Whilst gazing upon the heavyweight landscape it appears littered with contenders, challengers and champions.
Each striving to eclipse one another, displaying a variance of strength, speed and steel. Opportunities are sparce when world titles are held hostage or unified, yet the division’s most intriguing elder-statesman remains determined to grasp a second chance.
I caught up with Luis Ortiz (28-1-0, 24 KO’s), the Cuban enigma attempting to once again scale the ladder.
Before even speaking to ‘King Kong’, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with Doncaster’s Dave Allen. Ortiz had stopped Allen in the December of 2016, but I’d remembered the White Rhino’s description of his opponent. He told me, “When I was in the ring with him, the weird thing was that he seemed ten-feet-tall and ten-feet-wide! Just a great presence.”.
Born in Camagüey, Cuba, the thirty-nine-year-old amateur standout hadn’t always been in love with the sport. His hometown is Cuba’s third-largest city, with tourist footfall generating income in its plentitude. Ortiz reportedly closed his amateur career with an astonishing record of 343 wins and only 19 losses. I pondered his introduction to the sport, which seemingly infects the Cuban youth.
“I started boxing at ten-years-old. I was in school and suddenly a coach appeared and asked, who wanted to sign up for boxing? Everyone looked at him and we laughed. After a while, I left the classroom and asked him if the training was outside of school and he told me that it wasn’t, that only the fights [were extra-curricular].
It started to complicate my life [boxing], because at first I did not do well, but that was worse because I do not like to lose and every time I went to fight, they put me with children much older than me and with more experience! That frustrated me and it went on-and-on…”
From speaking to Cuban champions such as Guillermo Rigondeaux, the Barthelemy brothers and Yunier Dorticos, I’d become fixated on their amateur system. The prohibition of professional boxing from 1961 had allowed them to become an exceptional breed in the unpaid ranks. The most successful Olympic nation, Ortiz never tasted the podium. Or the squad.
Boxing was more than just a sport, it seemed, as he opened up on its place in his DNA. We discussed the early days, with Luis joking, “My mother, when she found out that I was boxing, told me to leave urgently, but I did not listen to her!”
“I told my father what was happening and he was happy. I did not know he was a boxer! My uncles then told me that [my father] was good, but studies and work did not let him continue and he passed my family inheritance to me!”
Becoming proficient in the art of boxing has never been an issue for the Cubans. Having a professional platform to succeed, profiting from television exposure and World championships has been forbidden, unless their boxers opt for defection. ‘King Kong’ had little choice.
“At that time my daughter was very sick and her condition has no cure, but my wife understood me when I told her I had to leave to improve her health. I thank God that this country [America] welcomed me.
“The sacrifice that one has to give [is the hardest part], but at the same time boxing is a passion, boxing is my life. Leaving all my family behind, my childhood, my friends. Everything has been for one thing; my daughters and my family. When a man has children, everything is complicated everything we do is for the love for our children.”
Now happily residing in Miami, Florida, Ortiz seems at peace with his surroundings. He was thankful for the opportunities that had presented themselves, where others would bemoan boxing’s politics.
Following a brief stint with Matchroom in the UK, the supreme counter-puncher had settled with a familiar name (as opposed to face). “I have to thank Al Haymon and also, Luis de Cubas Jr for the opportunities, but I have a desire to continue fighting! If they avoid me, I will wait for the right moment.”
It could be argued that Luis Ortiz is known amongst boxing fans for two things; his world title challenge opposite Deontay Wilder, and failing drugs tests.
On firstly tackling the subject of failed tests, Luis was open. Initially reported in September 2017, the WBC had revealed a positive test containing two forms of diuretic. Scuppering his chance of facing Wilder that year, Ortiz was devastated, yet realistic.
He started, “Craig, this [drug testing] helps the athletes and sportsmen, not to abuse prohibited substances and reminds them not to use them…”
Following up the initial question around his thoughts on VADA testing, I asked his feelings on the failed test last year, specifically. He had claimed then that the test had been affected by his medication which, naively, he hadn’t disclosed to VADA.
“For me personally, I feel very bad, because they supposedly said that I had 0 to 0.2 % [in my blood]. However, in the second test it seems that it wasn’t proved! I am the type of person that keeps fighting and I can tell you, I am still getting ready for my next opportunities!”
Ortiz was eventually granted his opportunity to wrestle the WBC heavyweight crown from Alabama’s own, Deontay Wilder. The fight was staged in Brooklyn, on March 3rd, earlier this year.
The Barclays Center was bouncing, crammed with over fourteen thousand fans, many of whom believed Ortiz was too old to succeed. The rest were Cuban-Americans, in attendance to pay homage to a fighter that personified their struggle. He had finally transitioned from the awkward, undercard fighter, to the headline attraction.
‘King Kong’ had revisited New York, coming agonisingly close to causing the upset. The 7th round was astonishing, with the champion barely standing and being rattled by a barrage from the Cuban. It was scored a 10-8 round, as a result of Ortiz’s dominance, with Wilder taking the next round to re-group. Believing in his own fitness, Ortiz had thrown everything at Wilder, but sadly to no avail.
“Many things happened that day.”, he told me. “I was awake from eight in the morning, normally I have trouble sleeping at night and there were many factors that day against me. But, I will tell you honestly, that what defeated me was my fatigue – not Wilder. Hopefully another chance will come!
“That is boxing. I can tell you that the desire to be the World champion has not been taken away. I just hope another opportunity, from God, to be the best at my job [presents itself].”
After his defeat to Wilder, Ortiz had critics lining up to lambaste his performance, paying particular attention to his age. On paper, almost forty-years-old, there are those who claim the man from Camagüey could infact be older – only adding to his mystique.
Throughout our conversation, he demonstrated an awareness that the clock was ticking. His patience was admirable, yet he clearly hungered for another chance to fulfil his ambition. A bout with Anthony Joshua had been mooted, briefly, as had an eliminator with Dillian Whyte, yet neither had come to fruition.
“I don’t know how many fights [or years] I have left. I don’t [care]. I’m one hundred percent in condition, why do you think Joshua does not want to fight with me? They avoid me because I’m a great danger for all!
“I don’t know what happened to [their fight with] me and they have already made boxing a business, but we boxers, we fight for honour and to fight with the best!”
Although entirely confident in his ability to capture a world title, I could sense Luis’ need for urgency. With the four recognised belts tied up between only two men, he knew that boxing as a professional wasn’t as simple as it had been with vests and headgear. Back then, the winner was the winner. Back then, it was usually Luis Ortiz.
It had been touching to see Wilder and Ortiz bond over their daughters post-fight, both afflicted with illness. It served as a reminder that life is bigger than boxing, sometimes.
The man they call ‘King Kong’ trades punches with giants, to provide for his family, hastily relocated from Cuba to Miami in pursuit of greatness. I agreed with what Dave Allen had told me previously, Luis Ortiz was ‘just a great presence’.
“What’s happened Craig, is that I have always had my goals fixed, and what little I have achieved, I would liked to have achieved younger. Boxing is my life.”
Article by: Craig Scott
You can follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209