Meet Manager Rick Mirigian, who’s fulfilling his dreams one deal at a time
This is one in a series of backstories on boxing managers who are making an impact on the sport today.
The idea died on the steps with him, Rick Mirigian thought. He sat there, shaking his head in his hands, questioning himself, what did I do? The gauzy, evening dusk had passed into the dead night.
Along with, it seemed, Mirigian’s colossal dream.
He orchestrated everything to the minute detail. He rented the Rainbow Ballroom in downtown Fresno, California. He got permits. He paid security. He put up fliers on bus stops and telephone poles. He adhered to the public licensing requirements. His big event was scheduled to open at 9 p.m.
There was a glaring problem: No one showed up. An hour later, thinking it was a late-arriving crowd, and still no one.
Ninety minutes later—still no one.
A major miscalculation, he perceived, throwing a public dance party, at $10-a-head, on the Fresno State campus. He expected to get a huge crowd off the Fresno State-UMass basketball game Saturday night, Nov. 22, 1997. And no one. He told the deejay to shut everything down. He went out outside, sat on the front steps, and cupped his face in his hands, thinking, damn, I blew my college loan and financial aid package on this.
That’s when he looked up—and saw a wave of people approaching him. Cars began lining the street like the final fading scene in Field of Dreams.
“Someone told me the game just let out,” Mirigian recalled. “That event launched me.”
He sold the place out. He was 19, and walked away with $13,000 in a shoebox filled with wrinkled $5- and $10-dollar bills that he dumped on his mother’s living room floor.
Mirigian, 43, finds himself in a unique place in boxing. He’s one of the sport’s top managers, yet has only one client—WBC/WBO junior welterweight titlist Jose Ramirez (25-0, 17 knockouts). Though he’s brokered deals for numerous fighters, like when WBO junior lightweight titlist Jamel Herring fought in Fresno last November, which was essentially coordinated by Mirigian.
Every time Ramirez, from Avenal, California, fights in the Fresno area, it’s like a primetime event. For Ramirez’s WBC title defense against Jose Zepeda in February 2019, Save Mart Arena was sold out (14,100 seat capacity).
Each time Ramirez fights at Save Mart, it’s sold out.
“Rick’s the one who makes that possible; I have great admiration for Rick,” said Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum, whose Top Rank promotes Ramirez. “I think he’s a real go-getter and he’s a tireless worker, who in my opinion is as good if not better as a promoter as he is a manager.
“He built the Fresno area, doing a magnificent job bringing in the area and the community, and the work he’s done with Jose Ramirez, who’s a great, conscientious young man. Like any young promoter, he can be abrasive and drive you crazy, but you’d rather have that than someone who bullshits and doesn’t produce.
“You can never say Rick doesn’t produce. He’s been a real asset, not only with Top Rank, Jose and the Fresno area, but he’s also built the Stockton area. He simply produces.”
It’s been a Mirigian trait since his youth.
Raised by his mother, he’s the only boy and youngest of five. His parents divorced when he was two, and he came up in a one-bedroom apartment on welfare until his middle teens. He would go to swap meets with his mother, Pauline Soto, when he was four, teaching him the art of the trade.
“My mother would beg, borrow and steal to make sure that I had everything,” Mirigian said. “My mom made sure that there was a lot of love in that small place. I used food stamps at the grocery store and I would get those strange looks.
“But I didn’t get a real good idea how poor we were until I reached middle school. I played for travel sports teams. That gave me a good dose of how other kids lived. I didn’t go to Disneyland until I was 38. I had the gamut of friends, rich, poor, every race. That’s helped me treat people with respect.
“It gave me a greater sense of understanding people.”
He needed some empathy, too.
Mirigian was born with bilateral clubfeet, a congenital birth defect that required eight surgeries on each foot. Pauline spent as much time at Shriner’s Hospital with Rick as they did at home.
He wasn’t able to normally walk until he was five. He rotated from being confined to a wheelchair after the surgeries, to wearing casts and corrective bars on his feet. His feet did not straighten out until he reached eight.
After that, nothing stopped him.
He was a two-year starter for the McLane High School basketball team and practiced with nationally ranked Fresno State under Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian.
