How Vergil Ortiz Jr.'s passion for music helps him in the boxing ring

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

A fondness for video games led to a passion for music for Vergil Ortiz Jr., the undefeated knockout artist who is unlike pretty much any other fighter in the sport’s history. And that passion for music has enabled a focus that has made him arguably boxing’s top fighter 22 years or younger.

There have been KO artists before, and Ortiz has been compared many times to two of them, the legendary Hall of Famer Felix Trinidad and the popular super welterweight Fernando Vargas.

But comparing Ortiz to them, two of the most intimidating fighters of recent vintage, is a non-starter, like comparing a wolverine to a golden retriever puppy. Ortiz is intimidating enough, and hasn’t lost a round as a pro, but so far, no opponents live in fear of him.

He’s soft-spoken. He’s polite. He smiles. He plays the piano. He’s just too nice. It’s hard to picture him intentionally hurting someone else.

Ortiz is kind of like the valedictorian in high school who also happened to be the quarterback on the football team, the captain of the basketball team and the best pitcher on the baseball team.

Put him in the ring with gloves on his hands and he’s a guy to fear, a hard-punching welterweight with a fantastic killer instinct who one day soon may be among the biggest names in the sport.

But put him behind the organ at church and he’d seem like the kid who grew out of being an altar boy but helps out now by leading the choir.

Boxing has a lot of elite young talents, and Ortiz is among those who have a chance to turn around the sport in the ensuing generation. He returns to action on Friday (8 p.m. ET, DAZN) to face Samuel Vargas, his toughest opponent to date, in the main event of a Golden Boy-promoted event at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California.

Vergil Ortiz Jr. enters the ring for his fight against Antonio Orozco at The Theatre at Grand Prairie on Aug. 10, 2019, in Grand Prairie, Texas. (Photo By Tom Hogan/Golden Boy/Getty Images)
Vergil Ortiz Jr. enters the ring for his fight against Antonio Orozco at The Theatre at Grand Prairie on Aug. 10, 2019, in Grand Prairie, Texas. (Photo By Tom Hogan/Golden Boy/Getty Images)

On Sunday, five days before he’d put his 15-fight KO streak on the line against Vargas, Ortiz was on Instagram playing the guitar and taking requests from his fans.

Ortiz got into music because he loved the video game “Guitar Hero” so much, and he ultimately taught himself how to play both guitar and piano. But he said when he’s playing, it’s not all relaxation. 

The concentration and focus it takes to learn to play an instrument is something that he says helps him during his boxing training.

“It’s pretty much the same thing, with the dedication and all that,” Ortiz said of learning boxing and learning to play an instrument. “There’s workouts for guitar, as well. You have to be able to get your physical strength. There’s strength in your fingers, but you have to be able to get them fast enough to play stuff. I just started being able to play some faster stuff. I’m just working my way up.”

Ortiz, who said he likes the guitar more but is better at the piano, has long been one of the elite talents in boxing.

Golden Boy president Eric Gomez first saw him at an amateur tournament in Southern California and came away impressed. He said Ortiz, true to his nature, has continually worked at his art and become better and better.

“He’s just about there where we’re willing to put him in there with anyone, and you know how many good [welterweights] there are out there right now,” Gomez said of the 22-year-old. “He’s always been a big puncher, a hard puncher, but he’s worked at things and he’s stronger now. He knows better how to set things up and he’s even more powerful than he was.”

The 31-year-old Vargas is his toughest test. Vargas is 31-5-2, but four of the five losses came to current or former champions Errol Spence, Danny Garcia, Amir Khan and Luis Collazo. He’s the perfect kind of measuring stick for a guy like Ortiz, who has gone 15-0 with 15 knockouts and six of those in the first round.

Vargas is durable and crafty and the kind of opponent who can give an unprepared young fighter fits.

But Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins, a partner in Golden Boy, is optimistic that Ortiz is ready for the challenge.

“I’m going out on a limb and saying I’m expecting a super, super exciting, energetic fight,” Hopkins said. “At the end, [Ortiz will] win with a devastating knockout. Vergil wants to be in a spotlight. He knows that he’s been handed this by work, hard work. His opportunity came kind of out of nowhere and he’s now got to step up to the plate. … He will deliver and I think he’s going to deliver big.”

Ortiz wants to challenge himself. He’s in a division loaded with elite talent, particularly with Terence Crawford and Spence at the top, and he believes he’s gotten to the point where it’s time to fight the best.

He’s not a guy looking to preserve his unbeaten record or build himself up by beating the sport’s lesser lights. 

“There’s a lot of fighters out there just worried about their undefeated streak,” Ortiz said. “That’s not what boxing’s supposed to be about. You’re supposed to want to fight the best. I think [Floyd] Mayweather kind of set the tone for everyone like that because now everyone wants to be undefeated when they retire.

“But it’s not supposed to be like that. You’re supposed to fight the best. Look at the all-time greats. Literally every single one of them has lost before, because they took [the most challenging] fights. There’s a reason why they were in the all-time greats. That’s the right mentality to have.”

Hopkins used the word “spectacular” when he described how he sees the finish. But it would also be an apt word to use to describe Vergil Ortiz Jr., the man.

He’s already spectacular outside the ring; now, he’s trying to prove he’s just as spectacular inside of it.

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