For a prizefighter, fight night is a moment to be savoured. The bout symbolises closure of an uncertain period in their life and offers them an opportunity as well as a platform to continue the pursuit of their dream. It is a chance to overcome their fears and admonish the negative comments and feelings of their detractors.
The demons, weaknesses, doubts and frustrations that may grip a boxer’s heart and soul before a major bout can be extinguished in one killer blow. Their hopes and aspirations of becoming the best and following in the footsteps of their idols can be attained by wooing the viewing public with a stand-out performance.
One such fighter who has grasped his opportunity with both hands is 37 year old WBA interim heavyweight champion Luis ‘King Kong’ Ortiz. Undefeated as a professional (25-0 – 22 KO’s), the powerful southpaw is widely regarded as the most avoided fighter in boxing and is on the precipice of achieving his lifetime ambition – fighting for the heavyweight title.
On September 17th, live on HBO Box Office, Ortiz will edge ever closer to securing that elusive title shot when he faces the giant Russian Alexander Ustinov (33-1) in a WBA world title eliminator. The victor of that bout will become the mandatory challenger to winner of the on-off rematch between Wladimir Klitschko and Tyson Fury.
Ortiz rise to prominence has been complicated and not without stress or controversy. A highly decorated amateur, Ortiz learnt his craft diligently at the famed ‘La Finca’ boxing academy in Havana; He amassed an impressive 343 victories with only 19 defeats and won numerous honours. The Caribbean island has long been a hotbed for producing the world’s finest boxers and Ortiz is no exception.
In 2009 Ortiz made a life changing and uncompromising decision to defect from his native Cuba in search of securing a lucrative professional career. His motives were not born out of greed, but purely a necessity to provide urgent medical attention for his ailing daughter. He had fought long and hard in the unpaid ranks, much like his countrymen and idols before him, Tefilo Stevenson, Felix Savon and Mario Kindelan. But fighting for the glory, love, adoration of his Cuban people alone would not provide him with the financial and medical support he demanded to change the course of his daughter’s life.
“I was desperate when my daughter was born. They found a sickness. It was something very bad, she was born with a necrosis in one of her fingers. The doctors wanted to amputate the finger and you know I was crazy” Ortiz explained emotionally during an interview with HBO
Welling up and unable to hold back the tears Ortiz continued “I told my wife that if they were going to take her finger, that they should take mine also. I wanted them to amputate my finger so that when she was born she could say – I am just like my daddy”
Out of the blue an acquaintance offered the gentle giant a lifeline, “Have you thought of leaving Cuba and going to the United States?. Because of your quality you can be someone there.”
Despite his deep love and adoration for his country, he understood that it was essential that he leave his homeland. His motives for the departure were simple and heartfelt. The decision was irreversible. Leaving behind his mother and siblings in the picturesque province of Camagüey was a heartbreaking choice to make. As a father and an honourable man, Ortiz understood there really was only one option – He must fight for money and secure the safety, prosperity and health of his children.
A treacherous late high-speed boat journey via the Gulf of Mexico was the only escape route for his young family. Having navigated the perilous 50 mile journey safely and under the cover of darkness, Ortiz settled with his wife and three children in Miami.
Blessed with the knowledge that his daughter had now fully recovered, her finger saved and no imminent signs of the illness exasperating, Ortiz forged ahead with his prizefighting career. Under the guidance of Dino Spencer he plied his trade at the world-famous Fifth Street Gym – the former stomping ground of a young Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali. As a young boy he idolised Ali. He recalls watching him at home on an old TV set and admired the way Ali changed the face of boxing. America’s greatest sporting hero transformed the opinions and beliefs of millions around the world. He was the ultimate freedom fighter and Ortiz was inspired by his skill, candour and charisma.
Ortiz turned professional in February 2010 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, knocking out Lamar Davis in just 78 seconds. His American dream had begun in earnest.
He quickly illustrated his ability to overpower his opponents. Within two years he become a menacing and destructive heavyweight prospect. He fought often and anywhere he could in order to gain experience. One by one, he knocked out journeymen in Miami, Nicaragua, Panama, Dominican Republic and Hollywood. In 2014 his team enlisted the help of revered boxing coach German Caicedo as lead trainer. A notoriously hard task master, Caicedo learnt his craft under the tutelage of Angelo Dundee. He was well-known in Miami for his endeavours in MMA and refined and cultivated the Cuban power punchers skills.
“When Luis first came to me he was a big puncher. I got him when he had won 15 fights and about 13 or 14 knockouts. He had not fought the quality of opposition that we have met together. The biggest improvement I have seen is with his patience and using his jab. I told him ‘you have the eraser at any given round or any given minute – so don’t rush it, take your time’.” explains Caicedo
I told him ‘Do the damage and lay the groundwork!’ He has been very patient and is diligent about finishing the job. I think he has learned that and that is the biggest thing he has taken away from this. He is learning how to fight like a twelve round professional, a champion. In that regard he has been a student of the game, always willing to learn and really taking a strong work ethic towards that.’
The transformation since his time with Caicedo has been remarkable. As the quality of the opposition has increased, the manner in which Ortiz has taken care of business and dispatched of his foes has been equally as impressive. Armed with the full backing of both HBO and Goldenboy Promotions, Ortiz is now a fully fledged world title contender and his dream of becoming Cuba’s first professional world heavyweight champion was edging ever closer.
However on the 11th September 2014 his rapid ascent to heavyweight glory stalled and all his hard work and sacrifice nearly disintegrated. He incurred a six-month suspension after testing positive for the anabolic steroid, Nandrolone following his first round knockout of Lateef Kayode. It is a slur and accusation that he wholeheartedly denies. But one nonetheless did irreversible damage to his reputation.
“Here’s the point: It was a very personal matter and I’m being accused of being a cheater, and my morals as a man are being questioned. That’s never been an issue with me. I have no reason to cheat, and I understand it happened. I’ve passed every test in my past. It’s not an issue. What happened set me back an entire year, and I’m ready to make that time up.” explained Ortiz unequivocally.
Since returning from his sabbatical Ortiz has lived up to his mantra “The Real King Kong”. With a 7-foot wingspan and 84 inch reach, the Cuban powerhouse has unleashed his full repertoire of murderous punching power and clubbed his last four opponents into submission. The 6′ 4″ knockout artist is the danger man in the heavyweight division and he has grabbed the attention of HBO and the American TV audience with his impressive knockout victories over tough, former heavyweight title challenger Bryant Jennings in December 2015 and wily veteran Tony Thompson in March 2016.
In May 2016, I met by chance Ortiz and his manager – Jay Jiminez in Las Vegas. They were trying to lock in a date for the WBA final eliminator against Alexander Ustinov and clearly exasperated by the draining negotiations. The world’s media were in town covering the Khan v Canelo fight and the duo utilised their time wisely to tell anyone and everyone who would listen that Luis Ortiz was willing to take on all comers, but unfortunately none of the current champions would give him an opportunity.
“It’s disappointing but that’s how the sport is,” lamented Ortiz
“I wasn’t brought up that way. But I feel once I become a world champion, I have no doubt people will line up to fight me. I want to fight the best of the best, nothing less. Until that day comes I’m going to have to position myself and stay ready, and when it comes, defend it honourably and often.”
Ortiz peered down at his inquisitors, looking every bit the champion in waiting. Tall, regal, he enjoyed the attention. He looked every bit statesman dressed in a his crisp peppermint polo and beige chinos. When asked who he would like to fight most, Ortiz’s eyes light up and the big man smiled
“Joshua!” he exclaimed.
Jiminez nodded and reaffirmed his fighters desire to take on the current IBF heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua.
“I want to fight with you, go get your belt” declared Ortiz “I want all the belts, I just hope they give me the chance” he added with a broad smile.
“I assure you that no-one wants the title more than me. I think the stars have aligned for me in 2016 to reach the very top of the division. I do not care about Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder as sincerely believe I can beat them both. On one hand they talk about me with great respect, but on the other hand they dirty my name with false claims.”
“Basically they are afraid because they know I am not for them. A lot of them talk and talk but they are clowns. But now have more motivation. The next time I see my Mum I want her to see me as the full champion”
Former undisputed champion Lennox Lewis, who is working with HBO was on hand to offer his moral support.
A victim of his own success during his heyday, he recognises the striking similarities between his own title charge and Ortiz’s current predicament. Like the Londoner in his heyday, this current heavyweight challenger will have to overcome rejection and navigate the ‘Politricks’ that plague the sport.
“Everybody evades Luis Ortiz, he is very dangerous” stated Lewis defiantly to the press.
Having sought and received affirmation from Goldenboy Promotions and HBO that his big chance would come soon, Ortiz left for Miami with a renewed sense of purpose. His trip to Las Vegas had been a positive experience on many levels. Now ensconced at the Caicedo Gym, he began training for his next battle with the understanding that victory over Ustinov would finally secure him a shot at the heavyweight title.
At 37-years-old, the WBA interim heavyweight champion has left it very late to emulate the success of Lennox Lewis and and make an inedible impression in boxing’s glamour division. Ortiz has sacrificed so much en route to achieving that ever elusive dream. With his destiny now in his own hands, he is adamant that he will make his family, country and supporters proud.
Like the late, great Muhammad Ali – a revolutionary who was also deemed to be unpatriotic due to his political and social beliefs, Ortiz is ready to shake up the the world and prove that there is an alternative to the Fidel Castro’s romantic communist ideology that “Men’s sacred values are beyond gold and money,”
In the modern world, man cannot survive and provide sufficiently for his family by fighting purely for honour and dignity alone. Luis ‘King Kong’ Ortiz understands this more than anyone. He will reclaim the acceptance and adoration of his countrymen and women when he becomes Cuba’s first ever professional heavyweight champion of the world.
In the meantime his message to his rivals Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, Tyson Fury and David Haye is clear, concise and prophetic.
“The best must fight the best, in honour of the Greatest Muhammad Ali!”
Article published in Boxing Monthly – August 2016
Note: Luis Ortiz is now signed to Matchroom Boxing and will take on Malik Scott in Monaco on November 12th