Highly touted two-time Olympic gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez made his professional debut in August in Philadelphia. He was matched up with unheralded Adan Gonzales, who at the time sported a 4-2-2 record. It was a fight designed to showcase the skills of the Cuban southpaw, an opportunity for Ramirez to demonstrate that he had Gonzales outclassed and the starting point for a career in which many believed he would be on the fast track to become a star.
Instead, what transpired was one of the most shocking upsets in recent memory. Gonzales simply outfought Ramirez, scoring a first-round knockdown and controlling the majority of the action the rest of the way with his aggression.
It wasn’t just a loss. From approach to guidance to execution, everything went wrong for Ramirez, and everyone involved understood that sweeping changes would need to be made.
Ramirez and Gonzales will face off a second time on Thursday at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas (ESPN, ESPN Deportes, 8 p.m. ET). As expected, much has changed for Ramirez since their first encounter, starting with a new head coach: experienced trainer Ismael Salas.
“What I saw was an amateur fighter who was not confident in the things he had to do to win the fight,” Salas said through an interpreter of Ramirez’s first fight. “I [needed] to show him that in professional boxing, you have to sit down more on your punches. He has the boxing knowledge, but I wanted to change his mindset from getting points to understanding that you have to try to hurt your opponent. You can’t be passive.”
Salas is an accomplished trainer who has worked with Jorge Linares, Danny Green, Yordenis Ugas, Yuriorkis Gamboa, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara. Salas previously boxed in Cuba and coached in the successful amateur program there. Despite being away from the Cuban scene for a few decades, he said he was well aware of Ramirez’s exploits. Although Ramirez’s management had no knowledge of the trainer’s track record, his old colleagues from the island gave Salas a strong recommendation for the job as Ramirez’s head trainer after the first fight.
“I was very happy when I got the call,” Salas said. “I knew Robeisy was a two-time Olympic champion, so the potential was there. What has happened in my career is I have [helped] fighters that have lost fights, lost a bit of confidence.”
A multitude of Cuban standouts have come into the pro ranks the past couple of decades, and the results of their transitions have been mixed. Most of the time, it is not their talent that has held them back but their defensive style. They win plenty of fights but fail to consistently entertain.
“These kids basically become brainwashed and have a negative view about professional boxing and that they’re the best with their style of boxing,” Salas said. “When they get to the professional level, they’re totally confused because it’s nothing like what they’ve been told. So it’s basically a complete change of mindset for them.”
Three of the most recently successful Cuban boxers are Lara, Rigondeaux and Joel Casamayor. Like Ramirez, all three are left-handed with strong technical ability, and they had to make adjustments to become top professionals.
Ronnie Shields, the veteran trainer who works with Lara and Rigondeaux, notes that there’s a reason Cuban boxers who lock in on the professional level win so often. It’s their tactical understanding of the game.
Shields is a bit of a purist. Unlike many boxing fans, he is about the end result and the effectiveness of his fighter inside the ring. To him, style points really don’t matter. Winning the fight does. How winning is achieved is of very little relevance to a trainer such as Shields, who wants to see his fighters come out as unscathed as possible.
This approach is in direct contrast with what many fans want to see.
“People don’t like to see them moving around the ring so much, but I love it,” Shields said. “I love for them to move around the ring because I think it works for them, and if it works, why change it? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Shields believes that winning is the most important thing, regardless of whether the style will hurt the commercial appeal. For example, in Rigondeaux’s most recent outing on Feb. 8, the first round versus Liborio Solis had way too much two-way traffic for Shields’ liking. He told his boxer at the end of the round, “What are you doing? We didn’t train for that. If you hear booing, that means you’re winning.”
Sure enough, the boos came throughout the middle rounds at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Rigondeaux earned a split-decision victory.
Trainer Joe Goossen, who helped turn Casamayor into an accomplished pro, believes that you have to add facets to the natural style preferred by these boxers rather than changing them. Getting Casamayor to be more comfortable in close quarters was something Goossen stressed.
“There’s a distinct need of an inside game, offensively and defensively, because some guys are going to force their way in on you, whether you like it or not,” Goossen said. “So you have to be prepared for that.”
Changing Ramirez wasn’t simple, but so far, the results are promising. Since his shocking defeat, he has notched three victories and looked more and more confident in each subsequent outing. On July 9, he scored a first-round KO of Yeuri Andujar, utilizing his left hand to punch with great authority.
“The Cuban boxers, when they come from the amateurs, they don’t know how to best position themselves in the ring,” Salas said. “That’s very important in professional boxing.”
That’s Salas’ plan. Instead of circling the perimeter, Salas wants to see Ramirez control the center of the ring and come forward a bit. He’d prefer his boxer be willing to commit to hard punches down the middle.
This tactic was noticeable against Andujar. In less than a minute, he scored two knockdowns and eventually a stoppage. That could be a byproduct of favorable matchmaking, but this is the mindset being stressed every day in the gym.
“I feel like he’s a great trainer, regardless of the nationality of the fighters he’s working with,” Ramirez said. “But I feel like with me, us both being Cuban, it’s made a great difference. We understand each other. Also, he’s worked with other great Cuban champions.”
Salas has been all over the globe learning different facets of the sport, but he believes being of Cuban heritage gives him an advantage in comprehending the psychology of these boxers — and that can only benefit Ramirez in the long run.
“I think I have the same relationship with all my fighters,” he said. “I try to keep all of them motivated. I feel with the Cubans, I’m at an advantage because there is no language barrier. I can really understand what they’re saying and how they feel.”
Even at the age of 26, Ramirez is very moldable as a fighter as he continues his transition into the pro ranks. Thus far, he has seemed amenable to the teachings he’s receiving on a daily basis.
“Ismael Salas is the professor,” Ramirez said. “He’s been very important in my resurgence as a fighter. He’s a person with a lot of experience in professional boxing, and he’s responsible for what you’re seeing in the ring now, all my development and my recent performances in the ring.”
Salas is bullish on his pupil’s future and excited for Ramirez to showcase how he has changed on Thursday.
“Robeisy is a future world champion,” Salas said. “He’s only 26, and I know he has the potential to become a world champion. The complete transition to becoming a professional will not be quick, but one day, he’ll be able to beat any featherweight in the world, no matter who it is.”