Is Victor Ortiz’s challenge to Andre Berto on Saturday the Southern Californian’s last opportunity to live up to his once-considerable promise?
To many fans, particularly hardcore followers of the sport, the answer is yes. Whether or not that assumption is fair can be debated.
“It’s not fair, but boxing isn’t fair,” Ortiz’s manager, Rolando Arellano, told RingTV.com. “Fans aren’t fair. We know that, and Victor has begun to realize that they are finicky fellows. If he goes out there and annihilates Berto, he’s the American Dream. Fans will love him and live vicariously through him because he’s the kid who survived a tough childhood and came back from a devastating defeat against Marcos Maidana to win the welterweight championship.
“But if he loses, they’ll say he’s another Francisco Bojado. He’ll be the over-hyped kid, the kid who could’ve but didn’t. If he flops against Berto the way he did in his last fight (against Lamont Peterson), it’s over. That’s guaranteed.”
That seems harsh considering that Ortiz is only 24. In fact, giving up on Ortiz if he comes up short on Saturday seems almost illogical when one considers that his only non-victories — discounting a disqualification loss early in his career — will have come against world-class fighters. It’s worth noting that the records of Berto, Peterson and Maidana will have totaled 80-2 with 59 knockouts at the time Ortiz fought them.
And yet, the manner in which Ortiz submitted to Maidana in the sixth round of their HBO-televised shootout in June of 2009 has caused many hardcore fans to question the Kansas native’s heart. Those same fans point to Ortiz’s 10-round majority draw against Peterson in December as proof that Maidana took his will to beat a formidable opponent. Ortiz (28-2-2, 22 knockouts) allowed the once-beaten Peterson, whose only loss was a decision to Tim Bradley, back into the fight after scoring two knockdowns in the third round.
These fans expect Berto (27-0, 21 KOs), an undefeated welterweight beltholder with explosive speed and power, to shatter Ortiz’s presumably fragile psyche and whatever is left of the southpaw’s reputation with a dominant victory.
Veteran broadcaster Larry Merchant, who will be in Mashantucket, Conn., to call the action during the live HBO Championship Boxing telecast, understands the skepticism fans might have about Ortiz’s ability to beat Berto, but he doesn’t agree with their doubts about the young man’s character.
“I don’t think the Peterson fight proved anything about Ortiz,” Merchant told RingTV.com. “All that fight told us was that Peterson is a pretty good boxer, one who was busy enough to salvage a draw against another good young fighter.
“I think Ortiz got pressured into fighting the wrong fight in the Maidana fight. He was drawn into the kind of fight that wasn’t in his best interest. He has so many tools and skills that Maidana lacks, and he didn’t use them. Why? Maybe it was the knockdowns or his inexperience at that level. But all that fight proved to me was that Ortiz didn’t know how to make a retirement look good. He didn’t know how to hide a quit job as well as others have. He didn’t go back to his corner and say ‘You stop it.'"
Merchant says he’s been around too long to question a fighter’s heart or fortitude based on one fight.
“I saw Julio Cesar Chavez quit on his stool against Oscar De La Hoya in their second fight,” he said. “Is there any tougher guy than him? No. Chavez had proven his heart many times. That just wasn’t his night and he knew it. He was sort of forgiven by the fans because he was the older man in that fight, and maybe Ortiz’s youth has something to do with the skepticism that has plagued him since the Maidana fight, but I’m not as quick to judge him as others.
“I think he’s come back and tried to use his skills more, much like Wladimir Klitschko did after his losses.”
Merchant uses the RING heavyweight champ as a prime example of a fighter’s ability to rebound after setbacks. Earlier in his career, Klitschko lost to un-ranked fighters — Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, and Lamon Brewster — by knockout.
Klitschko was all but discarded by most fans and media following the loss to Brewster in 2004. They questioned his courage, will and stamina over the next year as he gradually, carefully got his career back on track with shaky victories over DaVarryl Williamson and Samuel Peter.
However, by 2006, Klitschko had not only recaptured his form, but improved in many areas. He’s now universally recognized as the best big man in the sport alongside his brother, Vitali.
“Klitschko came all the way back from two particularly devastating knockouts, to Sanders and Brewster,” said Merchant. “Some fighters overcome rough spots and some don’t. That’s why we watch the fights, to see if they can.”
Merchant believes that Ortiz isn’t the only fighter who has something to prove on Saturday.
“Berto has been sort of a protected fighter,” he said. “I’m not saying that he’s not willing to face the best, but for the most part he’s been carefully matched by his handlers.
“This fight should answer some questions about Berto as well as Ortiz. We’re trying to find out how real they are, if they are prime-time fighters, if they are potential American attractions at a time when there aren’t any.”
Merchant doesn’t rule out the possibility that both fighters prove themselves with a good fight.
“Look at what happened with the (Erik) Morales-Maidana fight,” he said. “There were no losers in that fight. (Amir) Khan-Maidana is another example. Both fighters came out bigger that they were before that fight.
“If Ortiz loses but puts up a good fight, he can gain more from that than he would if he wins unimpressively. We’ll see. I’m prepared to let the fight determine how we perceive Ortiz, not a fight from two years ago.”