By Ryan Songalia
It's easy to look at "Vicious" Victor Ortiz – standing atop the ropes in Madison Square Garden, hands raised in victory – and think he is on top of the world. In a sense, he is. At only 21 years of age, Ortiz is held in high esteem in the sport as one of its brightest young prospects. Many figure him to be a can't-miss future world champion. Absent among those many are the ones you would expect to be co-captaining his bandwagon: his parents.
Ortiz is prodigious. Though he is early into his adulthood, he has achieved an excellent record of 20-1 (15 KO), his lone defeat coming via a controversial disqualification.
His maturity comes from having to fend for himself at a young age. Ortiz's father left when he was 12; his mother, when he was eight. It all happened suddenly, beginning with the woman who gave birth to him.
"We went from a perfect family to a disaster in 48 hours," Ortiz said in a conversation with BoxingScene.com. "My mother was, she just... We got home from school one day and she was gone. Honestly, me and her have never been close, so I could care less about the lady."
Ortiz recalls a day when he was watching the Power Rangers on television (he idolized the White Ranger) while rolling on his hand wraps.
"All of a sudden, time just kept going," Ortiz said. "I watched the whole episode, which is weird, because I usually got through about half before I had to go training. My mom never showed up.
"The whole world was changed after that."
Ortiz's father would stick around for four more years, but alcoholism would soon devour whatever loving side remained of him.
"He went from a very hard-working man to a total loser that was always talking crap to everybody," Ortiz said. "He was just angry at the world and felt sorry for himself."
Yet it was his father who had originally introduced him to the Sweet Science. Bullies had targeted Ortiz one too many times, and by 7 Ortiz was enrolled in boxing tutorials. Though he disliked the sport intensely, Ortiz excelled from a young age.
His father having jumped ship, boxing and his surname were all that remained.
Ortiz, along with his younger brother and older sister, lived in squalor without the necessities most people take for granted.
"There were times when my mom left or my dad [left] and we didn't have any food on the table," Ortiz said. "There were days when we didn't have electricity, no gas and we would live like that for months at a time. We never complained. I guess it's just part of life."
When his father left, Ortiz house-hopped from friend to friend, going about his business as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Ortiz had no idea of the whereabouts of his two siblings.
For money, the 12-year-old Ortiz and a few of his friends would perform agricultural tasks. He earned enough money to pay for clothes and keep his pockets warm, which gave outsiders the impression of sufficient parental support.
"I would work in the fields with my brothers and friends," Ortiz said. "We used to have hoes and we used to clean up cornfields. We had to make sure we didn't get the corn otherwise we'd mess up the crop.
"It was illegal, but I had no choice," he said. "It reminds me that I never want to go back to where it started."
His lack of a healthy home life began to show in school. He became surly, picked fights with classmates, and, as he put it, "was just a real jerk." Confronted by teachers about his sudden changes in demeanor, Ortiz would respond: "It's none of your business, just ease out of my face." After several fistfights, concerned teachers contacted Kansas' Social and Rehabilitation Services.
Upon discovering Ortiz's situation, SRS took the 13-year old-into their custody and placed him in foster care. He was taken in by the Ford family, who made sure he remained in school and stayed out of trouble.
By that time, Victor had already received his first tattoo, which stretched across his upper back and read, simply, "Ortiz." It was an act of rebellion, etched using a lead pencil and a guitar string, "prison style," as Ortiz puts it.
"Honestly, now that I look back at it, it's kind of a dumb decision," he said. "It could have turned out worse."
Ortiz remained with his foster family until he was 15. Upon turning 18, his older sister gained custody of him. Reuniting with his sister meant leaving Kansas for Denver. It was a long-awaited reunion with his sister, who had left home at 14 when she discovered she was pregnant. At the time, Ortiz felt betrayed and abandoned by his older sister, but he was relieved when she fulfilled her promise to return for her brothers once she stabilized her own life.
"When she got custody of me, I was surprised," he said. "I thought she'd never come back for me."
It was in Denver, while training for the Junior Olympic Nationals, that Ortiz first met Roberto Garcia, the trainer and former 130-pound champion. The pair immediately clicked, and Garcia eventually took the young fighter to live with him and his father, Eduardo, in California.
"If it weren't for them, I'd probably be on the street somewhere," Ortiz said. And then he stopped, took back what he had just said and continued.
"I'd actually be in the Army out of Denver, Colo., in Fort Collins," Ortiz said. "That's where I was gonna go if I didn't turn pro or do anything in boxing. I didn't have anything to lose. I figure if I go into the Army, oh well, I'm protecting our country, and I'll die for our country.
"I still feel that way, that if something goes wrong, I'll just go to the Army," he said. "I don't have anything. The most precious thing I have is my 2008 Mustang. That's why I go in the ring not caring."
When Ortiz arrived in Oxnard, Calif., he was shocked at the demographics of his surroundings.
"I had never seen so many Mexicans before in my life," Ortiz said through laughter. "In Kansas, you have white people, black people, and you have Hispanic people. Over here, Mexicans rule because they are the majority."
Ortiz continued to progress under Garcia's tutelage, advancing all the way to the 2004 Olympic trials. The environment was a little overwhelming, and Ortiz's youth and inexperience showed. He would make it to the quarterfinals before dropping a decision to Anthony Peterson.
"It wasn't my lucky time," Ortiz said. "Going into that tournament, my head was too swollen, I was too young. There were promoters, managers, press looking at me. I didn't perform to my fullest. I didn't get whooped on, but I did lose."
Afterwards, a teary-eyed Ortiz made the decision to turn pro.
"By that time, I was already positive that I was going to be a professional athlete," he said. "After 161 amateur fights, I didn't want no more amateurs."
