The road of a professional boxer is not often a smooth one. Victor Ortiz found a bump in his path two years ago in the form of the iron-fisted Argentine brawler Marcos Maidana. Ortiz was the rising star, full of talent and power, boasting a record of 24-1-1, his lone loss on a disqualification in a fight he was dominating and about to finish in the first round.
Maidana was the classic "step up in class", a litmus test for the wannabe contender. Ortiz knocked Maidana down three times in the first two rounds. He was right on the verge of announcing his arrival to the world stage with bombast and bravado. Yet Maidana never stopped fighting. By the fifth round, the tide had turned dramatically. Maidana was catching Ortiz flush with monster right hands. In the sixth, bloodied and beaten, Ortiz called it a night on the advice of the ringside physician.
His post-fight interview with Max Kellerman became notorious when Ortiz suggested that perhaps he needed to re-evaluate his choice of career. A little over two years later, Ortiz is two weeks away from the biggest opportunity of his life, a chance at glory and stardom if he can somehow topple the indomitable Floyd Mayweather.
The Maidana fight of June 27, 2009 raised some major questions, not just about Ortiz's somewhat lackadaisical defense, but of his fighting spirit and mettle. Was Ortiz the type who wilts when the going gets tough?
Maidana clearly out-gutted him, more willing to stand in the fire and battle and live with the consequences. Ortiz couldn't handle himself in the deep water and, in the process, set back his development significantly.
Beating Maidana would have made Ortiz a top contender two years ago at 140 lbs and he would have eventually been right in the mix with Amir Khan, Tim Bradley, Devon Alexander, etc. over the last year. Instead, he bounced back with a healthy dose of journeymen and has-beens.
In December of 2009, Ortiz rebounded by beating up on solid journeyman Antonio Diaz. He came back in February 2010 with a stay-busy fight against Hector Alatorre. He followed up with one-sided wins over faded Nate Campbell in a decision and faded Vivian Harris in a third-round stoppage.
With the backing of HBO and Golden Boy Promotions, Ortiz found himself a good opportunity in December of 2010 with a fight against Lamont Peterson, a fellow up-and-comer and divisional top 10, also rebuilding from a lone loss, to Bradley in Peterson's case.
Ortiz had Peterson outclassed from the opening bell and put him down twice early on, in what was shaping up to be an easy night. Yet as the rounds wore on, Peterson became more effective with a stiff jab and solid boxing as Ortiz seemed to take his foot off the gas pedal.
I thought Ortiz did enough to win but the judges ruled a draw. At the time, it seemed like another set-back. This was a high-stakes match with the winner potentially being set-up as another young player in a stacked division. The draw left the situation murky.
Almost out of nowhere, Ortiz found himself scooped up as an opponent for another rising young fighter, Andre Berto. Ortiz moved up to welterweight for the fight. Berto was near-unanimously regarded as the third-best fighter in the division at the time, behind only Pay-Per-View mega-stars Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Ortiz was viewed as a real underdog for probably the first time in his career.
The other thing to remember is that going into the Ortiz-Berto fight, Mayweather's own situation was an enigma trapped in a riddle. No one had any idea if he would fight this year, with mounting legal problems and virtually no comment from the Mayweather team. I don't think anyone imagined that the stakes for Ortiz-Berto included anything other than Berto's meaningless WBC trinket. These were clearly the next-best fighters behind Pacquiao and Mayweather, but by a fairly significant margin.
From the opening bell, Ortiz charged right at him, and caught Berto several times, eventually staggering him in the corner and forcing him to take a knee. Berto came back and had plenty of moments of his own, catching Ortiz with his hands down for a flash knockdown in the second round and badly wobbling and dropping him with a clean shot to the chin in the sixth. Each time Berto struck, Ortiz responded, most notably sending Berto to the canvas at the end of the sixth round with a straight left to the jaw.
Ortiz took over in the second half, clearly the man with the most energy and the least damage. The battle remains one of the top candidates for Fight of the Year honors and rightfully so. Dramatic momentum shifts and sustained action made for a spellbinding event. I never thought twice about the fact that the most prominent celebrity sitting ringside was none other than Mr. Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
Apparently, Mayweather just happened to be in the area with his good buddy 50 Cent and they decided to take in some boxing. Turned out, the greatest prize for the winner that night wasn't sanctioned by Jose Sulaiman, it was handed down by the Pretty Boy himself, "Money" Mayweather. In selecting Ortiz as his next opponent, he has given the young Mexican-American fighter his biggest payday, biggest exposure and biggest opportunity (by several thousand miles) for future fame and riches.
The road of boxing is a bumpy one, but it's not entirely unforgiving, at least not in the case of Victor Ortiz. He earned the right at redemption with a warrior's effort against Andre Berto. He had one chance to dispel the doubts about his character in the ring, and he seized that moment with one of the most memorable performances of the year. Now an even greater opportunity lies before him. How will he respond this time?