By Thomas Gerbasi
Long before Rolando Arellano became Victor Ortiz’ manager, he could see the potential in the young amateur boxer.
“You could see his basic fundamentals were there,” said Arellano of the fighter who went on to win 29 of 33 pro bouts and a WBC welterweight title, and who has earned a megafight in the form of Floyd Mayweather this Saturday in Las Vegas. “When you’ve been recruiting and looking at fighters for as long as I have, which in the eyes of some people is not long – like 20 years – you look for some very basic fundamentals. Do they have the heart, are they teachable? And when you see the foundation of a great structure and you know you can build on it and it’s easy to build on it and it doesn’t fight you with all kinds of crap in the street and interference from people like that, only great things can come from something that’s willing to be molded.”
Arellano pauses, but only for a split-second.
“This kid’s got the million dollar smile, he’s got the million dollar story, and I think he can fight like a million dollar fighter,” he continues. “And lo and behold it comes together and you have this magical symphony called “Vicious” Victor Ortiz September the 17th at the MGM Grand.”
Sounds like a boxing manager, right? But where Arellano strays from his peers is that while he is an indefatigable promoter of the fighters he represents, he is more than the guy with the megaphone saying everything that the athlete wants to hear. For one, Arellano is as blunt as it gets when it comes to the sport, the fighters, and his fellow managers. Next, he is as loyal as they come, but when he feels that his fighter has reached the end of the line, he is willing to leave money on the table to make a stand and do what’s right. Third, and this is where he really veers from the script – he actually cares.
To him, boxing is a beautiful sport and one that can leave lasting scars on those who participate in it, so while it’s nice to be able to pick up a big paycheck, get the fancy car and the mansion on the hill, Arellano has made it his mission to make sure his fighters are prepared for life after boxing.
Before Ortiz, the most notable fighter Arellano worked with was former world champion Fernando Vargas, and more than a few stories were written over the years, not about the fighting skill of “El Feroz,” but of the business plans he put together with Arellano for life after boxing. The two would eventually split when Arellano didn’t agree with a Vargas comeback attempt after his second loss to Shane Mosley, but that’s just who he is. And in a lot of ways, he’s a maverick in this business.
“They’re human beings, I really care, and it’s my job to do so,” said Arellano. “The question shouldn’t be why do I do it. It should be ‘why don’t other guys do it.’ This is a multi-million dollar business, and they deserve multi-million dollar representation. The business lasts these young men typically around ten years, and what happens after the ten years is that most of them might be victims of pugilistic dementia. They will have symptoms of brain damage, they will walk awkward and talk awkward, so with knowing and understanding that, if you’re going to represent someone, think a little bit broader and have a little bit more empathy for these fighters. They will give it hell for ten years, why don’t you give it hell for ten years also and help them pave a road for when those ten years are over?”
If it sounds like Arellano has an unbridled passion for this, you’d be right, and if you’re not yet convinced, just check him out in the ring during the introductions of his fighters, or in press conferences where he’s willing to go toe-to-toe with anyone, including his clients’ opponents. Yet with the exception of Vargas and now Ortiz, you don’t hear as much about Arellano as you do with some other high profile managers. And that’s fine with him, considering that he keeps a small roster of clients that consists of Ortiz, Pablo Cesar Cano, Marco Antonio Periban, Luis Enrique Grajeda, Vicente Escobedo, Jose Aguiniga, and Francisco Santana.
“I’m of the opinion that you can only do a competent and caring job if you only manage a handful,” he explains. “They require a certain degree of attention and focus, and I’m only one guy. I can have as many assistants as I want, but they expect the high standard of representation and caring that they get from me. If I have 80 guys, I guess a good analogy would be that I’ll be skating on thin ice, and you know what happens when you do that – you go right through the ice. But a lot of guys do that because these fighters are bottom lines for them. They say ‘If I have 20 guys and if three guys hit, then I can make my profit.’ I’m not like that. I select very carefully, I select very particularly, and I have this thing that everybody tells me not to do – I have strong, close relationships with them. They are the essence of our sport, and without them, I don’t manage anyone, promoters don’t promote anyone, and TV doesn’t get any boxing content. So why don’t we treat them respect and dignity and honesty, and along the way, as they mature from young men that put their lives into your hands, we educate them in their business.”
It’s a nasty business, even on a good day, and as the old adage goes, “there are few happy endings in boxing.” But as long as there are still people willing to put on the gloves and fight, and networks willing to air the fights for people who are willing to pay to see them, the business will roll on. And Arellano has learned plenty since the days of Vargas fighting superfights with Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya, and he’s been able to apply those lessons with Ortiz, who he eventually signed in early 2008, after the fighter filed bankruptcy and had an acrimonious split with Cameron Dunkin, Robert and Eduardo Garcia, and Top Rank.
“Now you can actually see the pitfalls, and the smooth roads, and the turns on the roads before they actually get there,” said Arellano. “And if there are any pitfalls, I had the opportunity to help Victor plan, to steer away from anything that is gonna create a massive destruction or any type of adversity, which in turn causes him to lose focus on the fight. I am his safety net, his combat colonel. I’m the first one in the battlefield to do the survey of the battlefield, and the last one out once he’s good and safe. It’s like anything else with experience. Once you’ve done it once, once you’ve done it twice or three times, it becomes second nature and when it becomes second nature, just put yourself on check and make sure you don’t become complacent, because that’s where mistakes are made.”
But what of his relationship with the Garcia family? Remember, Eduardo Garcia was trainer and mentor to Vargas in Oxnard, and now Robert Garcia, who worked with Arellano at one time, is feuding with brother Danny Garcia, who now trains Ortiz. If it sounds like a crazy scenario, it is, yet Arellano has removed himself from the equation.
“Me and Robert were never real close,” said Arellano. “I was the first one to get Robert Garcia his title fight and then I got sued by his manager that couldn’t get him his title fight. (Laughs) Then he signed with his managers again. I know him from the La Colonia days, but I just step away. I’m the business guy. He’s a little upset because he was supposedly in charge of Victor Ortiz and - my comments are very honest – he didn’t have the capacity as a professional manager to bring him to the next level. Anyone can make a world champion; that’s my position. But the only ones that are really significant are the ones that are managed correctly, the ones that are on HBO. The rest make $75,000, and because I have a proven track record, I qualify by far. I guess he’s pissed by the whole scenario.”
With Arellano, Ortiz signed on with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions and began sailing towards the top of the charts, buoyed by a harrowing back story, good looks, an engaging personality, and an exciting style in the ring.
Enter Marcos Maidana, the Argentinean strongman who delivered a stirring sixth round stoppage of Ortiz in June of 2009 that halted his progress in emphatic fashion. Yet what made it worse was his post-fight comment that he didn’t “deserve to get beat up like this.” From there, in the eyes of the media and the fans, Ortiz was damaged goods, the kid who was great when he was the hammer, but who folded when he was the nail. Now it was time for Arellano to step up and really straighten things out in the mind of a now baffled fighter who wondered why everyone just gave up on him.
“I told him that there’s nothing you can say to the public that’s going to change their mind as to how they feel about your opinion of the fight and of the statement,” said Arellano. “Your actions are the only things that will speak louder than your words. Your actions must prove those statements wrong. That’s the only way you’re gonna convert it. And boy, did he step to the plate on this one. And it’s almost like it started sinking in. He said ‘these reporters keep talking about Maidana’ and I said ‘that’s all they’re gonna do.’ Lesson number two, they’re gonna hit on you and hit on you and remind you. So you have two choices here – you focus on the negativity, or you look forward and focus on what you can do tomorrow. Most successful people have 90 million critics and most people have always been one step away from success when they quit. Don’t be that one – take that second step. And you’re gonna take that second step by getting back in the ring. We’re gonna build you again and put you in the most defining fight of your life, and you’re gonna pull that trigger. So you motivate him to move forward.”
Ortiz was built back up slowly, with four wins over Antonio Diaz, Hector Alatorre, Nate Campbell, and Vivian Harris. In December of 2010 he should have won a 10 rounder over Lamont Peterson, but only received a draw, but in his WBC welterweight title bout against Andre Berto in April of this year, he delivered, rising from the canvas twice to win a 12 round unanimous decision and the title in one of 2011’s best bouts. Ortiz finally got his measure of redemption.
“All that subconsciously came to surface with Berto,” said Arellano. “When he went down in the sixth round, I said ‘you were hurt, right?’ He said ‘Maybe my body was hurt, but my mind and heart said I had to go get that belt.’”
For Team Ortiz, it was the turning point, the signal that chasing a big fight with Floyd Mayweather was the right move. For Ortiz’ relationship with the media though, there’s still some work to be done, as the 24-year old champion apparently still holds a grudge due to the backlash after the Maidana fight. And the way Arellano sees it, that chip on the shoulder may never go away.
“He was the greatest thing since sliced bread before that fight,” he said. “He had one bad day, and all of a sudden he was rotten bread. That quick. In reality, people just focus on that event. But I think that’s the ignorance of certain people when they don’t look at the complete spectrum. Victor’s a human being, we’re all human beings, and everyone has a bad day. Do you cut his head off and throw him to the wolves because he had that bad day? No, you give him a second chance. If he does it two or three times, then it’s justified. Once, it’s not. And thank goodness because we gave him a second chance. Everyone turned their backs on us except our immediate team, meaning Oscar (De La Hoya), myself and our training staff, and look, out of darkness and adversity, we found success.”
And now they’re on the biggest stage in the sport in what may be the biggest fight of 2011. Not bad for a kid who was a cautionary tale in the eyes of many just a couple years ago. But boxing is a forgiving sport, and eventually those who disappoint us are welcomed back after they’ve been deemed to have served their time in purgatory well. Guys like Rolando Arellano don’t have that luxury though. He can’t turn his back when things get bad, and while there are more than a few highlights along the way in every fighter’s career, he truly earns his money when it’s time to be father, brother, or confessor to a young man who may have to be told that he no longer has the goods to be great, or even good.
“You’re their leader, you’re their protector, so you better have the character to tell them that after you get knocked down, the only thing to do here is to get back up because if you stay down, you’re gonna get run over and you’re never gonna have a second chance,” he said. “Your job is to first thank them for their valiant efforts, to tell them that their efforts have been acknowledged and rewarded and praised by the general public. Then you help them go through the mourning of it, you stay by their side whenever they need you, just like you were when they were winning. You don’t double standard their ass, and then you inspire and motivate them to do whatever they choose to do. If you think he can fight, then you tell him and help him get back to where he was with dignity, meaning you don’t use him as a steppingstone. And if he can’t, have the courage to be honest with that young man and say ‘hey, I can make another 200-300,000 dollars with you, but I choose not to because it’s going to hurt you and you’re not going to be able to do anything for the next 30 years of your life.’”
To some managers, who just show up on fight night to pick up their percentage, the job is easy money, and you don’t worry about the soul you’re losing for putting someone’s life at risk for a quick buck. Yet when done properly, with a mix of book smarts, street smarts, and compassion, managing a boxer may be the toughest and most unforgiving job in the world. Rolando Arellano takes what he does seriously, and he’s seen enough of the upside and the downside to realize that if you don’t move forward, you’ll crawl into a hole that you’ll never want to come out from. And if you’ve met him or seen him, you’ll know that he’s not that guy.
“You take the good with the bad,” he said of managing boxers. “If you don’t understand that, then you can go into that depression mode like a lot of people. You go out there, you inspire, you motivate, you give it a helluva shot with your team. If you come out unsuccessful, you already won by the mere fact that you had the privilege of being at a world championship event on an international stage, so you take whatever negativity and you switch it into a positive one. My philosophy is that the reason they make a front window shield larger in a car than the rearview mirror is because what’s in front of you is more important than what’s behind you. And if you keep focusing on that little rearview mirror, you lose track of what’s in front of you and you’re gonna wreck that car real bad.”
Arellano doesn’t see any car wrecks ahead of him in Vegas this weekend, only positives. So what would a Victor Ortiz win over Floyd Mayweather mean to him? Suddenly, one of boxing’s most loquacious figures gets pithy. But his ten word response speaks volumes about a memorable career thus far.
“I think that would be the icing on the cake.”