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Luis Ortiz: The heavyweight division’s new danger man

Latest Luis (Photo Credit: Alex Menendez – HoganPhotos/Golden Boy Promotions) By Paul Lam: Former Cuban amateur standout and current WBA interim heavyweight champion Luis ‘The Real King Kong’ Ortiz established himself as a major player in the division with his destruction of former world title challenger Bryant Jennings on Saturday night on HBO ‘Boxing After Dark’. Ortiz made his presence and power felt from the first round as he connected with some thudding blows that shook Jennings to his core and battered him around the ring.

Lesser heavyweights would have wilted after being dominated so emphatically in the opening stanza, but Jennings fought back bravely in the next few rounds, landing his fair share of shots. However, they lacked the mustard to budge or slow down the bigger man, while Ortiz’s shots repeatedly and visibly hurt Jennings.

In the seventh round, Ortiz knocked down Jennings with a hellacious uppercut that would have turned the lights out for almost any other heavyweight on the planet. A courageous Jennings somehow made it to his feet, but his legs were gone. A right to the head send him sprawling into the ropes and a follow-up left prompted the referee to correctly step in and call a halt to proceedings.

This is easily the biggest win of Ortiz’s career to date. While he had looked impressive building up an undefeated record of twenty-three victories with twenty coming by way of knockout, all had come against woefully overmatched opposition. His resume includes names such as well-known journeyman Monte Barrett, way-over-the-hill former contender Smokin’ Bert Cooper and Lateef Kayode, a natural cruiserweight. Ortiz’s TKO victory over the last-named opponent was later changed to a ‘No Contest’ after he failed a drug test, an incident over which Ortiz, for his part, has vehemently protested his innocence.

What could have proved a significant bump on the road for a fighter advancing in age would appear however to hold little relevance now in light of Saturday’s outcome that hammered home a statement eclipsing the meaningless WBA trinket which Ortiz retains. At thirty-six years of age, Ortiz is already past what are considered a boxer’s prime years. He and his team know that they have to move fast to exploit the small window of opportunity that is available to him. That window has now been opened significantly for him. Jennings is a world class heavyweight with an iron chin who went twelve competitive rounds with Wladimir Klitschko earlier this year without ever being in trouble. Ortiz put the hurt on him from the start and demolished him in exciting and emphatic fashion.

Having firmly established himself as a top ten heavyweight, this is only the beginning for Ortiz in his pursuit of championship glory. In addition to his age, he faces the challenge of avoiding the specter of failure hanging over those of his countrymen who have similarly sought boxing’s top honours and fallen short. Cuban amateur boxing stars who have defected to seek glory in the professional ranks have historically had mixed success. For every Joel Casamayor, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Erislandy Lara there has been a Yan Barthelemy, Yordanis Despaigne or Umberto Savigne. Ortiz will no doubt be aware of the salutary tale of his compatriot Odlanier Solis, an Olympic gold medallist who could, with his talent, quite conceivably have become a force to be reckoned with in the heavyweight division.

Instead, he lapsed into laziness and gluttony, culminating in a pathetic capitulation at the hands of forty-three-year-old Tony Thompson earlier this year which effectively ended his career as a meaningful fighter. Solis weighed in at a career high of 271 ¾ lbs at a height of only 6 ft 1 in and retired on his stool after an 8th round pummeling. In contrast, another compatriot and fellow amateur standout, albeit on the other end of the weight spectrum, Guillermo Rigondeaux, has won world titles and is still the undefeated lineal champion in the super bantamweight division, but has failed to make waves amongst fans due to his perceived ‘boring’ style.

It is hard to see Ortiz’s career faltering for any of these reasons. He has a reputation as a gym rat and, as evidenced by Saturday night, fights in a manner which can only be described as crowd pleasing. And fight he can! His Cuban amateur pedigree has honed the boxing skills to complement his physical gifts of power, strength, speed and athleticism. At 6ft 4 in, he has the size to compete with modern heavyweight behemoths. And it is hard not to be impressed by his calm, patient and thoughtful approach in the ring.

Ortiz wears the serene mask of a cool assassin, almost like a giant version of Gennady Golovkin plying his trade. This is a calculating and intelligent fighter at work, not some crude, uncoordinated slugger. Perhaps most importantly, Ortiz has the motivation required to reach the stratosphere of the sport. He has often talked about how he was inspired as a child watching Muhammad Ali on a blurry TV screen in Cuba. He’s endured abject poverty in his homeland and a well documented danger-fraught journey to reach the United States and carve out a professional career. He has a young family to provide for, including a daughter who suffers from a rare illness. Add to all of this the allure of making history by becoming the first Cuban heavyweight boxing champion, and it’s hard to overcome the palpable sense that destiny could be on his side.

There are a few unanswered questions. We’re yet to see his chin truly tested by a fellow heavyweight power puncher. I would personally like to see him throw more punches and invest more in a body attack, something which the critics highlighted during and after the Jennings fight. And until he goes the full twelve rounds, we won’t know how he will handle himself in the ‘deep waters’. Hopefully we will be seeing answers to these questions sooner than later.

Ortiz has made it clear that he wants to face the best in his division, referring to both Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, the current heavyweight kings, by name. These would be terrific matchups and involve legitimate danger for either belt-holder. Let’s remind ourselves that Deontay Wilder’s best opponent is still Bermane Stiverne, who was arguably never an elite heavyweight, and while Fury’s victory over Wladimir Klitschko was fully deserved and a fine achievement, his remaining resume is also rather thin. In Ortiz, they might well be facing the most complete heavyweight around today.

Match-making is of course easier said than done thanks to the malignant politics of boxing. Only time will tell whether Ortiz can realize his ultimate dream of becoming heavyweight champion of the world, but who would put it past him after all he has overcome to get to this point? For now, boxing fans can warmly welcome the new danger man in a rejuvenated heavyweight division as the year draws to a close and salivate at what potentially lies in store in 2016.

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