For super middleweight world titleholder Gilberto "Zurdo" Ramirez there is good news and there is bad.
The good is that, with Badou Jack vacating his belt and moving up in weight and with James DeGale suffering a recent title loss, most view Ramirez as the top 168-pound boxer in the world, and Top Rank promoter Bob Arum told ESPN that Ramirez could fight as many as four times this year.
The bad news is that many of the biggest potential fights in the division have not been available to Ramirez while the eight-man World Boxing Super Series tournament plays out. The tournament semifinals begin next week and the finals will take place in May.
But Ramirez isn't about to go idly waiting for a significant fight so he will remain active and defend his title for the third time when he meets Habib "Wild Hurricane" Ahmed on Saturday night in the main event of the Top Rank ESPN card at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.
In the co-feature, junior bantamweight world titleholder Jerwin Ancajas (28-1-1, 19 KOs), a 26-year-old southpaw from the Philippines who is co-promoted by Manny Pacquiao, will make his American debut in his fourth defense against Israel Gonzalez (21-1, 8 KOs), 21, of Mexico.
The card will air live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes beginning at 10:15 p.m. ET, with preliminary bouts involving blue-chip lightweight prospect and 2016 Olympian Teofimo Lopez Jr. (7-0, 6 KOs) and super middleweight contender Jesse Hart (22-1, 18 KOs) airing on ESPNEWS, beginning at 9 p.m. ET.
Ramirez said he would have liked to have been part of the tournament in which world titleholder George Groves and British rival Chris Eubank Jr. will meet in one semifinal and British contender Callum Smith will face former light heavyweight world titleholder Juergen Braehmer in the other.
"I've been following all those guys," Ramirez told ESPN. "Let's make it happen with the winner of the tournament. I would like to be there. I want the good fights. I couldn't participate so I want to look good here against Ahmed. All the guys (remaining in the tournament) are good fighters. But I don't care who wins. I only care about the winner because that is who I want to fight. I don't have any preference."
Arum said the World Boxing Super Series organizers made a play to have Ramirez (36-0, 24 KOs), a 26-year-old southpaw from Mexico, join the tournament when it was being put together last summer.
Arum was reticent to allow him to join, not because he wasn't intrigued by the concept but because he was unsure if they could pull it off.
"The tournament organizers made a big, big pitch to have Zurdo enter the tournament, but I was reluctant to go in on the basis that we didn't have any confidence in the tournament," Arum said. "It seemed preposterous to me, but they are proving themselves. They've been quality fights and quality productions. I think Zurdo would have done well but I didn't want to take the chance knowing what we had going on in the U.S. (with the new Top Rank-ESPN partnership)."
But Arum said he would be open to matching Ramirez with the eventual WBSS winner.
"They're the caliber of guys I'd like him to fight, but the tournament has to run its course," Arum said. "Let's see who wins it."
"I told Gilberto Ramirez I am taking your world title belt and bringing it home with me. I will not leave the United States without it. He knows what I want and he knows I am going to win this fight to help my family and lift the spirits of everyone in Ghana the same way Azumah Nelson did when he went to America."Habib Ahmed
Meantime, Ramirez is expected to shine against Ahmed (25-0-1, 17 KOs), 27, of Ghana, who will be fighting outside of his home country for the first time against by far his most notable opponent. Ahmed is so obscure that it's almost impossible to find video of any of his fights, though Top Rank managed to secure some footage in order to scout him.
The fight is clearly a showcase for Ramirez (36-0, 24 KOs), who is coming off a very tough battle against Jesse Hart, whom he outpointed in September in one of the best fights of 2017.
"He's a decent fighter, he's undefeated," Arum said of Ahmed. "I rely on my matchmakers (Brad 'Abdul' Goodman and Bruce Trampler). They showed me a video and I glanced at it. What the f--- was I going to see? They said he was a respectable opponent and that he'd give Ramirez a good fight and I said, 'Go for it.' I wanted a decent opponent to give him a good fight and that's what my matchmakers delivered. It's not a division replete with American fighters and you can just get a name everyone recognizes."
Ramirez said he saw a couple of videos of Ahmed and thought he looked like a good fighter.
"We know he has skill. He comes very prepared. He's very motivated. I hope he comes prepared to put on a great show. I want to keep my belt so I've been training really, really hard for this fight."Gilberto Ramirez
"We know he has skill. He comes very prepared," Ramirez said. "He's very motivated. I hope he comes prepared to put on a great show. I want to keep my belt so I've been training really, really hard for this fight."
Hector Zapari, Ramirez's trainer, admitted they know very little about Ahmed, but that it didn't mean they would take him lightly.
"We don't know much about Habib Ahmed but he's unbeaten and we consider him very dangerous," Zapari said. "No one knew much about Azumah Nelson when he first came to the U.S. and look what he did."
Nelson, the International Boxing Hall of Famer and Ghana's most revered fighter, came to New York as a complete unknown and as a late substitute opponent to challenge the great Salvador Sanchez for his featherweight world title at Madison Square Garden in 1982. Although Sanchez stopped him in the 15th round, Nelson gave him an extremely tough and competitive fight and then went on to win world titles at featherweight and junior lightweight and become an all-time great.
Ahmed, who has never been knocked down, hopes to follow in Nelson's footsteps.
"I come very a poor part of Ghana. The boxers there really struggle," said Ahmed, who was 101-18 as an amateur and on his country's national team. "You hope a promoter calls you from the U.S. so you can fight and make money for your family. For me, my dream came true. I am in Texas.
"I told Gilberto Ramirez I am taking your world-title belt and bringing it home with me. I will not leave the United States without it. He knows what I want and he knows I am going to win this fight to help my family and lift the spirits of everyone in Ghana the same way Azumah Nelson did when he went to America. Ramirez seems like a nice person. He doesn't talk much. But his people watched me train and they know what I am about to take home -- his world title belt."
It's that kind of attitude from Ahmed that makes it easy for Ramirez to get up for the fight even if nobody has ever heard of his opponent.
"I know he's really motivated to fight me so I am motivated to fight him," he said. "My goals are to maintain my belt, keep winning and be the best in the 168-pound division. I want a good fight and a big fight. I want to clean up the division. I wasn't all the belts and I want to be the top pound-for-pound fighter. I will prove Saturday why I am the champion.
"After that I want a unification fight. I want to fight the winner of the tournament. First things first -- I want to win this Saturday."