Victor Ortiz and the Warrior's Code

Other than the very sad news of the death of Alexis Arguello, the talk of the boxing world this week centered on Victor Ortiz’s loss last Saturday night to Marcos Maidana and what it means for the future of Ortiz, and the future of the sport. ↵

↵It may seem strange that a single loss prompted such a widespread wringing of hands, but so it is in the very strange world of Boxiana, where illusion and reality are always in cahoots, and where every great prospect is only one loss away from being a has-been in the eyes of the ever-fickle media. ↵

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↵That said, Ortiz’s loss was no ordinary loss. This is a fighter tagged with the burden of enormous expectations. A Mexican-American possessed of a flashy smile and youthful charm, Ortiz has been called by many the second coming of Oscar De La Hoya. Oscar himself invested a lot of money on that comparison bearing fruit, signing Ortiz to Golden Boy Promotions and then promoting him out the wazoo. Increasingly, Ortiz was THE face of Golden Boy (or at least their only significant face under the age of 35) and the Maidana fight was his coming-out party, his first bout as an HBO headliner. ↵

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↵It was also his first truly tough fight, and he did not pass the test. That he lost, however, was only a fraction of the story. In a bloody battle that appeared destined for Fight of the Year stature, after five rounds of back-and-forth swinging for the fences that saw four total knockdowns, Ortiz (way up on the scorecards at that point) essentially pulled a “no mas” in the sixth round, getting up from a knockdown and signaling to the referee with a gesture to his cut right eye that he was done for the night, that he wanted no more of what Maidana was cooking. The referee, seemingly as a courtesy, referred Ortiz to the ring doctor, who promptly instructed the ref to stop the fight, and thus the official record shows that the fight was stopped on the advice of the doctor to a cut caused by a punch, making Maidana the winner by technical knockout. ↵

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↵But those of you who watched the fight know the truth: Ortiz quit. If you doubted the evidence of your eyes, you needed only to listen to Ortiz’s summation of the situation to HBO’s Max Kellerman in the post-fight interview. With one eye nearly swollen shut and the other not too far behind, he explained his actions by saying, "I was hurt… I’m not going to lay down, I’m not going out on my back to anyone. That way I can speak well when I’m older.” In response to a later question about his future, he said, “We’ll see what happens. I’m young, but I don’t think I deserve to be getting beat up like this. So I have a lot of thinking to do." ↵

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↵More than the fact that he quit, this guileless admission of his thought process in the moment shocked the boxing universe. There is a code in this sport, perhaps unfair, that you go down with the ship, go out on your shield, fight to the bitter end, etc. To have a fighter so openly flaunt that code in the ring, on national television no less, was not something bound to be overlooked among hard-boiled fistic observers. Clearly, the powers-that-be at Golden Boy were not pleased with his comments, because by the time the post-fight press conference rolled around, Ortiz’s tune had changed dramatically, if not convincingly. He claimed that he had wanted to keep fighting to the end but the doctor stopped the fight. Oscar De La Hoya and Richard Schaefer (Golden Boy CEO) both aggressively echoed that sentiment. The revisionist history campaign was under way. ↵

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↵They should have known, however, that there would be no undoing what had been said in the ring, and that trouble was afoot. Fellow promoters Bob Arum of Top Rank and Gary Shaw of Main Events swooped on the situation like vultures on a hot carcass. Arum (from whom Golden Boy stole Ortiz in 2005) blasted Ortiz for being a known front-runner without heart, and then blasted Golden Boy for having no decent fighters, and then blasted HBO for giving Golden Boy so many exclusive dates in 2009 when Golden Boy is increasingly unable to deliver any respectable fights (let it never be said that the Bobfather won’t put a shoestore on you when you’re down on the canvas). Shaw was similarly brutal, expressing disgust at Ortiz’s words and actions. “The kid quit,” he told Michael Marley of the Examiner. “He quit like a dog.” ↵

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↵In a Tuesday press release from Golden Boy, Ortiz expressed regret for what he’d said. “I made some comments after the fight that were an emotional response to the loss,” he explained. “I take full responsibility for my words and actions, but I didn’t mean what I said.” ↵

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↵Predictably, the blogs have been merciless with Ortiz all week, and also on De La Hoya and Golden Boy. “It’s in his genes,” Gary Shaw said of Ortiz’s “no mas” routine, which was undoubtedly a shot at De La Hoya and his reputation as a front-runner during his boxing career. This has been the tenor of most of the invective from the blogosphere all week, a dismissal of Ortiz as ODLH Lite: nice smile, lots of hype and a quitter when the going gets tough. ↵

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↵I wonder if Ortiz will be able to shake off the stigma of the Maidana debacle, and if he does, how long it will take to happen. Personally, I’ve never been one to insist that a fighter be willing to die in the ring. I’ve always been uncomfortable judging a man on that index. Boxers do die in fights. It happens all the time. And every time it does it makes me heartsick and fills me with doubt about this sport that's so much a part of my life. I’m all for these guys suffering less permanent damage as opposed to more, and whenever a fighter is excoriated for daring to talk about his concern for his own well-being, I feel like it’s unfair. You won’t find other fighters throwing those kinds of stones around, and they don’t live in the glass houses that we keyboard warriors do. ↵

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↵But here’s the thing about Victor Ortiz – if he can’t handle getting hurt, he has two choices: get better, or get a new job. As much as I don’t want fighters to suffer irreparable harm in their fights, there’s simply no getting around the fact that boxing is necessarily about “playing with pain.” Like, ridiculous amounts of pain. If you’re Roy Jones in his prime, if you’re Floyd Mayweather, well, you can minimize that aspect of the gig. Boxing wasn’t that hard a hustle for Roy back in the 90’s because nobody could hit the man. You don’t get hurt if you don’t get hit. ↵

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↵But Victor – based on the evidence from last Saturday night, if you have a reasonably accurate right hand from the conventional stance, you can’t miss the kid in there. Marcos Maidana is one very tough, very able boxer, but he does not look to me like he has remarkably good handspeed. And yet his overhand, looping right found Ortiz’s face over and over as if there was a magnetic attraction between glove and chin. ↵

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↵Ortiz handled being stunned very well – I’ll grant him that. He got up from a knockdown in the first round and fought back gamely, even though he was clearly dazed. But when the serious pain arrived, he fell apart almost immediately. His blood was flowing, his eyes were swelling, and he threw in his own towel almost immediately, even though he was winning the fight, even though it had been a seesaw battle to that point and he was likely only one big shot away from turning the tide back in his favor. ↵

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↵This is not the kind of mettle that will get you very far in the hardest game. In a moment of weakness, Ortiz admitted to America that he’s having his doubts about his own fighting spirit. I have to imagine his promoters and managers are having the same doubts. How much more money and time are they going to be willing to invest in a man who is so easily hit, and so easily and dramatically folds under duress? To succeed at the highest level as a boxer, you have to prevail over great pain. Unless, as I’ve said, you’re Floyd Mayweather. So Victor, that’s what you’re up against as far as I can see. Get great, or get lost. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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