When it comes to in-ring activity, Vergil Ortiz Jr.’s ascent from prospect to contender has gone about as well as any fighter’s over the last several years. Ortiz is a rare case in which the oversized hype that is assigned to every accomplished amateur who signs with a major promoter actually sustains itself into the contention phase of their career. He was signed to great acclaim, won Prospect of the Year, and near-universally celebrated as one of the sport’s brightest young stars, part of the exciting immediate future of the welterweight division.  

But the road to simply getting into the ring with Michael McKinson, which he is scheduled to do this Saturday at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, TX, has represented the most turbulent period of his career. The last time he was slated to face McKinson, Ortiz was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, spending time in the hospital during fight week in order to recover. As Ortiz was recovering and healing his body, McKinson was being offered an array of opponents in order to salvage the March 19 card. He said yes to every name presented to him—three of which the public knew about, and many more behind closed doors. Ultimately, he fought and defeated Alex Martin with the now-fulfilled hope that he would still get to fight Ortiz eventually. 

“I was very disappointed that I wasn't able to fight, especially because we found out the week of the fight. It wasn't like I wanted to waste a whole training camp and some months before that, that's not me,” said Ortiz during a recent media roundtable. 

In his recent syndicated column, Dr. Keith Roach, a physician at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian Hospital, recently described what is commonly known shorthand as rhabdo as "an uncommon but dangerous condition. It typically happens in response to exercise, usually exercise that’s done at a higher intensity or of a longer duration than a person is used to, or performed in hot and humid conditions." The root cause of Ortiz’s case has never been publicized, but it’s certainly easy to see long, tough boxing training camps in sweltering conditions as a potentially perfect environment for one to break down their muscle to a dangerous degree. This theory was explored at length in a study led by Dr. Kadhiresan R. Murugappan of Harvard University in a 2018 issue of International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, which found ties between rapid weight cutting and the affliction. 

Ortiz has speculated that the rigors of effectively being in camp from October of 2021 to March 2022 with fight cancellations moving the goalposts simply depleted his body completely. Over the years, Ortiz’s dogged training routine has been lauded by fighters past and present. In a 2020 video posted on ESNEWS on YouTube, Gervonta Davis was told by reporter Elie Seckbach that Ortiz trained seven days a week, to which he responded by looking into the camera astonished and asked “are you for real?”

His promoter Oscar De La Hoya, who of course is prone to hyperbole from time to time, recently ranked Ortiz’s work ethic above everyone else’s in the sport.

“His work ethic is by far better than everyone out there who puts on these gloves. Vergil is a guy who loves running, loves waking up in the morning, loves his job,” he said. 

Ortiz’s misfortune also happened to come during his first training camp with new trainer Manny Robles. After amicably splitting with longtime trainer Robert Garcia, Ortiz had a brief flirtation with training with Eddy Reynoso, but has said that logistics simply didn’t allow for their partnership to work out. So Ortiz added Robles to the team of his father, Vergil Sr., and Hector Beltran, who has trained him since his amateur days. 

To hear Ortiz tell it, the addition of Robles has been less of a transition and more of an added perspective—and a move 50 miles up the road to Norwalk, CA. 

“(My father) pushes me to my limit and more. Some people might see that as a con but I see it as he knows what I can do and he's bringing that out of me. (Hector Beltran) He's been with us since 2012. He's probably the guy who knows me second best. He brings a lot of knowledge, a lot of a points of view,” said Ortiz. “I've learned things from every coach that I've been with. Every coach has their own point of view, different styles. One thing I've learned from Manny was to be really explosive with your punches. Don't waste trying to react and think about it, because if you think about it, you get stuck and you can make a mistake off of that.”

In McKinson, Ortiz will have an opponent whose approach is predicated upon making his opponents think about and then re-think their approach. McKinson’s unorthodox style would seem loosely inspired by Naseem Hamed, a movement-heavy strategy based on hand speed and off-rhythm tempo. With just two knockouts in his 22 wins, McKinson isn’t looking for one unexpected opening to land a knockout shot so much as he’s looking to freeze his opponent with quick pot shots or combinations before gliding out of danger. 

As a +800 underdog, bookies are skeptical of McKinson’s chances overall, but his is the type of style that could make for a miserable night for any opponent. He recently described himself as “the banana skin for Vergil Ortiz,” the unexpected one who will trip Ortiz up on his path. 

Only surprises outside of the ring have been able to temporarily derail the Ortiz train thus far—but every time it’s pulled into the station, the trip has gone exactly as planned. 

Corey Erdman is a boxing commentator and writer based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman