(Cross-posted at Skundered!)
It says something about a fighter’s character when his immediate reaction to being handed his first defeat in 27 professional bouts is to say that he’s thankful that no one was injured. Those were the first words out of the mouth of a still-stunned Andre Berto, upon hearing the judges unanimously award his WBC Welterweight title to the younger phenom, Victor Ortiz. While words like class, grace, and dignity start springing to mind when you hear something like that, Berto’s other post-fight comments quickly brought him back down to earth; he rationalized the loss by claiming that he “felt off,” and said “that wasn’t me in there.”
It’s probable that the thing that felt “off” for Berto was suddenly finding himself being dominated by an opponent who normally competes in a lower weight-class, who is slower and has inferior boxing skills, and who entered the ring plagued by questions about his will and ability to take punches.
Berto had been scheduled to fight Shane Mosely back in January of 2010, but dropped out of the arrangement following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which counted members of Berto’s family among its victims. Mosely went on to suffer a high-profile loss to Floyd Mayweather, Jr., while Berto went on to win technical knock-out victories over Carlos Quintana (27-2) and Freddy Hernandez (29-1) in the 8th and 1st rounds, respectively. If the Berto-Mosley fight had taken place as scheduled, we likely would have been denied this Berto-Ortiz matchup altogether.
It’s often true that as much of boxing’s drama takes place outside of the boxing ring as inside. This is illustrated clearly by the example of Victor Ortiz, an electrifying fighter whose back-story is legendary and compelling: Born to Mexican immigrant parents in Garden City, Kansas, he took up boxing in elementary school after his mother took off for good, leaving the kids in the care of their violent, alcoholic father. When he also left a few years later, Victor and his siblings ended up in the foster care system. He fell in with a rough crowd and began dealing drugs until his life was turned around by winning the Kansas Golden Gloves Championship. A few years later, Victor and his brother moved to Denver to live with their older sister, who had just become a legal adult. Victor continued boxing, attracting the attention of fighter-turned-trainer Roberto Garcia, who brought Victor to Oxnard, California to finish High School and continue his training. Ortiz turned pro in 2004, at the age of 17. As soon as he turned 18, he gained legal custody of his younger brother, who he is now putting through college.
The arc of Ortiz’s professional story to date is equally dramatic: He quickly cemented his reputation as an explosive brawler and knockout artist, earning the title of The Ring Magazine’s Prospect of the Year for 2008. He scored a second-round TKO against the tough Greek fighter Mike Arnaoutis in his first HBO fight in March, 2009, and he had won 8 straight fights before getting into the ring with Argentinian monster-puncher, Marcos Maidana, on a fateful April night in 2009. It would prove to be a life-changing fight for Ortiz.
He knocked Maidana down three times in the first two rounds, but Maidana came back and commenced beating the tar out of Ortiz, culminating in a 6th round knock-down that prompted Ortiz to make the jaw-dropping decision to quit mid-fight – leaving fans and commentators stunned. Immediately after the fight, this rising star further stunned his fans by saying “I don’t deserve to get hit like that” – a completely human and understandable comment anywhere other than in the world of boxing, where the idea of giving up and packing it in is opposed to every core value.
Dogged by criticism and questions about his confidence and ability to take a punch, Ortiz began his attempt at a comeback in a series of five fights that culminated in a disappointing and controversial draw against Lamont Peterson in December. Ortiz had to understand that his matchup with Berto was, at best, probably a long-shot at redemption. He entered the ring as the acknowledged underdog with the odds stacked against him in virtually every way; he was a lesser boxer with slower handspeed, he was actually moving up in weight-class to fight at Welterweight for the first time, and, most importantly, those question marks were still hanging over his head –and likely inside his head as well – like stormclouds.
As the opening bell was rung, both fighters came out fast, trading extremely-hard punches right from the start. Ortiz quickly stunned the boxing world yet again by knocking Berto down twice in the first round. Berto returned the favor by knocking Ortiz down in the second round, but, while regaining his composure, Berto never seemed to fully recover after being dropped at the start of the fight. He never stopped using his superior speed to repeatedly-land sharp, powerful shots, but Ortiz weathered the toughest ones and proved that he was able to walk through most of the others.
The fight quickly fell into a pattern of an increasingly tired and wobbly Berto appearing to use the ropes for support while acting as if he was purposefully fighting off of them and inviting Ortiz in. Between rounds, his trainer repeatedly admonished Berto to “just box,” and he began to show hints of frustrated-concern bordering on desperation. Instead of following his corner’s advice, Berto seemed to be hoping to catch Ortiz with a single powerful shot that would turn the fight around for him. But Ortiz just kept walking through everything that Berto threw at him – simultaneously answering nagging questions about his own heart and chin – and then reciprocating by pummeling Berto with shots of a quantity and quality he had never had to endure up until this point.
The fight ended up with a total of 4 or 5 knockdowns – depending on how you counted them – a fact that gives you an idea of just how brutal and immense the conflict in that ring was. And the fact that both fighters survived 12 rounds at this pace gave us all a clear understanding of just how tough and determined they really are. In the end–according to HBO’s computers—Ortiz landed 282 punches to Berto’s 147, and the three judges gave him the fight in a unanimous decision.
The bout was no less dramatic in terms of its implications for these two fighters: Berto dropped from #3 down to #5 in The Ring Magazine’s welterweight rankings, while Ortiz went from being completely unranked to taking Berto’s #3 spot – ahead of Shane Mosely, and right behind Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., who also happen to occupy the #1 and #2 spots on The Ring’s pound-for-pound list. Victor Ortiz was catapulted from boxing’s outlands to a prime spot on the waiting list for a potential matchup with Pacquiao or Mayweather, as well as doubtlessly winning the loyalty of legions of new fans. The scuttlebutt on Berto is that he may have actually gained more respect and recognition for his tough performance in this single loss than in all of his successes put together. Not a bad night’s work for the two fighters, all in all, and an object lesson in what makes this sport exciting and unpredictable.
The boxing world bore witness to a second earth-shaking upset this past weekend, when the 29-1, Puerto Rican WBO Featherweight Champion, Juan Manuel “Juanma” Lopez lost his title to Orlando Salido, a 34-11 Mexican fighter who had been knocked out five times previously, and came into the match as the 10-1 underdog. But Salido’s performance proved consistent with the story hidden behind his stats: He went the distance with Cuban sensation Yuriorkis Gamboa in September, and also survived 12 rounds against Juan Manuel Marquez in 2004, not to mention the fact that all five of those knockouts took place over 10 years ago. In the end, Salido walked away with the WBO Featherweight title, and Juanma’s fast-train to what was expected to be an epic, fan-friendly, kazillion-dollar match against Gamboa appears to have been derailed – but let’s hope not permanently.