By Thomas Gerbasi
All it takes is a couple minutes on the phone with Max Ornelas to know that the unbeaten bantamweight is a fighter who prefers to let his fists do the talking. Regardless, I ask him if he tries to stay under the radar during his classes at UNLV while getting ready for his Friday bout against Tony Lopez, which takes place on campus at Cox Pavilion.
“I try to keep a low profile, but there’s a billboard on the freeway,” he laughs. “I’ll get Facebook messages from my friends, saying, ‘Hey, we saw you on the freeway.’”
Yeah, can’t hide too much when your face is on the freeway. But don’t take Ornelas’ low-key attitude and turn it into something negative. He’s all-in on his fight career, and impressively, he’s doing it as a college sophomore studying Criminal Justice at the same time.
“I try to keep a schedule,” he said of the juggling act he’s pulling off these days. “If I have a class, I’ll do that, and then after that, if I have a workout I’ll do that. But then at night, I’ll make sure to make time to study or do homework from that class.”
It’s an interesting place for the 19-year-old to be in, because despite being just 10-0-1 as a pro, he’s got the number 15 spot in the WBA rankings at 115 pounds, and he’ll be fighting for the NABA bantamweight belt this week. In other words, the time may be coming sooner than later when something will have to give between boxing and books.
“I’m gonna work hard to become world champion and if I get there and I still haven’t graduated yet, I’ll still have a class or two in there,” he said. “I promised my mom I’d graduate from college, so whether I become world champion or not, I’m gonna graduate.”
And you don’t want to mess with a promise to your mother. Of course, if past history is an indication, if anyone can pull off school and a world title reign, it’s probably Ornelas, who may be the only person in history to be cutting weight the day of his high school graduation.
“I graduated high school on June 9 (2016), weighed in that day, fought the next night and turned 18 the day after,” he laughs, recalling what may ultimately be the craziest weekend of his life.
“Graduation was at three, and the whole morning I was there trying to make the weight at the house. Then I went to graduation all dehydrated. It ended at like 4:15 and the weigh-ins were at five, so we had to speed down the freeway just to get there on time.”
He made weight, knocked out Robert Ledesma in a little over two minutes, then finally had a birthday / graduation celebration. Welcome to boxing.
“Ever since I started this sport, I always wanted to be world champion,” said Ornelas, who has been boxing since he was seven years old. “I don’t really care if there’s something in the way. I’ll do whatever it takes for me to get there.”
He’ll have a little help, as he’s working with the promotional company of future Hall of Famer Roy Jones Jr. It’s almost full circle for the teenager, who used to watch highlight clips of Jones when he was an amateur.
“It’s really cool (working with Jones), because back when I was an amateur, before we’d fight, there was a video on YouTube and it had his highlights and his song, ‘Can’t be touched.’ So every time before a fight I would watch that video. It’s awesome to have him behind me and supporting me. It’s a great feeling.”
Given his talent and determination, there will likely be more big nights for the Las Vegan, but he’s still taking it a step at a time, willing to be patient, but also not shy about taking a big step up if the opportunity presents itself.
“I think I have some time, especially with my age,” Ornelas said. “I turned pro at 17, and now I’m 19, so I don’t think there’s a rush. But the WBA has me ranked at number 15 in the world, so I’m almost there. At the same time, I don’t want to rush things, and my coach and promoter know that, but if the opportunity presents itself and the world title is there, I think we’ll take it.”
For now, though, he’ll be bringing that billboard to life on Friday night, and the quiet kid is not afraid about getting loud in the ring.
“Some people say it’s too much pressure, especially being in your hometown and stuff, but I like it,” he said. “When I walk out and feel the energy from everybody screaming my name and cheering, I like it, so I’m very excited for this.”