As the highly-touted Vergil Ortiz Jnr prepares to face Maurice Hooker in his biggest test he talks to Phil Rogers about his past, present and future
NOT every hatchet man is seduced by bloodlust. In 1634 a German executioner by the name of Meister Frantz Schmidt put pen to paper as he looked back on his 40 years in the profession. The violence he dispensed had been plentiful, yet Schmidt never grew numb to the grisly task he was asked to perform, often displaying profound empathy for his victims as they awaited their fate. In boxing, that same balance of compassion and violence has always fascinated; how so many otherwise kind and agreeable people can enter the ring and transform into such brutal and merciless combatants. One recent example is that of the up-and-coming American knockout artist, Vergil Ortiz Jnr, a young welterweight with a 100 per cent KO record in 16 fights who openly admits to feeling conflicted at the thought of the punishment his explosive fists hands out.
“I have an on and off switch. I can go into a straight killer mode and then once the fight’s over and the referee steps in then I’m like, ‘Hey man, I’m sorry’,” the 22-year-old tells Boxing News. “At the end of the day it’s just my job but at the same time, if the referee is letting them take an unnecessary beating I’m just like, ‘Come on, man. There’s really no need for it”
The Texan is clearly cut from a different cloth to your average fighter. His modus operandi is solitary, choosing to burrow into the catharsis of music and self-reflection over cultivating an entourage of starry-eyed hangers on. Any spare time is spent either gaming or exploring ideas for song writing. Being himself is more important to Ortiz than creating a false persona on social media for the sake of publicity.
“I would much rather be missing out than be someone who I’m not,” he says. “I can’t. I just can’t! I would rather know that my skills got me there rather than my personality. To be honest, I’m not really a people person. I like to be by myself. Even when I’m in my house I’m just in my room the entire time. I do care what people think but at the same time I don’t. I just do me. I was playing guitar earlier this morning. Yesterday I was playing piano. I listen to rock most of the time.”
So how this reclusive youngster became one of boxing’s most exciting young power punchers? For Ortiz it was a career path that never felt like a choice. Entering the gym by way of his father at just five years old, the noble art became as natural an extension of himself as any other childhood development. Victories soon racked up, leading to seven national amateur titles as well as gold at the 2013 Junior Olympics.
“As a little kid I always thought that if someone asks me what I want to be when I grow up, I just always said to myself, ‘I’m gonna be a boxer.’ That’s just what I always thought. So I never really had that realisation like, ‘Oh you know, this is what I’m gonna do with my life!’ because I was already doing it.”
Having made a name for himself as an amateur, Ortiz Jnr was soon being wooed by the sport’s biggest professional promoters and in 2016 he signed with Golden Boy Promotions. As is typical of GBP, their matchmaking for him has remained challenging, with the focus on polishing up a skillset that always looked destined to thrive in the paid ranks.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been easy, but at the same time I always had a professional style. In the amateurs, everyone was just trying to get the most points. Even in the amateurs I threw, I threw hard, and I threw to win. And I didn’t win all of my amateur fights [losing 20 of 160 bouts]. I didn’t fight in the amateur style, I fought like a professional. I was looking at the long run. I mean, winning national tournaments was great and all that but that’s not what I want to do. I want to win world championships on a professional level. Screw all the amateur tournaments. I was looking ahead.”
Crucial to Ortiz Jnr’s impressive development has been the addition of Robert Garcia and Hector Beltran as trainers. Alongside Ortiz Sr the team have used their vast experience and impressive stable of young talent to hone his attacking attributes to devastating effect.
“I’ve learned a lot. It’s stuff I can’t really explain. It’s more like how they’ve implemented it to my style. I don’t waste my punches so much. I’m not just throwing to throw, I make every punch count. Every punch has a meaning,” he says.
As with many, Covid-19 scuppered plans for a busy end to 2020. Yet the hype created by his most recent win, an excellent seventh round knockout of Samuel Vargas back in July, only served to fan the flames for those touting Ortiz Jnr as the future of the 147lb class. Certainly there are few more ruthless young finishers in the game, but for the reluctant showstopper it’s his defensive craft that has gone relatively unnoticed.
“I don’t get hit a lot,” he points out. “There’s been very, very few instances where I’ve got hit with a clean punch. So people are like, ‘We don’t really know how good your chin is because we haven’t seen you get hit,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, you haven’t seen me get hit!’ I feel like I do a pretty good job of not getting hit. People see me as an offensive fighter because I knock everyone out, and yeah that’s true, but at the same time I’m doing that while not getting hit. I feel like that’s hard to do. Not that Mexican style, going forward all the time but that’s taking punches to give punches. I’m giving punches but I’m not taking any.”
Ortiz Jnr’s biggest test to date was recently announced, a must-see contest against former WBO 140lbs champion, Maurice Hooker, on March 20. Once again it’s a fight that represents a stern step up in quality, and with world title aspirations at the forefront of his mind it’s a challenge Ortiz Jnr cannot wait to embark upon.
“I don’t like easy fights. And I don’t feel like my past fights have been easy fights. They’ve been tough. GBP have been trying to test me and I’ve passed every test with flying colours. But I want to show them that I’m capable of more.”