The memories came back to him night after night for three months. The hard ones about homeless days and beatings and a mother who berated him for years, insisting he would never be anything, and then one day just walked out, leaving Victor Ortiz with a lost father and a lost innocence.
He thought about how that father took it out on him until he was gone too and Ortiz was left to fend for himself, a teenager adrift raising a younger brother when he was just a teenaged kid himself, from time to time living with a sister who had her own difficulties, but most often, wandering alone.
The one thing that made sense through those lean years and all that pain was fighting, fighting to survive and fighting just for the joy of it. Fighting in gyms in Garden City, Kansas and later in Oxnard, Ca. after trainer Danny Garcia got to know him at an amateur show and was impressed that while other fighters were spending their per diem on themselves Victor Ortiz was buying a pair of shoes for his kid brother.
Eventually Ortiz came to California, turned professional under the guidance of Oscar De La Hoya and quickly became a rising prospect only to derail himself by quitting on a very public stage against a journeyman named Marcos Maidana two years ago. You can tap out in mixed martial arts and no one says a thing. You tap out in boxing and no one ever forgets, a fact that only added to the sadness of Ortiz’s life.
Someone suggested maybe he’d just grown weary of being hit, having felt so much of it as a boy at the hands of his own father that he’d simply had enough that night. It might have been true but boxing makes no provisions for such things. You fight or you quit. No middle ground. No explanation needed and none accepted.
That is what made Ortiz’s performance Saturday night against WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto such a joyous moment. It was not simply that he twice dropped the previously undefeated champion while getting off the deck twice himself to win a unanimous decision and his first world championship. It was that the crowning moment he’d pursued for so long, through fire and fear and despair, had finally come. Faith in himself when no one else shared it had been rewarded even though, fittingly, he had to fight for it one more time.
Finally his hand was raised. Finally, he was somebody he always thought he would be. Finally he was a champion and no one, either now or in his past, could ever take that from him.
“People can say what they want,’’ Ortiz (29-2-2, 22 KO) said after the night was done and the WBC belt hung from his waist. “I’m the guy who’s scared; who has no courage; who has no balls. Well check it out, bro, I’m the welterweight champion of the world. ’’
Ortiz’ long climb from homelessness and abuse as a child growing up in fear and loneliness on the Kansas plains had ended with one more fight but this time his hands were faster and his heart was stouter that the man assaulting him on a brutal night in which he was the assaulted as often as the assaulter.
Judges Julie Lederman and Glenn Feldman both scored the bout 114-111 for Ortiz while Clark Sammartino had it 115-110 for the new champion. While there were some who saw Berto as having pulled it out, no one argued too loudly for him, not even his loyal promoter.
“These guys are going to kill each other any time they fight,’’ said Lou DiBella, Berto’s promoter. “If ever there was a fight that deserves a rematch this is it. We have no issues.
“Victor Ortiz answered any questions there might be about his heart. He’s a big puncher. There were no losers on a night like this.’’
Actually there was and it turned out to be the 27-year-old Berto (27-1, 2 KO), who was dropped soundly in the opening round but battled back to make it close until he simply seemed to find much of the fight having been knocked out of him over the final few rounds when Ortiz rallied after having waned in the middle of the fight to claim something he had long pursued – self-respect and accomplishment.
“It goes back to when I was young,’’ Ortiz said. “I didn’t have anything when I was young. I raised my brother. I thought this was my dream. I wasn’t going to stand for anything less.
“I was moving up to 147 (from 140) but knew I carried my power. For three months, every day at the gym, I would say ‘…and the new…’’’
Saturday night the ring announcer said it too and when he did Ortiz broke into a broad smile, the same one he’s used to captivate people’s attention even in the sad days.
The beaten champion, who fractured his hand early and was the victim of so many rabbit punches to the back of the neck that Ortiz was finally penalized one point for an action that sent Berto to the hospital after the fight, even conceded this had been a night that belonged to someone else.
“I couldn’t keep him off me like I wanted to,’’ Berto said. “I just couldn’t get my punches off.’’
He couldn’t get Ortiz off him early either. The 24-year-old challenger opened with a bang, stunning Berto with a short right hand that backed him up and then sent him to the floor with three more right hands in close that included the first of what would be many booming upper cuts with over a minute still left in the first round.
Berto went down in a heap and got up on wobbly legs but managed to hold his way to safety, although Ortiz continued to press him. Yet Berto came right back in Round 2, landing a perfect counter right to the face that buckled Ortiz’ knees and sent him reeling backwards with his glove touching the canvas for a knockdown.
The two traded vicious right hands in the center of the ring early in the third round as well before Ortiz wobbled Berto again and pinned him on the ropes. By now both guys were spent, though still willing to do further damage to each other.
“I noticed he was vulnerable on the inside,’’ Ortiz (29-2-2, 20 KO) said.
“My plan was to smother his shots and overwhelm him. I did what my coaches told me.’’
What they’d told him was to stay away from Berto’s proficient right hand, instructing the young southpaw that when he threw he needed to be constantly moving away from that hand.
Ortiz did it often enough to win but not often enough to avoid being strafed by counter rights that snapped his head around and sent sweat and water flying on more occasions than felt comfortable to Garcia.
Berto began to assert himself in Round 6, controlling the distance with his jab until he landed a sizzling counter right to the chin that sent Ortiz tumbling to the floor in a way that invited the memory of what happened that night with Maidana. What choice would young Ortiz make this time?
“That was a beauty of a right hand,’’ Ortiz said. “That was my fault.’’
It was also Berto’s doing and he followed up by jumping on Ortiz and sending him into full retreat. Berto pinned him on the ropes and was shelling him with both hands until, with his back against the turnbuckle, Ortiz had to make a decision. He could give in to the chaos of the moment or he could do what he did as a kid in Kansas. He could fight back.
Suddenly, Ortiz unleashed a counter left from nowhere that sent Berto to the floor again. The champion rose clear headed but chastised and slowed his attack considerably. It was the turning point of a night that involved many more vicious exchanges but nothing that would again approach what they had done to each other in those first six rounds.
“We both went through a great war; nothing but respect,’’ Ortiz said. “It was a very exciting fight. He hits very hard. There’s no stopping Berto. I didn’t prepare to knock out Berto. I knew it would go the full distance. I pictured myself with two black eyes, but I would have the green belt.
“I wasn’t expecting an easy fight. I expected a war. I studied him and he’s no joke.’’
Neither is Victor Ortiz, who lived up to his nickname of “Vicious Victor’’ on a night when sad memories were washed away by an angry sea of punches. Where he goes next not even he knows but it would seem soon enough back into the ring with Andre Berto to continue a conversation carried on in a brutal language only fighters speak.