“We were told by doctors that I would never walk straight the rest of my life, and I would definitely not play sports,” Mirigian recalled. “I had a tough mom, though. If someone stared at me in the wheelchair, my mom would tell them off. She would not allow herself to listen to anything negative about me from doctors.
“She would make sure that I didn’t believe what the doctors said. I think a lot of my no-quit attitude comes from her and those times.”
At 10, Mirigian was buying and selling Garbage Pail Kids trading cards in front of a local liquor store for eight hours. He would peddle cigarettes, though knew enough not to smoke, because Pauline would kill him.
By middle school, teachers nicknamed him “Shark,” when he was dealing Cadillac and Mercedes Benz hood ornaments. By high school, his entrepreneurial skills were blooming, buying and selling rare baseball cards.
“I knew if I wanted other things in life, this is what I would have to do,” Mirigian said. “Baseball cards, buying and selling them to other kids. You name it, I would make a deal. I didn’t care what it was.”
As a freshman, he was brokering baseball card deals, sometimes handling $20,000 a weekend. Card dealers knew they would make money from him.
After graduating high school, he thought about attending Cal Berkley, but when that was too pricey, Mirigian opted to stay home and attend Fresno State. He had become chummy with the basketball team and hit the fraternity party circuit and he noticed something.
Local police were shutting down the parties.
Mirigian began keeping a notebook for four months, even asking police why they were shutting the frat parties down. Simple: No permits.
“I thought I could publicly market something to local colleges and I got all of the permits and security that I needed,” he said. “The frats didn’t follow the rules. They didn’t think things through.”
Mirigian approached Leo Valdivia, who owned the 2,200-capacity Rainbow Ballroom and was also a boxing promoter.
“Leo looked at me like I was half crazy, and he gave me a deal on the place,” Mirigian recalled. “The normal charge was around $3,500. He charged me a $1,000 to rent the place, and everything in total came out to around $4,500 to put on with permits and security.
“I thought it would work. By 10:30 that night, no one was there. I remember sitting in front of the place wondering what I did. I lifted my head and saw this line of cars. We sold it out and I came home with $13,000. I dumped the money on my mother’s floor and my mother flipped out.
“She thought I was dealing drugs. I told her the truth. She knew I wouldn’t do anything illegal or wrong. She knew, but she was still shocked. I had everything in my bedroom from car parts, to using the dance party money to buy 61 Sony PlayStations.”
He paid 95 people to line up to buy the PlayStations at 2:30 in the morning.
Ben Soto, a firefighter and a military man, stepped into Rick’s life when he was a teenager, marrying Pauline. Today both Ben and Pauline are battling cancer, which motivated Mirigian to run the “Let’s KO Cancer” fight Ramirez had against Zepeda. The fight drew upwards of six figures in donations.
Ramirez and Mirigian are synonymous with one another. You mention one, you hear the other.
In 2010, Mirigian ran into an old acquaintance, Peter Lopes, a USA boxing coach. Lopes had been talking up someone he wanted Mirigian to see, who was fighting at a Fresno baseball stadium where Mirigian was holding MMA shows.
The kid happened to be Jose Ramirez.
Ramirez, who was 16 then, easily knocked out his opponent. Afterward, Lopes introduced Mirigian to Ramirez. They shook hands and that was it—or so Mirigian thought.
At around 1 a.m., Mirigian was up doing paperwork when he got a text from Lopes urging him to look up Ramirez. So, he Googled Ramirez and found out just how good he was. He grabbed a notepad and tallied 110 wins. Mirigian still harbored suspicions, what this kid started boxing when he was two; this was impossible.
Mirigian called up the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, asking about Ramirez. They verified everything. He asked an employee to cross reference Ramirez against the top 10 USA boxers of all-time and highlight what Jose had done.
“I looked at Jose’s numbers and that’s when things changed,” Mirigian said. “Jose’s win-to-loss ratio was among the best of all-time. I had to meet him.”
Mirigian drove out to Avenal, his mind filled with a stereotypical stigma of a kid from a hardcore background, maybe from a foster home who took up boxing to straighten out his life.
