By Jake Donovan
Verona, NY -- In what has been an active run in and out of the ring for the heavyweight division, Luis Ortiz closed out the year not only with a bang but perhaps the loudest message of them all.
The unbeaten southpaw from Miami by way of Cuba forced a blistering pace in ovwhelming top-rated heavyweight contender Bryant Jennings. A knockdown and subsequent flurry produced a 7th round knockout win Saturday evening at Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, New York.
HBO aired the bout live as the main event of the 2015 season finale of its Boxing After Dark series.
Both fighters came in with something to prove, though far different means of motivation.
Jennings entered the ring for the first time since a 12-round title fight loss to then-World heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko in April. The Philadelphia-bred boxer - credited at the time with delivering Klitschko his toughest performance of a title reigning dating back to 2006 - hoped to build on that performance, beginning with this fight.
Ortiz clearly had other plans.
The 36-year old heavyweight knows that time isn't on his side, but is also forced to continue to deal with career damage control. Saturday was his third fight inside of six months, all of which have come on the heels of a nine-month suspension due to testing positive for a banned substance stemming from his fight with Lateef Kayode last September.
A lot has been invested into his career - more so emotionally - with the return demanded by Golden Boy Promotions that a clean fighter comes of it, one who can make some noise in the heavyweight division.
Extensive random drug testing conducted by Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA) helped provide peace of mind that he was a clean fighter. Once the opening bell round, Ortiz proved to be a destructive force.
Whatever game plan Jennings carried into the figh went out the window the moment he got rocked in the opening round. A right hook began the rally, with Ortiz' eyes lighting up as he believed a 1st round knockout was well within reach. It didn't come about, though not from a lack of trying as Ortiz had Jennings hurt on at least two occasions in a round that could have easily been scored 10-8 even without the presence of a knockdown.
"I had a blackout in the opening round, it took me a while to regain my senses," Jennings noted after the fight. "By round two, I started to come back around, but that's a dangerous position to be in with someone like that."
Ortiz continued on the attack in subsequent rounds. To his credit, Jennings - while still fighting on the inside despite being severely outgunned - managed to smother his opponent's punches. The strategy was enough to reset his bearings, but never enough to swing momentum back in his favor.
Jennings was once again in trouble in round three, but managed to survive the round. It was all that he was able to do in the remaining rounds, as Ortiz had a clear mission in mind.
"I wanted that knockout," said the unbeaten heavyweight, who defended a secondary version of the heavyweight title. "I didn't even want a TKO. We wanted the knockout."
That moment would come in round seven, though a round in which Jennings believed he could somehow turn the fight around. The charismatic heavyweight was smiling as he climbed off of his corner stool, going right to work and even scoring with right hand shots.
If it caught Ortiz' intention, it was only in awaking a sleeping giant.
A monster uppercut caught Jennings flush on the chin, producing the bout's lone knockdown as he fell face-first to the canvas. The initial question he asked himself was whether or not he could beat the count. As long as he could make it to his feet, there was hope - he believed - of somehow extending the fight a few more rounds.
It barely lasted a few more seconds.
"My thought, I just wanted to get that spacing and figure out how to get to my fight," Jennings said of the knockdown sequence. "I just needed to get those three steps away and it could've happened."
Ortiz disallowed that, scoring a left hook that sent Jennings reeling into the ropes. Referee Dick Pakozdi initially considered stopping the fight at that moment, but gave Jennings the benefit of the doubt. Ortiz closed the show, landing two more shots including another left hand shot that forced Jennings' head to snap back. At that point, Pakodzi had no choice but to rescue the fallen contender.
The official time was 2:41 of round seven.
"It was a clean stoppage, there's no way that I can question it," Jennings (19-2, 10KOs) told BoxingScene.com after the fight. "Everything about it - we wanted VADA testing, he complied and he delivered a performance like that. I considered myself the #1 heavyweight contender in the world, so he really showed me something."
Lost in the wake of the emphatic ending was the fact that Ortiz wasn't very far ahead on the scorecards at the time of the stoppage. Judge Don Trella had the bout even at 57-57, while judges John McKaie and Glenn Feldman had Ortiz ahead 58-55 and 58-56, respectively.
Perhaps even more amazing that poor scoring was the incredible performance turned in by Ortiz despite the physical ailments he had to overcome to get to this point. Bitten by the flu bug two weeks prior to fight night, there existed the possibility of a postponement if only to preserve his health.
The fight was already delayed by two months as far as Ortiz was concerned - Jennings turned down the same opportunity in October before agreeing to terms for the year-end headliner. With the fight he wanted well within his grasp, there was no way the unbeaten heavyweight was going to make his fans wait any longer.
"I would never (pull out of the fight)," Ortiz insisted. "But the whole week I was vomiting. I had a fever, but I kept training."
As a result, he keeps on winning. His record now 24-0 (21KOs), Ortiz can look forward to a bright 2016 where only political affiliation can stand in the way of his heavyweight progress. But even with an existing lawsuit between Golden Boy Promotions and Al Haymon - whose Premier Boxing Champions circuit includes a slew of heavyweights including unbeaten titlist Deontay Wilder - the insistence is that it has to be big fights from here on out, in accordance with the company's mission statement.
"Our message has been very, very clear. With all the boxing on TV right now, it's a little oversaturated. All we can do is make big fights," noted Eric Gomez, Vice President of Golden Boy Promotions. "We win some, we lose some. We lost with Matthysse, we lost with Lemieux.
"With this guy, we just want to make big fights. We give credit to Bryant Jennings. He just came off of a tough fight with Wladimir Klitschko. He could have fought anyone else, but he agreed to this opportunity. We're grateful for it, and now with this big win we will actively search for the best heavyweights to match up with Luis Ortiz."
This being boxing, there exists a road block in terms of with whom Golden Boy - and even HBO - can and will do business. When it comes to keeping their heavyweight thoroughbred busy, the right opportunity will not stand in the way of stubborn pride.
"I think after a performance like that the sky's the limit for him," said recently promoted HBO Executive Vice President Peter Nelson to BoxingScene.com at the post-fight press conference. "The thing about fighting on TV - knockouts sell. It was a riiveting fight and spectacular knockout. It closed a great year of fights for us."
It also closed a much-needed image restoration tour for Ortiz. With three knockout wins in 2015, he can only hope that the year ahead is not only as rewarding but brings him to true heavyweight prominence.
"I don't care who's next," Ortiz told BoxingScene.com just prior to being summoned for a final sample for random drug testing. "It can be Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder, Wladimir Klitschko. I just want the best. Line 'em all up and I'll fight them. I invite all of them to come fight me on HBO."
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox