez was going to get his title shot, he is just thrilled that it has arrived.
"It's definitely a blessing to make it this far as a fighter," he said. "It's quite an honor for me as a fighter to even reach this point but I'm very hungry and motivated to become a world champion and, hopefully, on Saturday night I'm going to showcase that hunger and will to win to become a world champion. I'm enjoying the moment, enjoying the week here in New York.
"I'm very comfortable and I feel very excited, a little anxious. I know I did my job as best as I could in training camp. It wasn't easy and I pushed myself. That gives me comfort this week and allows me to enjoy New York. I have very positive vibes."
Some of those positive vibes he said came when he saw his image advertising the fight on the giant marquee outside the Garden.
"Not bad for a kid from Avenal to have your picture on the big screen in front of Madison Square Garden, is it," Ramirez said. "It can't get any bigger than this for me and my family."