Luis Ortiz is a dirty word in the heavyweight division.
Mumbled, pushed through gritted teeth, or simply not said at all, Luis Ortiz, the name, is dirty because he’s good and dirty because he’s bad.
The good first.
Luis Ortiz, on his day, when stopping the likes of Bryant Jennings and Tony Thompson, is as well-schooled and dangerous as any heavyweight on the planet.
All of six-foot-four, he is as wide as he is tall, blessed with a thickness that makes it hard to imagine him wearing a necklace, much less being budged or knocked over, and boxes the way many Cubans are predisposed to box. He boxes with style, with surprising grace for a heavyweight, and with a natural composure that can only be a by-product of having performed the same moves over and over and over again; with every shot at his disposal, he sees things other heavyweights can’t.
This is why he’s 28-0 and has defeated 24 men within the scheduled distance. It’s also why many wise heads, including Boxing News contributor Carlos Acevedo, fancy the southpaw to rip the WBC world heavyweight title from Deontay Wilder this Saturday (March 3) in Brooklyn, New York.
Ultimately, it’s why Luis Ortiz, soon to turn 39 years of age, has endured a slow-burning career, been avoided, performed to little or no fanfare, and had to wait until he forced the issue as a number one contender to get his shot at a proper world title.
It would be cause for sympathy if there wasn’t an uglier flip-side to Ortiz; if there wasn’t a bad to the good. In this case, the bad, something you’ll find in many fighters if you dig deep enough, has less to do with what he produces in the ring – although his fight with Malik Scott may well be the worst heavyweight fight of all time – and more to do with his behaviour away from it.
Specifically, the bad has everything to do with the fact Ortiz has managed to fail not one but two performance-enhancing drug tests during his eight-year professional career and would have fought Wilder in November if he hadn’t been popped for the banned diuretics chlorothiazide and hydrochlorothiazide. That scrapped the original date and, furthermore, made it impossible to gloss over (as many chose to do) the eight-month ban he received in 2014 for testing positive for the steroid nandrolone.
But in boxing, this den of iniquity, it’s not simply a case of three strikes and out. On the contrary, someone like Ortiz, whose second failed test was attributed to high blood pressure and appeased with a $25,000 payment to the WBC, is able to quite easily do the crime, do the time and then find himself back in the ring having served a backdated ban. Besides, what’s eight months in a career that will nowadays amount to just two or three fights a year? Not much at all.
So Ortiz is back – again. This time, just like before, all is seemingly forgiven and the hulking Cuban, valuable to promoters on account of his unbeaten record and undoubted ability, is handed another shot at Wilder and another shot at becoming world heavyweight champion. (Sorry, Mr Ortiz, for any inconvenience caused.)
Alas, Ortiz serves as proof that it’s far easier to forgive – perhaps even overlook – a good boxer who fails a PED test than it is to do the same with a boxer whose talent is minimal and whose market value has either plummeted or was non-existent. It’s then, when there is no money to be made, that boxing all of a sudden gets its house in order, comes over all high and mighty and decides to make an example of the dastardly so-and-so who tried to gain an unfair advantage in this most noble of arts. It’s then boxing, and its supporters, purport to care.
Ortiz, however, all the while he’s unbeaten, ambitious and good, will be a top heavyweight contender first (possibly even a world heavyweight champion) and a drug cheat second. Innocent for as long as you’re relevant, Ortiz, in the context of today’s heavyweight landscape, a division in which the champions excite but contenders are in short supply, is absolutely relevant right now. He’s promotable. He’s important.
Moreover, such is his mystique and talent, many reckon he has what it takes to not only shatter Wilder’s 39-fight unbeaten record and snatch his belt but also one day become recognised as the best in the division.
“Ortiz is right there,” says Chris Byrd, an IBF heavyweight champion from 2002 to 2006. “He’s a big puncher who can fight – and he’s a lefty. He’s also a decent size, too. He’s not as big as some of them, but he’s probably six-four. That’s big enough to get the job done. He won’t go into a fight with Wilder or any of the champions and be overawed by their size or skill-set, that’s for sure.”
“Ortiz is the one nobody wants to talk about,” says Adam Booth, former coach of WBA heavyweight champion David Haye. “I remember Mickey Duff, when offered an opponent, would always ask two questions: Is he a southpaw? Can he punch? Well, with Ortiz, you’ve got a southpaw who can punch. He’s also fearless and big. He looks to be pretty tough, too. I think everybody is hoping he gets very old very quickly.”
Ortiz, in boxing terms, is already old. He’s 38. (An actual birth certificate might even add a few years on top of that.) That’s hardly over-the-hill for a heavyweight, the division in which age is less of an object than it is elsewhere, but the polarising Cuban must deliver on his potential this weekend if he is to remain a dangerous fighter first and dangerous drug cheat second.
For his career to mean something, for past sins to be forgotten, he needs to produce a performance worthy of being forgiven. He needs to be as good as the experts say he is and he needs to bring down Deontay Wilder, a champion who has seen numerous fights scuppered as a result of opponents flunking drug tests.
“Ortiz is the unknown among the unknown,” says HBO’s Larry Merchant. “He has the least sale-ability. But, if fighting any of the three current champions, I don’t see which one of them beats him.”
This is promising and disheartening in equal measure. It’s promising because we are about to witness Ortiz finally get the test he has long craved, and because he might be good enough to beat Deontay Wilder. Yet it’s disheartening all the same because Luis Ortiz, should he defeat Wilder and become WBC champion, will become the heavyweight champion boxing doesn’t necessarily want or need but probably deserves. He will embody the dark side: the blurred lines, the loopholes, the excuses, the question marks.
Then again, perhaps that’s harsh. Maybe Ortiz snaring the WBC world heavyweight title is no more than boxing’s answer to Justin Gatlin winning gold at the 2017 World Athletics Championships. Maybe it’s the redemption story nobody wants to hear, but a redemption story nonetheless.
Gatlin, lest we forget, failed PED tests in 2001 and 2006 and was initially banned for eight years – not eight months – second time around. His sentence was cut to four, following cooperation with doping authorities, and last year he shocked the world – reduced it to tears, in fact – when he thrashed Usain Bolt in what was billed as the great Jamaican’s last major track event. He won. He was better than Bolt – and the rest. Apparently clean this time, too.
Yet Gatlin, for all his prior misdemeanours, was never looking to use his fists to render those at the starting blocks unconscious. He was just aiming to run quicker; reach the finish line first.
Ortiz, on the other hand, an antihero of Gatlin proportions, has seemingly taken similar risks, in the hope of not getting caught, but with darker and nastier intent. Gatlin got boos. He was chastised, cast as the villain. If Ortiz triumphs this weekend, what will he get?
In all likelihood, nothing. Victory will be good enough for some and the thinking behind inevitable acclaim will be this: in a sport polluted by secrets and fighters up to no good, why single out Ortiz? Why highlight his mistakes?
It’s then you remind yourself: this is boxing. If, on Saturday night, Luis Ortiz becomes WBC heavyweight champion of the world, he won’t be the first man to own both the sport’s biggest prize and a dirty, chequered past, nor will he be the last.