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Gilberto 'Zurdo' Ramirez aims for bigger fights in 2019

Super middleweight world titlist Gilberto Ramirez has a rematch against Jesse Hart scheduled for Saturday, but he wants to unify titles in 2019. Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank

When you ask Gilberto Ramirez who is the best super middleweight in the world, he doesn't hesitate to give you an answer.

"'Zurdo' Ramirez," said the defending WBO 168-pound titlist, who faces Jesse Hart (25-1, 21 KO) in a rematch Friday at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas (ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET).

Perhaps he is a tad biased -- most boxers are when it comes to their own standing in the sport -- but based on the ESPN rankings (which have him No. 1 in the division), maybe he isn't all that far off in his assessment. But for some reason, it just doesn't feel that way.

The respect that was once afforded the likes of James Toney, Roy Jones Jr., Joe Calzaghe and Andre Ward, who were once highly regarded champions in this division, thus far has eluded Ramirez.

For the 27-year-old southpaw from Sinaloa, Mexico, 2018 has been a rather uneventful campaign.

It began in February, when he scored a sixth-round stoppage of Habib Ahmed. Then in July, he went the full 12-round distance against Roamer Alexis Angulo. The late, great Bert Sugar once quipped about guys such as this that they weren't even household names in their own households. These particular fights weren't nearly as interesting as his back story.

Ramirez (38-0, 25 KO), whose in-ring style is best described as more efficient and effective than exciting, didn't exactly put forth the most entertaining of performances in these title defenses. The bottom line is that Ramirez needs some marquee dance partners -- the sooner, the better.

"I want unification fights, but right now I'm focused on Jesse Hart, and after that we want to look at unification bouts. We want bigger fights," said Ramirez, whose English is steadily improving.

Can he actually focus on Hart as he yearns for the likes of WBC belt-holder David Benavidez (20-0, 17 KO), WBA titlist Callum Smith (25-0, 18 KO) and IBF champion Jose Uzcategui (28-2, 23 KO)?

"It's not difficult," Ramirez said, "because I'm prepared for the fight. I'm prepared for the fighter, any fighter. This is a good fight. I beat this guy one time already, and then this next year will be better, I'll be better."

Speaking of Smith, the Briton might have more public support as the sport's best super middleweight after knocking out George Groves in seven rounds in late September, not only for the WBA strap but also to win the World Boxing Super Series tournament. In Ramirez's opinion, Smith is the second-best 168-pounder on the planet.

"He looked good, he looked strong," Ramirez said of his performance against Groves. "He's got power. He's got speed. He looked good."

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Ramirez beats Hart by decision.

Gilberto Ramirez retains the WBO super middleweight title by defeating Jesse Hart via unanimous decision.

A Ramirez-Smith fight would certainly be an intriguing matchup, but the reality is that often it isn't up to the fighter to make those decisions, and many times the fighters are just pawns on the chess board, moved around at the behest of the power brokers who represent them. The reality is that Benavides is under the Premiere Boxing Champions, which has output deals with Showtime and FOX, Callum Smith is promoted by Matchroom Boxing, which has a long-term association with DAZN in the U.S., and Ramirez is under the Top Rank banner, which means he is tied to ESPN.

It's a bit of a tangled web at the moment, with the various promoters having exclusive long-term deals with outlets who are all looking for high-quality content on their platforms.

"Sometimes in the business of boxing you get desperate, but the key is to be patient. That's the most important thing," said Hector Zapari, who trains and manages Ramirez. "Mexican fighters like [Juan Manuel] Marquez, they didn't get the big fights 'til the end of their career. So we don't want that, but we need to be patient, we need to keep working hard, and sometimes it may not motivate the fighters, but our job is to keep them motivated for the fights."

Since winning the title in April 2016 against veteran Arthur Abraham, Ramirez has racked up four title defenses but hasn't had anything close to a defining fight. While Ward won the "Super Six World Boxing Classic" in 2011 and Smith recently competed and won the World Boxing Super Series, Ramirez has been a belt-holder on the outside looking in for the most part.

"We've been told that the big fights will come," Zapari said. "They promised us the winner of that tournament, Callum Smith, for a unification. Also, they told us the possibility of [Gennady] Golovkin. I see that he's still undecided about his next [fight]. So we're just waiting."

Bob Arum, the head of Top Rank, also mentioned Golovkin as an option (and much of that will be on which platform GGG decides to sign with) and added the possibility of Ramirez moving up to 175 in the future. On Dec. 1, Oleksandr Gvozdyk -- who is also promoted by Arum -- captured the WBC light heavyweight title by stopping Adonis Stevenson in 11 rounds. While he would certainly be a possibility, Arum added, "I think he matches up great against [Dmitry] Bivol," who currently holds the WBA title in that division.

Or Ramirez could stay at super middleweight and look for meaningful bouts. But in 2018, as his fellow titleholders were in in the WBSS and others were in mandated fights, there weren't a lot of options for Ramirez.

"Frankly, we didn't have the resources to make the big fights for him budgetarily-wise," Arum said. "Now, it's a different ballgame. We have more money available, so we can make bigger fights for him.

"[Ramirez] has to worry about Jesse Hart because Hart is very competitive with him."

During their first encounter in 2017, Hart, 29, hit the deck in the second round, and Ramirez dominated the first half of this bout. But the Philadelphian rallied back in the late stages and closed hard down the stretch, and Ramirez found himself on the defensive in the championship rounds. Yet he was able to retain his crown by scores of 114-113 and 115-112 (twice).

It isn't a foregone conclusion that Ramirez will defeat Hart a second time.

"Everything will be changed. The defense, I'll throw more punches, be more explosive," he promised. "Everything will be different for me this time."