Vergil Ortiz is one of those guys, if you know him even just a little bit, who you can’t help rooting for.
His ego is virtually non-existent. He’s had remarkable success as a professional boxer — you can’t get much better than 18 wins in 18 fights with 18 knockouts — but he’s going to be the last one to tell you about it.
It would help him enormously if he had a little bit of an edge to him, if he snarled instead of smiled and made threats instead of praising his opponents. People love a train wreck and he might have a higher profile at this stage of his career if he were to vow to knock his opponent into the middle of next week.
Ortiz will end a 51-week absence from the ring on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas, when he faces Michael McKinson in a bout streamed by DAZN. Ortiz had been diagnosed in March with rhabdomyolysis, a syndrome in which muscle fibers die and are released into the bloodstream, which forced the cancellation of a planned bout with McKinson. Rhabdomyolysis can lead to serious consequences, including renal failure.
When he was healthy enough to resume training, his team tried to make what would have been a highly entertaining match with David Avenasyan, but efforts fell through. Ortiz's camp finally went back to McKinson and so Ortiz will now return, finally, on Saturday.
Such lengthy time away from the game is never great, particularly for a rising star like Ortiz. He’s 24 and in a deep and talented division headed by IBF-WBA-WBC champion Errol Spence Jr. and WBO champion Terence Crawford.
On top of them, another young potential superstar welterweight, Jaron “Boots” Ennis fought twice since Ortiz last competed, scoring first- and a second-round KOs to improve to 29-0 with 27 KOs. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” is true in this case.
Ortiz isn’t one to throw tantrums or erupt angrily. He wasn’t thrilled by the lengthy time he spent on the sidelines, but he tried to use the time in worthwhile fashion.
“I would say I lost time,” Ortiz told Yahoo Sports. “I definitely lost a year. That’s a year that I can’t get back. And it really sucks that I lost that time. The only thing I can do is keep a positive mindset. Everything happens for a reason, and so I just try to do the best with what I’ve got.”
Ortiz isn’t expecting an easy night even though he’s a 10-1 favorite at BetMGM. McKinson, who is +650, is 22-0 with two knockouts. He’s far from the most imposing opponent Ortiz could have fought, but he has yet to lose in an eight-year professional career.
The late legendary trainer Emanuel Steward would always warn his fighters when they met unbeaten opponents, even if those opponents aren’t well known. There’s something special about them, Steward would say, if they can stay undefeated for a lengthy period.
After being off for a year, Ortiz insists that the last thing he’ll do is overlook McKinson. He knows he needs to be patient because McKinson is likely to try to slow things down and make it an ugly fight in an effort to neutralize Ortiz’s power.
“I believe [undefeated fighters can be more dangerous] because there’s like a sense of pride,” Ortiz said. “They don't want to lose. They don’t want to lose their undefeated record. And they have everything on the line with that. Some people say it doesn’t really matter, but in a way, it does. Mentally, and even in the business side of boxing, the 'O' just looks better than any other number. It really does help you. So he’s not going to want to lose that. And I don’t want to lose it, so just saying that, it’s going to get competitive.”
The secret, then, will be to stick with his game plan and not be sucked into what McKinson is trying to do. But Ortiz has the confidence that comes with being a big-time puncher for most of his life.
He has that thudding, one-punch kind of shot that can change the course of a fight at any moment, and he’s had that since his amateur days. So for him, it’s just important not to swing for the fences, so to speak, and let it come naturally.
The hometown crowd will fire him up, he concedes, and he’ll have to fight that urge and take what is given to him
“I don’t necessarily go for the knockout, but I do like to be in entertaining fights,” Ortiz said. “And if I see the opportunity, I’m going to take it. That’s what the people want to see. [The crowd’s cheering] does [impact me] sometimes. I try not to let the crowd influence me, but they always do. They really do. So I just try to keep it at a minimum, keep my emotions in check.”