Since taking off the headgear in favor of the paid ranks, Ortiz has been in with exceptional opposition. What is even more impressive is not just that he beats them, but that he has been knocking them out routinely. So far, none of those feats have been as eye-catching as his first round demolition of former World Boxing Association junior welterweight titlist Carlos Maussa.
It is in these moments of triumph that Ortiz finds himself wondering what his parents make of his hard earned success.
"I sit back and think about it sometimes. They might be full of regret," Ortiz said. "I'm going to show them real bad, and they're going to be hurt that they said that I'd never accomplish anything. I still have that goal because I haven't really accomplished anything yet."
As his star continues to rise, Ortiz hasn't dimmed his scholastic zeal. In June 2005, Ortiz proved his parents wrong once more: He graduated from Oxnard's Pacifica High School.
"That was one of the goals my mother and father told me I'd never do," Ortiz said.
Ortiz briefly attended Oxnard College, where he majored in business. But he was inundated by the burdens of juggling his boxing and educational priorities, so he chose to put college on the shelf to focus on being the best pugilist he can be.
"Boxing to me was described as a sport of youth," Ortiz said. "I'll stick to this sport as a youngster and do everything I can at a young age, and then I'll go back and pursue school because school ain't going nowhere."
Ortiz is also an aspiring writer, a passion he said he wants to indulge in the future.
To this day, Ortiz has yet to speak with the parents who abandoned him before he was a teenager – not that he is eager to make contact with them anytime soon. The last time Victor heard from his father came shortly after he gained custody of his younger brother.
"My Dad sent a message to my brother when I got custody of him, and he said that I've amounted to everything I will ever amount to and that I will never go any further," Ortiz said. "I told him to tell my father that I said 'F**k you,' and 'Watch me.' "
Most young people who experience such indignations would harbor a chip on their shoulder. Ortiz, though, is past that, and he is hoping to cultivate a fan-friendly demeanor outside of the ring as well.
"I don't want to be seen as a fearful guy people don't want to talk to. I'm nothing like that," Ortiz said. "My name is 'Vicious', but it was originally 'Vicious with a Smile.' I thought it was kind of corny. They shortened it up as Vicious, and it's worked well for me."
While the majority of Ortiz's gym work is still done at La Colonia, Ortiz travels to Hollywood's Wild Card Gym for sparring. There, he has impressed more than a few interested observers.
"He's definitely a future champion," proclaimed Freddie Roach, owner and head trainer at Wild Card Gym. "He's young. He's strong, very physical. Right now his defense is his offense, but he moves his head well, though."
When Roach's star fighter Manny Pacquiao was in need of quality work during camp for his last fight with Juan Manuel Marquez, it was Ortiz whom Roach called upon to help break in the Pacman.
"Early in the camp, we used him for Pacquiao. Even though he's a southpaw and we were getting ready for an orthodox, I just wanted some hard work for Pacquiao," Roach said. "They went at it toe-to-toe. Manny was a little too experienced for him at the end of the day, but people would pay to see that sparring session."
Ortiz has been slow to capitalize on the buzz he generated last year. Promotional and managerial issues, which Ortiz brushes aside as "no big deal," have stunted his growth for the time being.
"My attorney has asked me not talk about it," he said. And with that, the issue was dead.
Inactivity doesn't mean time away from the gym, however. Ortiz still goes to the gym from 5 to 7 p.m. every weekday after work while waiting for his situation to work itself out.
"If you let yourself explode, you just have so much trouble going down into weight," Ortiz said. "I will keep myself in the gym until further notice."
Ortiz estimates his current walk-around weight at "147-149, maybe."
As a fighter coming out of Oxnard, many drew parallels between "Vicious" and "Ferocious". It was inevitable, and initially Ortiz grasped onto that identity.
"I idolized him growing up," Ortiz said of Fernando Vargas. "I don't think I'll ever stop idolizing him. I don't think I'll ever say it out to the world like I used to, though.
"They can compare me in the style and the looks, but I know deep inside I'm nothing like the man," he said. "I have my style. I'm left-handed. I'm a lighter weight. I'd love to be like him in the sense of being a world champion."
While Ortiz is conflicted in how he perceives Vargas, he knows immediately who he doesn't want to emulate. "I don't want to be like no Mayorga. He's such a shit talker. That's just something you don't do."
For idols, Ortiz points to Bernard Hopkins ("He has this beautiful boxing skill; He makes his opponents look like amateurs") and Oscar de la Hoya ("He's what I want to be like someday"). Outside of boxing, Ortiz admires the work of motivational speaker/author Anthony Robbins.
"I grasp onto the business ethics," Ortiz said. "There was a part I read that he said that there will be friends that hold you down, and if you have to make them your enemies to get your way, then go ahead and do so."
To say Ortiz is motivated is an understatement. He has tasted the bitter reality of menial jobs, from flipping fries at Burger King to landscaping in Denver. He eats, sleeps and dreams ambition. It seeps out of his pores.
"I was never happy to get up and go to work. I would just think, another day," he said. "I go to sleep [now] thinking about being a world champion, Wall Street, boxing."
Currently Ortiz works as a merchandiser for Red Bull, which he says isn't all that bad.
"I make sure everything looks nice and tidy, all the coolers are full of Red Bull. It pays well and they give me hours, so I make pretty good money."
To come from where Ortiz has been and then to arrive at such an enviable juncture is an accomplishment in itself. Assertively, Ortiz stresses that he is far from satisfied and that he continues to seek out greater things.
"I want to conquer the world," he said. "I don't want to be seen as just another face in the crowd after boxing. I don't want people to say 'He was.' I want to be remembered as 'Damn, that kid was and is, very intelligent and still going at it in the business world.' "
Any questions or comments? Send them to me at [email protected]