EDITOR'S NOTE: After this article went to press it was revealed that Ortiz's management, in consultation with HBO, had selected Tony Thompson as Ortiz's next opponent. The fight will be staged at the D.C. Armory in Washington D.C., which happens to be Thompson's hometown.
At one time the most treasured title in sports was being the heavyweight champion of the world. Starting with John L. Sullivan and continuing through Mike Tyson, there wasn't a time when the heavyweight champ wasn't the biggest celebrity among Hollywood stars, athletes and politicians. And in the sports world it wasn't close – Jack Dempsey was a bigger star than Babe Ruth, Joe Louis was more celebrated than Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali dwarfed Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlain, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and yes, Mike Tyson was bigger than Michael Jordan until he was incarcerated for rape.
Back in the day it wasn't hard for Dempsey, Louis, Ali or Tyson to find challengers. In the current climate, it seems that being or at least shooting to be the alpha heavyweight isn't nearly the priority it once was. As of this writing, there's a Cuban heavyweight named Luis Ortiz 24-0 (21) who holds the WBA Interim title and was tentatively scheduled to fight March 5th on HBO. Ortiz looked sensational in his last bout when he stopped the ever willing and tough Bryant Jennings 19-2 (10) in the seventh round. Well guess what? Nobody wants to fight the 6-foot-4 240 pound Ortiz because they say there isn't enough time to get ready or enough money involved to take the risk?
According to ESPN.COM the list is growing in regards to the fighters or their handlers who have turned the fight down: Andy Ruiz, Andrey Fedosov, Carlos Takam, and former title-holder Bermane Stiverne. And to the heavyweights that said five weeks wasn’t enough time to get in shape – shame on them. A professional fighter should always be in shape. Big fights on short notice are a staple of professional boxing.
Fringe contender Alexander Dimitrenko 38-2 (24) who was supposed to be Ortiz’s opponent recently pulled out. Can you believe Dimitrenko, 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, could walk away from a high profile fight against Ortiz, even after Ortiz’s promoter Golden Boy upped his purse? Moreover, he hasn't won a noteworthy bout since 2008 when he stopped Luan Krasniqi, and then lost the biggest fight of his career against Eddie Chambers in his next outing eight months later.
How's this for perspective? Archie Moore took $800 to fight Joey Maxim in the 1950's, just to finally get the light heavyweight title. And Moore also mounted a campaign to challenge heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano a few years later. Have things gotten so bad that a supposedly hungry heavyweight won't take $300,000-$500,000 for a chance at the title against the guy who just may be the best heavyweight in the world? Exactly where does Dimitrenko think his career is going? If he lost to Ortiz but was moderately competitive he'd get another decent fight. Not to mention he'd probably be the next man up to fight the winner of the Fury-Klitschko rematch.
Today, there aren't any great heavyweights, I mean authentically great. With Wladimir Klitschko having lost to Tyson Fury, I wouldn't be surprised if the title changed hands every time it's on the line by the defending belt holder. And with the talent pool so pedestrian it's paramount to be in peak condition at all times. How many heavyweight bouts have we seen over the years where if the lesser talented fighter was in great shape, he just might have defeated the man for whom he was supposed to be just a stepping stone? Since most of the top fighters in the heavyweight division are somewhat equal in talent and skill…..heart, determination and conditioning makes a huge difference. Add in a technical tweak here or there and the results might be different.
Granted, Luis Ortiz is a very skilled southpaw heavyweight. He's a sound boxer with power and is more than adequate fighting inside or outside. But let’s be honest, he isn't the hardest working heavyweight you've ever seen and even against Jennings, despite controlling most of the fight, he did need to come up for air and catch a breather after owning the first three rounds. Ortiz may be the best heavyweight on the scene today, but he is 36 years old and isn't unbeatable by any means.
Former title challenger Tony Thompson 40-6 (27) stated that he would fight Ortiz but it's up in the air as to whether HBO would approve Thompson, 44, a 6-foot-5 southpaw with no power and best known for being stopped by former champ Wladimir Klitschko twice in title bouts in 2008 and 2012. Thompson also lost his last bout via decision to Malik Scott in October of last year, so it's easy to glean why Thompson is willing to get paid for being a sacrificial lamb knowing that he's never going to get another shot at the ultimate prize in boxing again.
As recently as Saturday 2/6/16 it started circulating via the Internet that Ortiz may fight Alexander Ustinov 33-1 (24) in place of Dimitrenko. Ustinov is 6-foot-7 southpaw who lacks any semblance of hand and foot speed and isn't much of a puncher. His best win was against then 40 year old David Tua in late 2013. Tua was so out of shape and far gone as a fighter he couldn't get out of his own way, and that was before he touched gloves with Ustinov. Ustinov flailed through 12-rounds with Tua and won a unanimous decision. Alexander understands if he fights Ortiz that he was chosen simply because he has an impressive record on paper. However, he's 39 and knows time is not on his side. If he loses, he was supposed to and if he won he'd be in position for even bigger money in his next fight. But if nothing else, he gets it and realizes if you don't take a chance you don't stand a chance. Alexander understands that he's not a special fighter and is in boxing to make money, and in the heavyweight division, because they all can punch, once he's in the ring with Ortiz, he's never further than one shot away from being an overnight sensation.
With the landscape of the current heavyweight division, fighters should be making all the noise they can with the hope of getting Ortiz in the ring so they could be the first to beat him. Yet, all we hear are crickets. With the division being so wide open today, you'd think there would be more fringe contenders stalking Ortiz the way Shannon Briggs stalked Wladimir Klitschko before Klitschko lost to Tyson Fury.
Based on the silence when it comes to finding a worthy opponent for Luis Ortiz, I must conclude that there's a real lack of pride in the heavyweight division. And that is said with the notion that I fully get that Ortiz's management may be low-balling potential opponents. And it's not like Ortiz is the next Joe Louis or Sonny Liston, so why not take the money and give it your best shot, fully recognizing that the deck is stacked against you?
Being the heavyweight champ in 2016 certainly isn't what it used to be, and because of that the fighters seem to lack the pride and gumption their title-holding predecessors had.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com