LAS VEGAS – Victor Ortiz was staring at the floor, speaking dispassionately, rarely making eye contact, when someone mentioned that fighting Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena could be a life-changing event.
The dashing 24-year-old with the dazzling smile lifted his head, locked his eyes on a man across from him and smirked.
"Life-changing event? This? You think for a guy like me, a guy who has been through what I've been through, that this is a life changing event?" Ortiz asked. "Try living in my shoes for a while and see if you think a fight is a life-changing event. My life changed years ago, bro."
Ortiz’s life changed in unimaginable ways at an age when most of his peers still believed in Santa Claus. When he was just seven years old, his mother abandoned him.
"There one minute, gone the next," Ortiz said with a shake of the head.
A few years later, his father skipped as well, leaving his three young children to fend for themselves. He grew up in Garden City, Kan., essentially on his own. He learned early on how cruel life could be, but the experience also proved something to him, a trait that is essential for a boxer.
The soft-spoken boy who sang in the school choir and played in piano recitals discovered a determination and an inner toughness that belied his cherubic face. He was a survivor. Life might knock him down, but as much as it hurt deep inside, he kept getting up and fighting back.
The biggest fight of his life was making it to his 16th birthday.
To Ortiz, a fight for the World Boxing Council welterweight title against the 41-0 Mayweather, who is – along with Manny Pacquiao – one of the two biggest stars in boxing, is not all that intimidating. It is, he has repeatedly insisted, simply another day at the office.
Mayweather is masterful at playing mind games with his opponents, perhaps better at that than he is in the ring, where he has fashioned a reputation not only as the top boxer of his era but also as one of the great fighters ever.
He hasn't missed an opportunity to taunt Ortiz. At Wednesday's news conference in the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, Mayweather said he had invited Robert Garcia, Ortiz's estranged ex-trainer, and World Boxing Association lightweight champion Brandon Rios, Ortiz's one-time friend and now bitter enemy, to attend Saturday's fight as his guest.
Mayweather said he might ask Garcia and Rios to walk to the ring with him. Robert Garcia, whose older brother, Danny, now trains Ortiz, said he and Rios would accept Mayweather's offer to at least attend the fight, even if they likely won't walk him to the ring.
The stunt raised a lot of eyebrows, but it just got a shrug from Ortiz.
"It doesn't bother me, because I'm a tree stump," Ortiz said. "He can say whatever he wants."
Ortiz is 29-2-2 and coming off an exceptional win over Andre Berto on April 16 that earned him the WBC title. Ortiz put Berto down twice in the fight, which isn't a surprise considering that Ortiz has knocked down every opponent he has faced at least once.
Perhaps more significant in that fight, though, was that Berto knocked Ortiz down twice. Each time, Ortiz pulled himself off the canvas and jumped back into the battle, ratcheting up his intensity and fighting even harder.
It was a defining moment in his career because, less than two years earlier in Los Angeles in a bout against Marcos Maidana, Ortiz quit in the sixth round. Afterward, he told HBO's Max Kellerman in the ring, "I'm young, but I don't think I deserve to get beaten up like this."
That comment has, in many ways, defined his career, even though it came only seconds after a heated battle against one of boxing's most powerful punchers had ended. Ortiz likely had a concussion and says now he has no memories of the bout.
Yet, his decision to wave the white flag, perhaps the only time in his life he has ever quit at anything, has haunted him ever since.
Before a recent training session at his gym in the shadow of the famed Las Vegas Strip, Mayweather paced outside his ring, bellowing, "Once a quitter, always a quitter! He quit once and he'll do it again."
Ortiz has heard it all so many times, he's become numb to it. There was a lot that went into that fight that has hasn't felt compelled to share in his defense.
"It was super overplayed because I never arrived mentally," Ortiz said of his decision to quit against Maidana. "My coaches thought I was fine [but] I never once told them I broke my wrist two weeks before the fight. They didn't know it. My buddies happened to be doctors, and I won't mention any names due to they could get in trouble, but I went to my buddies and illegally, I shot myself with cortisone.
"I went into the fight with a broken wrist. I didn't let [my coaches] know. I was going through a bad time in my own family. And when I say family, yes, it's only my brother and sister. But still, that's all I have and it's all I ever have had, but we kind of fell off track a little bit. That hurt me very bad in the sense of never arriving. I was in the locker room and, first time ever, Coach Danny asks me, 'How you doing, Vic? You ready?' And I said, 'Well, what can we do? We're here.' "
It was with that mindset that Ortiz went on to fight a murderous puncher in front of a national television audience. He was young, inexperienced and with personal problems nagging at him, and in the middle of a violent slugfest, he made a decision he regrets.
He rectified that by getting off the deck twice against Berto and fighting with a resolve few new he possessed.
"The Berto fight proved it all, that he could go down and get back up and go down again and get back up again," promoter Oscar De La Hoya said. "I think that's why [the talk of the Maidana fight] gets under his skin a little bit, because that's the past and Victor is a guy who looks forward."
And so, Ortiz goes through his obligations solemnly, chiding the media for giving up on him and insisting he's not bothered by Mayweather's antics or overcome by the moment.
He's ready, he insisted, regardless of what anyone thinks or says.
"He happens to be a person who likes to talk," Ortiz said of Mayweather. "But assassinations are quiet."
Ortiz beamed. This is a guy who has literally been through hell. A few acerbic jabs aren't going to bother him.
He understands what he's up against, but he wonders if Mayweather realizes the same.
"I'm in a great place [mentally]," Ortiz said. "Mayweather's had his run and he's done his thing for many years. Forty one have tried and 41 have failed, but 41 of those were not me. He said he's the champ for 10 years, but I'm taking the torch whether he likes it or not. I have nothing to lose, man."
Ortiz lost everything years ago. The feeling of loss, of abandonment, of disappointment has never left him, but he overcame it to finally make it to his sport's biggest stage.
Floyd Mayweather and his 41-0 record are only the latest hurdles he has to climb. He's a 6-1 underdog, but the odds were more than 6-1 against him surviving his troubled childhood.
After surviving that experience, Victor Ortiz is proof that nothing is impossible.
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