By Jake Donovan
Luis “King Kong” Ortiz boasts a rich amateur pedigree, is undefeated as a pro and through his combination of speed, power and southpaw stance is a hellish matchup for any heavyweight in the world. Yet the perception that he has more to prove than his upcoming opponent - Bryant Jennings, who is coming off of a one-sided loss and an eight-month layoff - is indeed accurate.
It’s also the scenario Ortiz prefers heading into any fight.
“I’m 100% ready for this opportunity,” Ortiz (23-0-0-1NC, 20KOs) told BoxingScene.com of his December 19 showdown with Jennings, which airs live on HBO from Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York. “I’m preparing for this fight like my career is on the line.”
Interestingly enough, the unbeaten Cuban southpaw – who now lives and trains in Miami - was prepared for this very matchup to take place two months ago. It’s why he agreed to appear on the undercard of a Pay-Per-View telecast topped by Gennady Golovkin’s 8th round destruction of David Lemieux in their middleweight unification bout.
The intention going into the PPV event – which was played to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City - was to load it up with a strong undercard. Roman Gonzalez appeared in the co-feature and a heavyweight clash between Ortiz and Jennings would’ve have sweetened the pot.
There were a number of unconfirmed reasons offered as to why Jennings didn’t take the fight. Ortiz didn’t want to hear any of them, just that he was able to continue on with a career that had previously fallen on hard times. He only returned to the ring this past June following a suspension and fine for testing positive for a banned substance in a 1st round knockout win-turned-No-Contest versus Lateef Kayode last September.
Ortiz was two months shy of his 36th birthday when the final ruling was handed down this past January. His team didn’t dispute the $8,000 fine (10% of his $80,000 purse for the fight) but pleaded for a lighter suspension as a lengthy break could prove damaging given his advanced age. The request was met with a sympathetic Nevada State Athletic Commission panel, but ultimately upheld.
Upon returning to the ring in June, the marching orders he gave his team was to remain as active as possible to make up for lost time.
Immediately following a rust-shaking 1st round knockout of Byron Polley in June, Ortiz returned in October. It wasn’t the fight he coveted, but Jennings’ passing on the opportunity instead produced a clash with Argentina’s Matias Ariel Vidondo. The matchup was what it was, but Ortiz certainly passed the eye test in delivering a spectacular 3rd round knockout.
The belief among his handlers – which includes Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, longtime manager Jay Jimenez and underrated trainer Herman Caicedo - was two-fold: that they have the best heavyweight in the world; and that it would be increasingly difficult to line up big fights as he continues to tear through competition at an alarming rate.
“With a mix of speed, power and amateur pedigree that is second-to-none, Luis Ortiz has quickly established himself as a force in the heavyweight division,” insists De La Hoya. “Luis is so hungry to continue his rise in the division that he has agreed to fight an enormously talented opponent in Bryant Jennings just two months after Luis' destruction of Matias Vidondo.”
It was de la Hoya’s loyalty even at a time when both were going through rough patches. Golden Boy Promotions was still recovering from a massive implosion earlier in the year by the time of Ortiz’ substance abuse follies. To this day, the heavyweight contender (who owns a secondary title) continues to profess his innocence but at the very least remains grateful that the rest of his team didn’t jump ship.
“Oscar was a boxer and understands what a fighter goes through, during the good and bad times,” notes Ortiz.
Signing with Golden Boy Promotions is a part of the American dream that Ortiz gets to enjoy every day in the United States. It was a decision he made in 2009, at the time motivated by the need to get better medical care for his ailing daughter, who was four years at the time.
As a father willing to do anything for his family, Ortiz and his family boarded a speedboat as they fled from Cuba to Florida. So ended a brilliant amateur career in which he boasted a record of 343-19 along with several major championships while serving on the Cuba National Team.
He now serves on a restructured Golden Boy Promotions team, whose mission statement is to make the best fights possible. Ortiz is all the way on board with the company’s modern-day motto.
“I couldn’t ask for a better, more loyal promoter than Golden Boy Promotions,” states Ortiz. “I wouldn’t want to fight for anyone else other than Oscar de la Hoya. I know what he did in his career and I want to do the same in the heavyweight division. I only want the best heavyweights.”
That level of desire finally led to a clash with Jennings (19-1, 10KOs), who at 31 years old is five years younger than Ortiz and also the most athletic boxer he will face to date. The Philly-bred heavyweight has also been out of the ring for the past eight months and also entering on the heels of the lone loss of his career, a 12-round decision at the hands of then-World heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko.
Still, Ortiz isn’t reading anything into his past performance, especially considering it came at the championship level. Nor is he particularly concerned that the fight is taking place two months later than most involved hope would have been the case.
“I don't know if he needed the extra time to get ready for me, or just needed more money,” Ortiz speculates, though not to the point of it being a factor in his own training. “I really don't care because I can’t control any of that. I was ready for him in October. I'm ready for him now.”
He began training for the fight barely any sooner than when his hand was raised in victory this past October in New York City.
“I’m not kidding, this guy is always ready to fight,” insists Caicedo, whose stable includes a number of fighters – including Ortiz – who literally live at the gym. “I’ve never seen a heavyweight like him. You see him in the gym, he looks like a welterweight. Then he gets in the ring and you realize why they call him King Kong.”
Ortiz likely won’t be found swinging from the top of the Empire State Building anytime soon (although would gladly do so if it meant landing a title shot), but hopes to one day stand atop the heavyweight division. His age may suggest that time isn’t on his side, which is why he wants as many big names as possible right here and now.
The next stop is Jennings and another item to cross off of his bucket list – headlining his first HBO boxing telecast, which also serves as the network’s season finale before reloading in 2016.
“It's the last fight of the year for HBO, but this will be just the beginning for me,” Ortiz promises. “It's my dream to headline on HBO and it will be the first of many. If HBO wants to have Bryant Jennings back after another loss (to Ortiz), that's up to them. But they will have a winner with me ready to fight on their network for a long time.”
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox