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When Luis Ortiz made the decision to defect from Cuba, he had no money. He had a great fear of water, but crammed his large frame inside a tiny boat for a treacherous trip across the Gulf of Mexico.
When he landed in Mexico, it was a two-day walk through the desert to the U.S. border. He had no shoes.
Never, though, did he once consider abandoning the trip. There was far too much at stake.
The stakes were higher than a heavyweight championship and the riches that come with winning the prize that once was known as the greatest in sports.
Ortiz never once thought about boxing when he made the harrowing trip to freedom. His only hope was to find help for his then 4-year-old daughter, Lismercedes.
When Lismercedes was born in Cuba, her tiny thumb was black, and doctors were puzzled. They weren’t sure what it was, but wanted to amputate it. Luis and his wife, Lisdey, didn’t want to amputate until they had more facts.
But Luis, who wanted to be in solidarity with his first-born child, told her doctors that if they amputated her thumb, they’d have to amputate his, too. He wanted to share that with her. Even though amputating his thumb would likely have meant the end of his boxing career, it was a step he was willing to take.
“This has been the hardest thing in my life,” said Ortiz, who returns to action on Dec. 1 at Staples Center in Los Angeles when he faces Travis Kaufman on the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury card. “My kids mean everything to me and there is nothing I wouldn’t do for them.”
Three months after her birth, doctors determined that Lismercedes had a rare condition known as epidermolysis bullosa. Her skin is so fragile that it tears or blisters at the slightest touch. Ortiz said the blisters that develop are the equivalent of third-degree burns. Serious forms of the disease can be life-threatening.
Ortiz felt helpless. Cuba is an extremely poor country and there was little chance of him being able to get his daughter the help he needed. Whether he wanted to defect or not, and despite putting his life very much at risk, going to the United States was his only option. The risks of going were very real, but so, too, were the risks of staying in Cuba and doing nothing.
“I had to do it,” he said. “There was no choice.”
For the first several years he was in the U.S., contact with his family was sporadic. He tried to call as often as he could, but calls to Cuba don’t always go through.
In 2012, 30 months after his defection, he was able to arrange for his family to join him so that Lismercedes could be seen by American doctors. Lisdey and Lismercedes flew to Mexico and then walked to the border, where they were greeted by Ortiz, who brought a huge pot of stew with him, figuring they’d be hungry.
It was an emotional reunion but it wasn’t the end of the story.
Epidermolysis bullosa is incurable, so at first, it was about managing the problem. Her condition wasn’t the worst, so she only had to be smart about what she did.
“I don’t want to limit her and she has to be a child and [play],” Ortiz said. “But she can’t be in the sun too much. She can’t run up high stress. She’s smart and she knows the rules. She knows she can’t get hurt or too excited.”
Ortiz, though, couldn’t help but get excited in July, when just five days before a fight with Razvan Cojanu, he learned researchers at Stanford had developed a drug that was successful in treating 80 percent of epidermolysis bullosa cases.
He shed tears in the ring at Staples on July 28 after knocking out Cojanu in the second round. It was simply a stay-busy fight without much significance, but Ortiz’s tears had nothing to do with his professional career.
When he thought of her after the fight, he was overcome by emotion. This 6-foot-4, 245-pound knot of muscle wept openly in the ring.
After his fight with Kauffman on Dec. 1, he is going to take the family to Palo Alto, California, to visit with doctors at Stanford about options for Lismercedes.
He lost for the first time earlier this year when, after opening a lead on Wilder, he was knocked out in the 10th round of an amazing fight. He has an eye on revenge and regaining his belts.
That, though, is secondary to what may happen when the family ventures to Stanford for what could be a life-altering doctor’s visit.
“Nothing in boxing means much when one of your kids is in trouble and needs your help,” Ortiz said. “The only important thing right now is [Lismercedes]. Nothing else really matters besides that.”
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