“It could not have been more opposite,” Mirigian said. “To this day, I say the same thing about Jose: He talks soft and hits very hard. He was a 3.8 GPA student, worked at Starbucks, worked in the fields, and he came from this close-knit Hispanic family.
“Jose and his family are the most amazing people. I drove home and I was thinking to myself, I have to take a chance with this kid. I drove back out to meet Jose and I wanted to start working with him then. I traveled to every shitbag city with him.”
Mirigian stopped doing everything else. He would bombard any and every boxing writer he could find about Ramirez.
Mirigian met with noted manager Shelly Finkel to gain an idea of Ramirez’ worth. According to Mirigian, Finkel figured Ramirez could get a $200,000 max from a promoter.
Mirigian wasn’t willing to accept that.
“I blew that number out of the water,” Mirigian said. “I will always respect and admire Shelly for how he treated me and told him that recently.”
Mirigian followed the Ramirez deal by making the biggest pact for the youngest fighter in boxing history, persuading Top Rank to sign Gabriel Flores Jr., who at 16 signed a six-figure deal.
“I remember Arum went crazy at first,” Mirigian said. “He said, ‘Rick you want me to sign a 16-year-old for that much money. Are you crazy?’ I said yes and watch what I do with his dad and him. These are special people.”
But Mirigian’s boxing journey didn’t begin until connecting with Ramirez—and the freedom Top Rank gave to promote him in the Fresno area.
“I still remember when Arum announced Jose’s pro debut, and I remember telling Arum, ‘I could sell tickets to you fighting, Mr. Arum.’ Arum gave me that ability,” Mirigian said. “I will always be grateful and owe Jose for giving me a chance to do what I can do. In a sport where loyalty is rare, he gave that to me.
“I will always give him everything I have and more.”
Mirigian’s first chance locally was at the West Hills College Golden Eagle Arena, in Lemoore, California, in November 2013. They were expecting 600 fans. They got 3,000.
“That started it off,” Mirigian said. “I remember after the Olympics, I asked Jose what he wanted to do with his life. We were driving home on Route 99. Jose looked out the window and saw a dirt field. He pointed at it and I remember asking him, ‘What, you’re going to move dirt?’ Jose said, ‘When that field is dry, my dad had no work. When there’s no water, there’s no jobs. There’s no food at home. I want to help with that.’
“I went home, I wracked my brain to create a situation where we could help and connect that with Jose and boxing. Only one person understood me, and that was Arum. He saw that connection with Jose and his backstory with water.”
It took off.
Mirigian, who’s promoted everyone from comedian George Lopez to Beyoncé, did seven Fight for Water events with Ramirez, retelling the story of the bell pepper picker toiling under the hot California sun, to 2012 Olympian, to eventual world titlist.
Mirigian and Ramirez don’t have a manager-client relationship. It’s more like big brother-little brother.
“Rick was very transparent and he’s been very transparent with me,” Ramirez said. “That’s what attracted me. He gets things done. I learned the business of boxing and the behind-the-scenes stuff, too. We’ve kept a very honest, open relationship.
“I owe him a lot. He earned my respect. In the beginning, it wasn’t an easy road. Rick is very creative, and he would teach me how much more we could benefit. I didn’t always see that.
“I’m a nice guy, and I would always say yes to something, and Rick would say no. It’s nothing negative. I have my own views, and he has his. He sees my perspective. I’ve walked away from deals, and he’s supported me. Sometimes Rick gets a little mad, but in the end, better things come. I can say Top Rank never really lost any money with me—and that’s money found with Rick and myself as a team.”
Ramirez then recounted a story when he was an amateur. Mirigian already had McDonald’s and some other major sponsors lined up for the budding star. This was even before Ramirez became an Olympian.
“Rick never slows down,” Ramirez said, laughing. “Sometimes I think I have to tie his shoes together to slow him down. Sometimes he stresses a lot, and sometimes you have to block his number (laughs), because he’ll call me and everyone else five times in a minute.
“Rick respects who I am and I never had to change who I am. He has a lot of faith in me, and I definitely have a lot of faith in him. I don’t want to let him down. We fight, we argue, and then we hug each other. We’ve seen each other at our worst—and we still care for each other—like all brothers do. I love the guy.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.